[Fit Pro’s] 3 Manual Muscle Testing Techniques For Assessing Core Stability

Back in 2000 I was a newbie to personal training with very little practical skill in the art of manual muscle testing.

I didn’t understand how anyone could appear to do exercises the right way but experience pain or injuries.

But, that’s what I noticed was happening to a lot of people.

All the textbooks ever teach is proper technique and the muscles that an exercise is supposed to target.

But, ‘supposed to’ doesn’t automatically mean that’s what’s going on.

Let’s use the squat exercise as an example.

If you were to instruct a client on how to properly perform the squat you would probably explain the proper stance width, foot, trunk and head position, staying back on the heels, etc.

Now, let’s say from what you can see, it appears that they’re doing the exercise correctly but they feel lower back pain.  You could simply modify the exercise or substitute an alternative.

But, what if the pain wasn’t caused by the exercise itself but from the inability to activate the core stabilizing muscles?

Since this isn’t something that can actually be seen, and verbal feedback from the client can be misleading at times, manual muscle testing can help to determine whether or not an exercise is achieving its main purpose.

This is particularly true when performing core stabilization exercises for the abdominals because many times the client will recruit the rectus abdominis but fail to recruit the deep abdominal stabilizing muscles (ex: transverse abdominis).

They might feel their abs working however without manual muscle testing it’s difficult to know if what they’re feeling is what’s supposed to be working.

Below are 3 manual muscle tests you can use for assessing abdominal stability:

1) 4-Point Transverse Abdominis (TVA) Test:

Since the TVA is the prime spinal stabilizer you want to make sure it’s working first and foremost.

To perform the test get on your hands and knees. Hands under the shoulders and knees under the hips.

Place a wooden dowel along your client’s spine and instruct him/her to keep 3 points of contact with the dowel at all times: Head, Upper Back and Sacrum

Keep enough space so the palm of your hand can just fit between the dowel and the lumbar spine.

The test is performed by pulling the belly button up and in toward the spine without losing any of the 3 points of contact nor changing the distance of the space between the lumbar spine and the dowel.

If this is performed successfully the TVA is working and you can progress to the next test below.

lathrop personal trainer tva activation exercise








2) Modified Deadbug:

deadbug manual muscle testing

Instruct the client to try to hold this position for 30 seconds and ask them what area or part of the body they feel most.  Prior to the test, place your middle finger inside their belly button and feel for contraction of the TVA. If it’s working properly you’ll feel the belly button move away from your finger (toward their spine).

You may also feel the rectus abdominis and external obliques working as well. This is fine as long as the TVA is working.

If the abdominal stabilizers are working you should not see the lower back lift off the ground.

If they pass this test perform the next one below.

3) Sitting ‘V’ Position

abdominal manual muscle testing

Instruct the client to hold this position for with a slight backward lean of the trunk for 60 seconds and notice any changes. Believe me it’s harder than it looks. If the chest drops, they feel burning in the thighs, cramping in the hips and/or the lumbar extensors this indicates weakness or inhibition of the abdominal muscles in the role of stabilization.

These tests take time and practice to learn but manual muscle testing is a valuable skill for fitness professionals that can help correct muscle imbalances, prevent injuries and improve the effectiveness of an exercise program.

Unfortunately, muscle testing isn’t taught in most personal training certification courses however there are some excellent resources available on muscle manual testing, addressing muscular imbalances and core stabilization exercises


  1. SawsanNo Gravatar on March 14, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    Dear ..
    I saw your videos in youtube.. so is it enought to do strength and abs workout without the need of running & Bike (the one with changable resistance )?
    I usually workout in gym and most o the strength mechines are for legs and arms ..
    or what do you recommend?

  2. Trudy GalloNo Gravatar on May 26, 2010 at 6:02 pm

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  6. janet bowdenNo Gravatar on August 6, 2013 at 3:36 pm

    This is very helpful. However, I believe that it is important to isolate one side from another, as people like me who have had spinal surgery, for instance, can have weak stabilizers on one side and not on the other and that is very easily masked unless you test one side as opposed to the other. Thank you so much.

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