“To bend like a reed in the wind — that is real strength.” – Lao Tzu

All athletes and movement artists know the importance of the spine as the central axis for human movement. And even if we’re not athletes by occupation or hobby, daily life for us all demands much of the spine’s strength, flexibility, and mobility. We find ourselves relying on its health and happiness 24/7, and when the spine is injured, acutely or chronically, we’re inevitably quite unhappy (you know the truth of this if you’ve ever had a soft tissue back complication) and find our mobility, our very freedom put at risk.

Though small, the intertransversarii muscles play an important role in spine health.

There are many muscle groups that support spinal function and health. The big ones, like the Erector spine group, often get all the attention; but there are many smaller muscles that equally need our notice as well, one group being the Intertransversarii.

We find the small Intertransversarii muscles deep in the tissue formations along the spine, spanning between the transverse processes (boney wings) of the vertebrae. Though they run the length of the spine, the Intertransversarii are most well developed in the cervical spine (neck) as a set each, posteriorly and anteriorly; and then with a secondary presence as two sets (Intertransversarii medialis and lateralis) in the lumbar spine (low back). Varying evidence suggests multiple potential functions for these muscle groups, first as subordinate supporters of extension and lateral flexion of the spinal column. And second, and perhaps more importantly, they are believed to be vertebral position locators, facilitating proprioception in the spine. Either way, their placement so close to the vertebral column makes them of superior importance to spinal health.

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Matthew Coe

Matthew has embraced a centering practice throughout most of his adult life; his pilgrimage taking him through long distance running, Daoist meditation and chi-kung, and several styles of Taiji and kung fu, as both a student and teacher. His classes tend towards a non-dogmatic amalgam of his biology education, martial arts foundation, yoga journey, and life-inspired philosophy. He strives to make each practice accessible and yet challenging enough to open the door to self-exploration and uplifting success. Matthew is a Certified Yoga Teacher and Yoga Tune Up® Instructor, and has over 20 years of experience in mind/body movement arts.

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Amber Bilak

Another muscle group that I had never heard of … Now I just want to know how to strengthen or purposefully use these muscles!

Betsy

I always get excited when I meet a “new” muscle. Thanks, Matthew :). Lately I’ve been innovating exercises to build strength in the spinal erectors of the cervical and thoracic spine because the forward-head, slumped-shoulder posture has become so rampant in Seattle. I’m curious if you know of any exercises that can isolate the activation of the Intertransversarii since larger spinal erectors likely dominate.

Josh

These are not muscles I pay much attention to when assessing spine position and function, but perhaps I should be! If their main role is proprioception of the spine, it is highly important for us to facilitate more movement and awareness to these little muscles. The multifidi get all the attention when it comes to smaller spinal muscles!

Heather

Thank you Matthew, for introducing me to the intertransversarii muscles, I’m interested in learning more about the function and support these muscles give as I had one of my transverse processes fracture off in a car accident and then surgically removed in my lumbar spine.

Scott McKee

Fascinating. The spine is so complex and can be such a cause of pain and discomfort or freedom of movement. More study is needed. Thanks!

Cathy Corkery

Thank you for this! I have never even heard of these little,guys. I also learned a great deal from the comments!

Ali Bell

Great article – had forgotten about these little guys and was blaming all life’s problems on the QL. Great when a post generates such interesting and educated responses too.

Stephanie

The quote is fantastic! These muscles (in my body) have been working overtime this week with proprioception of the neck while driving. Thank you for the info – it will be great to add to my backpack of growing knowledge.

Icia

I am a chiropractor and new to YTU. I have found such a well informed and interesting group here. I would like to add my experience and information here regarding a way to effect these muscles. These muscles are responsible for proprioception, they are also an intricate part of the neuromuscular action of the joint. They will spasm when the joint is jammed. Here’s why, (lots of chiro literature and studies to show this) Every joint has proprioceptors (nerves responsible for position sense) sending information to the brain at all times. The proprioceptors are pressure sensitive neurons which fire when… Read more »

Max

For years, my self-massage routine was focused on jamming really hard objects in my big muscles (think: lacrosse ball on back, hardened foam roller on thighs). While this was effective to a certain degree (but extremely painful and potentially dangerous), I had never even considered trying to work tiny areas like the intertransversarii until I found Yoga Tune Up.

The Yoga Tune Up Balls and the YTU exercises showed me how to use the balls to apply gentle yet effective pressure to the sensitive spinal region, and the results have been highly impressive.

Cailyn Edwards

There is so much going on in and around the spine! I feel like we all need to have a meet and greet with the muscles allowing up to stand tall and move about in daily life!

Kate Krumsiek

Super information! I love finding a way to take a familiar pose and juice it up with added new perception of our movement. I especially like your description of bridge lifts with the lifting of different parts of the spine. My Saturday morning students will be sharing in that bonus from the comments, along with boomerang. Good stuff – thank you, Matthew.

Tina

“vertebral position locators” eh? They sound like little submarine periscopes! Learning about new parts of the body is fascinating. Thank you for the introduction to the lesser known spine muscles.

Jennifer

I feel like I now have the answer to my issues with low back. Great article,

Kristin

Yoga Tune Up has really introduced me to the intricacies of the body, mobility and movement. No doubt in past studies I’ve overlooked these little guys and given more attention the Erectors as you note. It’s very empowering to open the door to this knowledge. Makes me wonder how I ever did anything without at least questioning “Is there anything else happening here?” This is a great example of knowledge further connecting me to how my body works. Thank you!

Meghan

Great post! It is true that your mind is as flexible as your spine and these little guys play such an important roles in spine health. The exploration of their health and their function is vital to spinal ease of movement. I love when we shine light onto the little muscles that play such and important role in our health.

Leslie Van Schaack

agree w/ many above comments that I’d love to hear ways to help others become more aware of these babies. We do always blame those big muscles of the back, but there is so much more to our spinal health! I like the recommendation of doing VERY slow spinal rolls w/ students. It is often repeated: slowly lower vertebra by vertebra, but it is helpful to remind students WHY and that each of these vertabra is a joint unto itself with its own accompanying muscles.

Meredith Brockriede

Matthew! Great post, and nice additional ideas in your comment. As the intertransversarii are buried so deeply in the cervical and lumbar spine, it makes sense that they are difficult to detect, and also that they would potentially guide our awareness of those areas in space. Any chance of a follow up post with more ideas for keeping these little muscles happy?

Yi-Hsueh Lu

It is interesting to think about how the intertransversarii maybe essential to spinal proprioception- indeed the are moved in all movements of the spine. On the other hand, they could become stiff for people who lacks spinal movements (especially extension and side bending). Is there a self-massaging technique that help release these muscles?

Pam

Many people I have worked tend to over work their erector spinae to stand where the deeper posture muscles along the spine would suffice. They get so tight in their erector spinae that the muscles feel like re-bar (reinforcement bars) this is not conducive to a healthy spine as the discs between the vertebra will be compressed…. so best to learn how to strengthen these smaller deeper muscles to save your spine in the long run!

Judy Swens

This is super interesting! Thanks for sharing… the spine is such an important area of the body! Would love to know more about the intricacies of it! These are “small” muscles but as you explained play a big role in the “team” of the back muscles. True, we always focus so much attention on the errector spinae.

Matthew Coe

@ Kristen and Bobbi – Thanks for your comments! Kristen – I find the key is to start slow with a spinal column “exploration” that is out of the ordinary recipe. We’re often directed to breath and “awaken” the spine, which is fine and of course does just that. We also need to be directed to feel, or create the “location hands” as Bobbi suggests above, the very fine motor movements that create the greater arch/rounding in say cat/cow or the lateral flexion and extension we experience in side bends…and this requires slow, deeply present, sense work. YTU’s Bridge Lifts… Read more »

Bobbi McKissick

I appreciate the introduction of the Intertransversarii muscles of the spine. I found it fascinating that these deep muscles play an important role in proprioception in the spine. During my practice and when I teach, I like to bring awareness to body through breath. Breath can create “location hands” in the body, especially the spine, during certain poses to help achieve space to become more fluid to lengthen and bend getting optimal stretch. Now I now that it is the Intertransversarii muscles that are connecting with the mind-body and breath to create the movement and pose.

Kristen B.

PREMATURE POSTING ABOVE! Thanks Matthew for this illumination! Do you have YTU poses or PNF suggestions on how to better explore/understand these muscles in asana practice?

Kristen B.

Thanks Matthew for this illumination! D

Matthew Coe

Allison! So true! We can spend so much time looking for the “BIG splinters in the eye” and miss all the little things accumulating into “issues”. Thanks for your comments!

Allison Shapiro

Hi Matthew – I have always blamed it all on the erector spinae and the QL! Thanks for this new area of inquiry – more blind spots to dig into and investigate.

Terry Littlefield

Love the quote! It makes my heart happy when quotes show up like this, blended with an article that is not in sanskrit. As someone who suffers from back pain and is constantly looking for more information, thank you for introducing me to the intertransversari muscles. Teaching ten classes a week, there’s a lot of bending and now I know yet another important player in the bending game.