If you have tight hips, groin or glute pain it could be your psoas muscle. If you are experiencing pain running uphill or walking upstairs it could be an injured psoas muscle. If your low back hurts it could be your psoas muscle. So what the heck is a psoas muscle? The psoas is a rope-like muscle located deep in the belly, which runs obliquely from the spine to the femur. It attaches at the bottom of the thoracic spine (T12) and along the lumbar spine (through L4), then runs through the pelvic bowl, down over the front of the hip joint, and attaches at the top of the femur (thigh bone). It is the only muscle connecting the spine to the leg. The psoas is traditionally considered a hip flexor. (Hip flexors are muscles that bring the trunk and leg closer together). The psoas also promotes good posture. Along with a coordinated team of core muscles–abs, obliques, lower back–the psoas helps stabilize your midsection and pelvis. Every time you stand, walk, or run, you’re engaging the psoas. At this point you are probably realizing the psoas muscle is pretty important, it is also tricky to diagnosis a psoas injury.
I had the opportunity to take a Psoas workshop from psoas expert, Liz Koch, who has been teaching about the psoas for 30 years. She challenges the idea the psoas’ main function is a hip flexor. She describes this nerve-rich core muscle as a “messenger of the central nervous system”. According to Koch, the psoas reflects incoherency in the core – some disruption in the way we’re responding to gravity. It could be as simple as the shoes you’re wearing or as complex as multiple layers of injury and trauma. Poor habits of posture and muscle alignment, and over-training, create conditions where the psoas is required to stabilize us constantly, and is unable to return to a neutral position from which it could respond with flexibility to the shifts of spine, pelvis, and leg. In Pilates we are creating ideal conditions for the psoas to do it’s job – by focusing on good posture and proper alignment in movement, it gives the psoas the opportunity to be the flexible, responsive, bridge between the spine and lower body that it can be.
Why is the psoas tight? It’s probably tight because it’s compensating for some disruption along the center of your body usually an over stretched or torn ligament. When it compensates it begins to dry and eventually shrink – getting short and tight. According to Liz Koch,” the psoas is very juicy; it is the filet mignon”. But when it has to behave in some other way, like a ligament, it loses its suppleness and begins to dry. Hip flexors can become short and tight if you spend most of your day sitting or repeatedly working in activities like bicycling and certain weight training exercises.
When you are sitting (or in the other activities) the psoas is in a perpetually shortened state. Muscle memory maintains this shortened state, so even when you head out to exercise your psoas is still in this shortened position. A short psoas can cause several postural problems: lordosis (arched lower back), anterior pelvic tilt (pelvis tipping forward), and hunching. These postural dysfunctions can lead to a myriad of other injuries and issues, including hip, groin and lower back pain. Our bodies simply aren’t designed to sit all day (or over train in a shortened position). What can you do about this? Take breaks to stretch and stand often. Many of my clients have found setting a timer to stand up and stretch during the day is really beneficial. When you sit, pay attention to your posture. Sit as if your grandma was watching you! Sit up tall, lengthen thru your spine, on your sit-bones, place your shoulders down and of course don’t forget to breathe.
Liz Koch also recommends avoiding excessive core work. Doing too many sit-ups actually trains the psoas muscle to be short. You want the psoas to relax and extend. If it’s too taut, then the psoas can’t lengthen. Without that length, the psoas can’t contract with as much force. Pilates is perfect form of exercise with the focus on quality rather than quantity. Pilates exercises focus on length, control, breathe, focusing on working from the inside out and moving the spine in many different directions. In Pilates we balance core work with extension of the spine. Extension of the spine works the back muscles and allows the hip flexors to open up.
Remember the psoas it didn’t get tight in one day, so be patient. You’re re-training the muscle, which takes time. Be careful with traditional hip flexor stretches – such as lunges. Overstretching the psoas can trigger a reflex, in which the muscle, instead of stretching, contracts and shortens. Ease and breathe into the stretch without straining, aiming for a lengthened sensation. Any movement where you are letting the leg go is an opportunity to release tension within the psoas. Notice when you are tensing in your hips – maybe it’s while you are driving or sitting. Now see if you can try and relax and let go. Breathe.
Liz Koch recommends “The constructive rest position” (CRP), it offers a safe, comfortable position to release both physical and emotional tension in the psoas. It helps to relieve low back, pelvic and hip tension and allows your whole body to gain the core neutrality that is so important before beginning an exercise or activity. Simply rest on your back, knees bent with feet on the floor parallel to each other, the width apart of the front of your hip sockets. Place your heels approximately 16 inches away from your buttocks. Do not push your low back to the floor or tuck your pelvis. Keep your arms below shoulder height, resting them over your ribcage, by your sides or on your belly. Rest in this constructive position 10 to 20 minutes every day. In CRP gravity works for you, releasing tension throughout your psoas and helping to reestablish neuro-biological rhythms that calm and refresh. It sounds so easy – yet soo important for a happy functioning psoas!