Our brains prefer to oversimplify things, and attribute one muscle as our root problem.
Although it would be easier to blame one muscle for our problems, this is never the case. We are complex system, and the more we can uncover about our body as a system, the better we can treat ourselves. Understanding how our bodies operate is key to feeling freedom and mobility in our joints and giving us the ability to do the things we love without pain.
A popular muscle that tends to get attention is the psoas. Let’s discuss what this muscle is, why it gets tight, and how to improve it’s function.
What is the psoas?
The psoas is a hip flexor, that also has many other roles. The psoas muscle has two parts:
1. Psoas major
The psoas major attaches from your lumbar spine (lower back) to your femur (thigh bone). The psoas major is a hip flexor and the connection between your lower body and your trunk.
2. Psoas minor
The psoas minor attaches from your lumbar spine to your pubic bone (pelvis). Since it doesn’t connect on the leg, it isn’t a hip flexor. We will focus primarily on the psoas major today, but that doesn’t mean the psoas minor isn’t essential as well (all muscles are important).
Psoas major main roles:
- The bridge between the spine and the leg
- Move the hip (hip flexion and adduction)
- Move the spine with the hip is stationary (like in weight-bearing or standing)
- Plays a major role in spine stabilization
- Depending on the body’s position, the psoas major can function to move the spine in almost any direction. With the hips fixed (standing), the psoas can side bend the spine, help with rotation, and flex the spine.
- Anteriorly tilt the pelvis
- Since the psoas minor doesn’t insert on the leg, it isn’t a hip flexor. It functions to flex the spine and posteriorly rotate the pelvis.
Why it becomes tight
I say this phrase often: “tightness is a symptom.” This means we need to investigate what is causing the symptom. Tightness serves as a protective mechanism from your nervous system. Your nervous system’s number one goal is to keep you safe. Your nervous system increases tightness when it feels “unsafe.” By treating tightness, you aren’t addressing the reason your nervous system feels unsafe.
Many of us want to jump straight to solving tightness by stretching the tight muscle, dry needling it, massaging it, and otherwise attempting to release it, rather than investigating why it’s tight in the first place. Finding out what is dysfunctional and how to support the lumbosacral area as a whole will solve your tightness, instead of endlessly chasing it with stretching. Stretching isn’t always wrong, but it will not be the ultimate “fix.”
There are many reasons for a tight muscle, but let’s address the common mechanical causes. A healthy muscle will be able to contract AND fully relax. When this can’t happen due to the reasons below, we see dysfunction in the muscle itself. The answer is not to “fix” the individual muscle, but rather look at the system as a whole, remove stressors if possible, and work to rewire the connection from your brain to its tissues.
In reality, many people will have a combination of these factors.
Overuse can be from repetitive exercise (running is a big one) or performing the same motion frequently throughout your day. To learn more about overuse, and identify if it might contribute to your issues, check out this blog post. https://www.levowellness.com/blog/howtoavoidoveruse
2. Prolonged positioning
Muscles are plastic, meaning they will adapt to how they are trained. If a muscle is always in a shortened position, it will “forget” how to contract within its full range and feel tight. If you have to sit all day, you want to make sure these muscles are strong and can tolerate how much you’re sitting. Prolonged sitting can lead to weakness in the psoas itself. Luckily, even if you HAVE to sit/drive a lot, you can train your psoas in your exercise routine to have the strength to tolerate sitting all day long.
3. Surrounding weaknesses
The psoas can be weak itself, causing dysfunction. The psoas can also be tight because it’s protecting for surrounding instability. Let’s look at a couple of the muscles that could be contributing to instability. Remember, there are dozens in this area, but these are a good start.
Many times tightness is a result of weakness. Your glutes are one of your psoas’ opposers, but if your body senses weakness in your glutes, it can tighten the psoas to protect you from moving into an uncontrolled range of motion (hip extension that isn’t supported by a well-connected glute muscle).
For your nervous system to be fully connected to a muscle, the muscle must be strong through its entire range of motion. If you’re only strengthening at the end range of motion (many Pilates students) OR only in the lengthened range (squats), you’re missing opportunities to gain connection to the glute throughout the entire range of motion. Strengthen them all!
Quadratus lumborum (QL):
The QL has similar insertion points as the psoas on the lumbar spine and can either aide the psoas or oppose it. Either way, the QL has to be strong and connected for the psoas to function without tightness.
4. Diaphragm/pelvic floor dysfunction
Your diaphragm is the major muscle that aids in breathing, but it is accompanied by a system of other muscles cooperating to form a pressure system within your abdomen. It relies on support from the obliques, pelvic floor, and deep abdominal muscles. The psoas also has attachments on the diaphragm and aides in this pressure system.
There are fascial links between the diaphragm and the muscles of the lower abdomen. This fascia is rich in proprioceptive organelles that send messages of “danger” (instability/inflammation) to your nervous system. If one or more of these abdomen tissues are dysfunctional, the entire system can be dysfunctional.
This is because when the muscles do not slide properly within the connective sheath (fascia), the pressure system is disrupted, and pathology (pain/dysfunction) can occur. This can present in psoas tightness/discomfort. This is why learning to stimulate all the abdomen’s tissues is important, and the diaphragm is no exception.
The relationship between the diaphragm and the pelvic floor is particularly important because this helps regulate the pressure system within your abdomen, and dysfunction here can cause dysfunction in the entire system (1).
The diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles move symmetrically, causing a change in intra-abdominal pressure. When you inhale, the diaphragm descends, and so do the pelvic floor muscles. This harmony of these two muscle groups helps regulate abdominal pressure.
The diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles are also important for trunk stability. Remember that your nervous system’s number one role is to keep you safe. So when your nervous system detects instability, dysfunction, or disconnection, your body will tighten in an attempt to protect you. Learning how to restore the balance in these systems will be key in ultimately feeling and functioning with more freedom (2).
How to improve psoas tightness/dysfunction
1. Remove overuse when possible.
Exercise in ways where you are challenging all your muscles, not just a select few in high repetition. If you are a runner, make sure you’re balancing your running by having multiple days/week where you don’t run and cross-train instead.
2. Strengthen the surrounding muscles (Safely! Ahem, Evlo workouts)
Strengthen glutes, back, abdominals, quads.
3. Strengthen the psoas itself!
Many people have weak hip flexors, since they are always shortened due to sitting and overuse. Strengthening them will improve the stability of your lower back and your hips. My favorite is marches with an ankle weight. Check out the Instagram post I did about this here. https://www.instagram.com/p/CFFxMy4JnR1/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link
4. Learn to breathe
As I stated above, the pelvic floor and diaphragm maintain the abdomen’s overall pressure and keep the tissues of the abdomen functional and free.
The diaphragm and pelvic floor move symmetrically, like an elevator. Let’s break down the mechanics of breath.
As you inhale, your rib cage moves outward and upward towards your shoulders. Simultaneously, the diaphragm moves down towards your hips, and your pelvic floor relaxes and moves down as well.
As you exhale, the pressure changes again, and your rib cage moves together and down, while your diaphragm and pelvic floor both travel upwards. In other words, your pelvic floor “relaxes” as you inhale and “contracts” as you exhale. I describe how to utilize this breathing pattern in this live class I taught today. https://youtu.be/6b7sS2Kwe2I
Retraining this breathing pattern can be helpful to everyone, but especially those with discomfort in their lower back, hips, or pelvic area. It can change the tightness/discomfort you’re experiencing immediately.
- All muscles are essential. Strengthen them all, and keep them all connected. This will help your body feel safe, producing freedom and comfort within your body.
- Ovoid overuse and prolonged positioning when possible.
- Always train your breath. Dysfunction in your diaphragm can influence your entire trunk and beyond.