How to Stretch and Strengthen the Psoas
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The psoas is a tricky muscle. Most people couldn’t locate it or even know it exists. This deep muscle that connects the spine to the legs is important for hip flexion and can cause issues when it’s too tight or weak.
The state of the psoas is important for all kinds of activities from daily functional movements to athletic performance. It stabilizes the core but can cause significant pain when out of whack. It’s important to pay some attention to the psoas, which for most people means doing some stretching and strengthening work.
What is the Psoas?
The psoas muscle is specifically two muscles: the psoas minor and psoas major. Some also include the iliacus in the psoas, while others name the combination the iliopsoas. It is the strongest of the hip flexor muscles. The psoas minor is fairly insignificant and is not even fully formed in all people.
The psoas, or iliopsoas, is one of the most important muscles in the body that many overlook. It is the only muscle that directly connects the spine to the legs, specifically the femur. The psoas is part of the group of muscles known as the hip flexors. They are responsible for hip flexion, the bending of the knee up toward the chest, as well as hip rotation and adduction.
Why You Should Care About the Psoas
For such an overlooked muscle, the psoas can cause a lot of issues. Because it attaches to the spine and the femur, when this muscle is weak or tight and short, it causes the spine to round. This is a major trigger for lower back pain.
A tight, weak psoas can also cause pelvic pain and poor posture. There is even evidence that issues with the psoas can have an impact on the nervous system and digestion. It may cause or contribute to digestive issues, stress, and anxiety.
Injury to the psoas is a condition known as psoas syndrome. It is often not possible to find a cause of the syndrome, but people who do a lot of plyo and jumping exercises may be at a greater risk. The symptoms are lower back pain, pain between the lower spine and buttocks, pain when standing upright, and pain in the groin or pelvis that radiates down the leg.
If you have these types of pain that persist, you should see your doctor. If a client complains about pain in these areas, and stretching or strengthening exercises don’t help, they should see their doctor.
Fixing the psoas isn’t the solution to all problems. Try these other corrective exercises for lower back pain.
When to Stretch or Strengthen the Psoas
Most people need one more than the other. Try these strategies to determine if your psoas is too tight or too weak.
Strengthen the Psoas Muscle if it’s Weak
This sounds obvious, but this is an overlooked muscle. Most people don’t know where it is or what it does, let alone know how to determine if it’s weak. Here’s an easy test to check the strength of your psoas:
- Stand up straight.
- Pull one knee up toward your chest as high as you can.
- Hold your leg in that position for as long as you can or up to 30 seconds.
If you could hold your leg up for 30 seconds without too much difficulty, and felt your abs working, your psoas is probably pretty strong. If you found it impossible to hold your leg up that long or you felt your back rounding to hold the position, you could use more strength in the psoas.
You can also try some of the psoas exercises listed here to get an idea of your strength in this region. If the exercises are very challenging, you may need to strengthen the muscle.
Strong hip muscles are especially important for runners. Here are some targeted exercises just for your running clients.
Most People Need to Stretch the Psoas
A weak psoas is much less of an issue for most people than a tight psoas. Sitting a lot throughout the day tightens this muscle, as does physical activity, so most people are affected. Exercises like cycling and running are particularly good at shortening and tightening the psoas because of the motion of the knees relative to the hips during these activities.
If you sit a lot, work out a lot, or both, you can probably benefit from regular psoas stretching. For an easy way to see just how tight your psoas is, lie on an elevated surface, like a sturdy table. Let one leg hang over the edge. Hug the opposite leg to your chest. If the other leg lifts up with it, the psoas on that side is too tight.
How to Stretch the Psoas
Most people can benefit from stretching out a tight psoas muscle regularly. Fortunately, it’s not difficult to do. Daily gentle stretches will loosen up and lengthen this muscle in no time. Try these:
- Lunge stretches. In lunge position with the back knee resting gently on the ground, keep your chest upright. You should feel a stretch across the front of the forward hip.
- Table stretch. Use a sturdy table, bed, or bench for this stretch. As in the test for psoas tightness, lie on your back and let one leg hang over the edge. This is enough to stretch it out.
- Frog stretch. Lie on your stomach with legs straight behind you. Bend one knee to 90 degrees and extend it opposite the same hip. The leg should still be flat on the ground, knee at a 90-degree angle, and calf parallel to the straight leg.
- Yoga poses. Several yoga poses can stretch out the psoas. Try tree pose, king dancer, warrior I, camel pose, wheel pose, and reclined hero pose.
Check out this ISSA blog for more about yoga for tight hip flexors.
Exercises to Strengthen the Psoas
If you find your psoas muscles are weak, your posture and athletic performance will both improve by strengthening it with targeted exercises:
- Lying leg raise. Lying on your back, lift one leg up at a time, keeping the knee straight. Leg lifts also benefit the abdominal muscles.
- Psoas crunch. In tabletop position with hands and knees on the ground, bring the opposite knee and elbow together under the body in a crunching movement.
- Standing hip flexion. Stand up straight and lift one knee up, bending it to 90 degrees. Hold for several seconds. Add a resistance band around your ankle and attached to something sturdy to make this move more challenging.
- Frankenstein. Standing upright, lift one leg up as high as you can, keeping the knee straight. Try to touch your toes.
You may be surprised to find out how many issues a strong, stretched psoas can resolve. If you or a client really struggles with back pain or hip mobility, see a doctor, physical therapist, or licensed sports massage therapist. The psoas can be tricky, and it’s important to do the right exercises and stretches for maximum results.
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Siccardi, Marco et al. "Anatomy, Bony Pelvis And Lower Limb, Psoas Major". Ncbi.Nlm.Nih.Gov, 2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK535418/.
"Psoas Syndrome: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment". Cleveland Clinic, 2021, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15721-psoas-syndrome.
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