The psoas muscle (pronounced SO-as) may be the most important muscle in your body. Without this essential muscle group you wouldn’t even be able to get out of the bed in the morning!
In fact, whether you run, bike, dance, practice yoga, or just hang out on your couch, your psoas muscles are involved. That’s because your psoas muscles are the primary connectors between your torso and your legs. They affect your posture and help to stabilize your spine.
The psoas muscles are made of both slow and fast twitching muscles. Because they are major flexors, weak psoas muscles can cause many of the surrounding muscles to compensate and become overused. That is why a tight or overstretched psoas muscle could be the cause of many or your aches and pains, including low back and pelvic pain.
The types of movement which can strain your psoas muscles include standing and twisting from your waist without moving your feet (think old fashioned calisthenics), or any movement that causes your leg to externally rotate while extended, such as Ballet-style leg lifts (or battement), and even doing too many sit ups (your psoas muscles complete the last half of a sit up).
But, since many experts don’t understand the complexity of the psoas muscles, it’s not uncommon for people to be given the wrong diagnoses and treatments for their psoas-related pain.
My What Muscle? What You Need to Know About your Psoas
Structurally, your psoas muscles are the deepest muscles in your core. They attach from your 12th thoracic vertebrae to your 5 lumbar vertebrae, through your pelvis and then finally attach to your femurs. In fact, they are the only muscles that connect your spine to your legs.
Your psoas muscles allow you to bend your hips and legs towards your chest, for example when you are going up stairs. They also help to move your leg forward when you walk or run.
Your psoas muscles are the muscles that flex your trunk forward when bend over to pick up something from the floor. They also stabilize your trunk and spine during movement and sitting.
The psoas muscles support your internal organs and work like hydraulic pumps allowing blood and lymph to be pushed in and out of your cells.
Your psoas muscles are vital not only to your structural well-being, but also to your psychological well-being because of their connection to your breath.
Here’s why: There are two tendons for the diaphragm (called the crura) that extend down and connect to the spine alongside where the psoas muscles attach. One of the ligaments (the medial arcuate) wraps around the top of each psoas. Also, the diaphragm and the psoas muscles are connected through fascia that also connects the other hip muscles.
These connections between the psoas muscle and the diaphragm literally connect your ability to walk and breathe, and also how you respond to fear and excitement. That’s because, when you are startled or under stress, your psoas contracts.
In other words, your psoas has a direct influence on your fight or flight response!
During prolonged periods of stress, your psoas is constantly contracted. The same contraction occurs when you:
- sit for long periods of time
- engage in excessive running or walking
- sleep in the fetal position
- do a lot of sit-ups
All of these activities compress the front of your hip and shorten your psoas muscle. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should automatically stretch your psoas if you have pain in the front of your hip joint.
In fact, depending on your situation, stretching your psoas may actually do more harm than good! The key is to know whether your psoas is short and tight and thus in need of stretching, or if it’s weak and overstretched and in need of strengthening.
7 Ways to Tell if You Have a Psoas Muscle Imbalance
When you have a tight (or short) psoas muscle, you may experience pain in your lower back or in your hips, especially when lifting your legs. This is caused by the muscle compressing the discs in the lumbar region of your back.
Stretching your muscles and releasing the tension on the psoas is the best way to prevent this from happening. It takes time and daily attention to keep your psoas muscles relaxed, stretched, and strong.
And, while most people with psoas issues have tight psoas muscles, there are some people whose psoas muscles can be overstretched. In this case, if you stretch your psoas and it is already overstretched, you will cause more problems.
Your body will tell you what your psoas ultimately needs. Here are 7 ways to tell if you have a psoas muscle imbalance:
- Leg length discrepancy. A tight psoas muscle can cause your pelvis to rotate forward. This in turn can cause an an internal rotation of your leg on the affected side. The opposite leg will rotate externally in an effort to counter-balance. This will make the affected leg longer so that every time you take a step, it drives your leg up into your hip socket. This can lead to functional leg length discrepancy.
- Knee and low back pain. If you experience knee or low back pain with no apparent cause, it may be coming from your psoas muscles. When your femur is in essence locked into your hip socket due to a tight psoas muscle, rotation in the joint can’t occur. This can cause your knee and low back to torque.
- Postural problems. When your psoas is too short or tight, it can pull your pelvis into an anterior tilt, compressing the spine and pulling your back into hyperlordosis or “duck butt.”If your psoas is overstretched or weak, it can flatten the natural curve of your lumbar spine creating a “flat butt.” This misalignment is characterized by tight hamstrings pulling down on the sitting bones, which causes the sacrum to lose its natural curve and results in a flattened lumbar spine. This can lead to low-back injury, especially at the intervertebral discs. You may also feel pain at the front of your hip. Finally, it is possible for your psoas muscles to be both tight and overstretched. In this case, your pelvis is pulled forward in front of your center of gravity, causing your back to curve (swayback) and your head to poke forward.
- Difficulty moving your bowels. A tight psoas muscle can contribute to or even cause constipation. A large network of lumbar nerves and blood vessels passes through and around the psoas muscles. Tightness in the psoas muscles can impede blood flow and nerve impulses to the pelvic organs and legs.
In addition, when the psoas is tight your torso shortens decreasing the space for your internal organs. This affects food absorption and elimination. As such it can contribute to constipation, as well as sexual dysfunction.
- Menstrual Cramps. An imbalance in your psoas muscles can be partially responsible for menstrual cramps as it puts added pressure in your reproductive organs.
- Chest breathing. A tight psoas muscle can create a thrusting forward of the ribcage. This causes shallow, chest breathing, which limits the amount of oxygen taken in and encourages over usage of your neck muscles.
- Feeling exhausted. Your psoas muscles create a muscular shelf that your kidneys and adrenals rest on. As you breathe properly your diaphragm moves and your psoas muscles gently massage these organs, stimulating blood circulation. But, when the psoas muscles become imbalanced, so do your kidneys and adrenal glands, causing physical and emotional exhaustion.
In fact, according to Liz Koch, author of The Psoas Book, “The psoas is so intimately involved in such basic physical and emotional reactions, that a chronically tightened psoas continually signals your body that you’re in danger, eventually exhausting the adrenal glands and depleting the immune system.”
9 Tips for Keeping Your Psoas Muscles Happy and Healthy
Exercise, sitting in your favorite chair, wearing shoes, and even unhealed physical and emotional injuries can cause imbalance in your psoas muscles. Getting things back in balance will give you a greater range of motion and relief from pain. Plus, you feel more grounded and relaxed!
Here are some tips for getting things back in balance:
- Avoid sitting for extended periods. If you must sit for work or other reasons, sit with good posture and be sure your hips are level or slightly higher than your knees. It’s a good idea to put a towel folded lengthwise under your hips when sitting. This tilts the pelvis in a way that lengthens the hamstrings and relaxes the psoas muscles. Avoid bucket seats and chairs without support for your low back. Try to get up and move around every hour.
- Add support to your car seat. Use a rolled up towel underneath your sit bones and/ or behind your lumbar spine to keep the psoas and hip sockets released. If you are traveling long distances, stop every 3 hours to stretch and walk around for 10 minutes.
- Lay off extreme exercise routines. I don’t mean completely or forever. But, if you are a power walker, distance runner or sprinter, or even if you do a lot of sit-ups, you may want to alternate your workouts.
- Upgrade your posture. Esther Gokhale has studied primal posture throughout the world and has found that as young children, we all have good posture. It deteriorates because of our living environment and the images we see daily. Esther’s research shows that people had perfect posture (with little or no back pain) until about 1920 when it was considered fashionable to slouch! Esther’s foundation training and book, 8 Steps to a Painfree Back has changed the health and lives of thousands of people the world over. I personally took her training and now use what I learned daily, especially when bending over.
- Get a professional massage. Getting a massage from a seasoned practitioner can help relieve a tight psoas muscle. Understand that this work is not the most comfortable, but can be of great benefit. In fact, getting myofascial release on a regular basis helps to keep your psoas, and all of your muscles, fluid. Assisted stretching (as with a Resistance Flexibility trainer) and yoga are also excellent ways to restore balance to your psoas.
- Take constructive rest. The Constructive Rest Position (CRP) can relieve low back, pelvic and hip tension while it allows your entire body to come into neutral. Lay on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor hip-width apart and parallel to each other.
Place your heels a comfortable distance from your buttocks – or about 16 inches away. Do not push your low back into the floor or tuck your pelvis. Rest your arms over your belly. Let gravity do the work. Doing this for 10 to 20 minutes every day will release tension in your psoas muscles and help to reestablish the neuro-biological rhythms that calm and refresh.
- Pay attention to your pelvis! The length of the psoas determines whether or not your pelvis is free to move.
To tell whether your psoas muscles are tight or overstretched, stand sideways by a mirror (or even better, have a friend take a photo of you from the side). Note the position of your pelvis. If you were to draw a line along your pelvis from back to front, that line should be pretty straight. If the line tilts downward, your pelvis is anteriorly rotated or moving toward the front of your body. This means that your psoas muscles may be short and tight. If the line runs upward, your pelvis is posteriorly tilted toward the back of your body. This means that your psoas muscles may be overstretched and weak.
- Release stress and past traumas. We store stress in our bodies. Tension in the hips is common and it’s usually not just caused by lifestyle, age and physical events, such as injuries or accidents, but also due to mental stress and unhealed traumas. Releasing stress daily can help keep your psoas healthy. Take a leisurely walk. Soak in a bath with Epson salts. Acknowledge your emotions, express and release them. Divine Love is a great way to heal from past traumas. Finally, get out and do something pleasurable every day!
- Read The Psoas Book. If you want to learn more about your psoas muscles, read The Psoas Book by Liz Koch. Koch believes that our fast paced modern lifestyle — including car seats, constrictive clothing, shoes that throw our posture out of alignment, and more — chronically triggers the psoas as it “literally embodies our deepest urge for survival, and more profoundly, our elemental desire to flourish.” You can also visit her website, www.coreawareness.com.