Wanted: The Tight Psoas – for causing pain in the lower back, knees, hips, pelvic floor & more!
Why care about the psoas? In fact, who’s even heard of the psoas? Outside the running and the yoga worlds (and even in them), these muscles (correct plural, the psoa, and correct individual term, the psoai) are not well-known.
However, they’re a kind of a big deal. And I’m here today to tell you why.
The psoa are a major part of the reason your legs are attached to the rest of you. They connect to your spine, at the bottom of your ribcage, and then descend down your back, attaching at multiple points – including the vertebral discs – along the way, until they pass through the pelvis and arrive at their final attachment on the femur bones – the big long bones of the thighs.
Here’s a picture:
(There are different opinions on what the psoa are supposed to do in the body. Here’s a quick rundown).
So this is a big deal because attaching in so many places means that when the psoa aren’t working right, they can mess you up in a whole lot of places.
Modern lives lead to short psoa – sitting, standing with the pelvis forward, standing with the knees bent, high anxiety and stress levels (they’re part of the body’s trauma protection mechanism), common sports and fitness-related movement patterns and ‘good posture’ that involves rib thrusting.
Short, tight psoa may contribute to back issues, knee problems, hip and SI joint pain, pregnancy and birth issues (learn more about that here), and digestive trouble. Where you end up having an issue will depend on your individual movement patterns. My own psoa tend to operate primarily on my rib cage, making it hard for me to keep my ribs dropped (and my left is tighter than my right). Other people will find that their psoa are pulling their femurs forward into hip flexion – this can be one reason it’s hard to release your knee caps. And still others may find that their psoa are causing them both to rib thrust and to hip flex. Only one thing is sure – if you’re a modern North American, you’re probably operating with a less-than-optimal psoa arrangement.
So what to do about it?
In this case, stretching them alone won’t fix the problem – you need to release your psoa. What’s the difference? Think about clenching your hand into a fist, as tight as possible. Now, without letting go, imagine what would happen if you tried to stretch your fingers. You’d have a war, right? Between the clenching and the stretching. If you really want to stretch, first you have to release your fist so your fingers relax. Same thing here – before you can stretch, you must release. Boom.
Disclaimer – this is either the easiest or the hardest exercise you will ever do. If you find it incredibly hard to lie still long enough for this, if you feel like you’re not ‘doing’ anything, and if you feel like it’s a waste of time, then this is probably extra important for you, because you are probably just a touch Type A and so you need to take time for focused relaxation more than anyone else. Don’t worry – once you have released your psoa there are some good stretches waiting for you – plus your walking will be already a million times better – so your time will not be wasted and you’ll get to do some nice hardcore things soon.
You’re going to start and finish with a test, so you can see what your own psoa are up to. It’s easy. Starting sitting, with your feet straight out in front of you and hamstrings flat on the ground, you’ll slowly lower yourself backwards until you’re lying flat on the ground (use your arms for support, this is not a fancy ab workout).
As you descend, notice whether your thighs have lifted up off the ground. If so, notice how low your torso was when your legs lifted – this is your bolstering point.
Once I’ve made it all the way to the floor, I’m going to check in again with my hamstrings and now with my back as well. I’m checking for:
1) Are my hamstrings on the ground? They should be flat to the ground. If not, your tight psoa are keeping you in hip flexion.
2) Is there a lot of space under my lower/mid-back (there should be about enough for a pencil – not for my whole hand to fit under). If so, your tight psoa are contributing to your rib thrusting.
It is also possible that you might have rib thrusting and hip flexion at the same time:
Other things to check for:
3) Is the space even on both sides (on me, I have more of an arch under the left lower back than the right). If not, then you are tighter on one side than another. No illustration for this one, I’m afraid.
4) If my legs and lower back are all flat, what do my lower ribs feel like in the front? Are they poking out? Even a bit? If so, then your psoa are sneaky but they are still too tight.
So now you have a starting point. At the end of the release, you’ll redo the test and see if you notice any differences. It’s incredibly rewarding when you do, I find!
So the release is really quite simple. All you’re going to do is find a bolster (best) or a firm cushion or rolled up sleeping back or whatever you have that will hold your head and shoulders up in the air. How high? If your hamstrings came up off the ground, bolster yourself at the point where they rose up. If they didn’t, start by giving yourself 5-8 inches of bolstering and see how that works for you. You’re going to lie down with the bolster under your head and shoulders. The edge should be right around the bottom of the shoulder blades (the bra strap, the bro strap, or the spot where you’d wear a heart rate monitor). There’s no real magic to it though – you should be well supported but your ribs should have enough room to relax down to the ground.
And that’s it. Now you’re going to chill out here – SANS podcast, television, audiobook, music or other form of entertainment (all of which can excite the psoas and make it hard to release). You’re going to consciously think about the back of your body melting into the ground – but you’re not going to muscle it down, just allow it to get there naturally. It can be helpful to put a nice warm heavy folded blanket onto your lower ribs. Rest there for 5-10 minutes or so – you can do more if you like, and you can also stay there until you actually notice your psoas release completely (however for some of us this might take about a year, so if this is you, don’t fret, you’ll get there in time). Where is there? Ideally, you’ll want to end up looking a bit like this:
But if not, don’t worry about it – you’re going to redo the test and notice if anything has changed. If your hamstrings are closer to the ground or if you have less arch in your back, then your psoa have begun to release! If not, then be patient – this can take time, and you’ll get there eventually.
This is a great thing to do before bed – it’s very relaxing – but also before you go for a walk, since you want your psoa nice and supple during gait. Pretty much everyone needs this, on a daily basis! If you give it a go, let me know what you think! I used to hate having to lie there and do nothing, and now it is one of my favorites (and only takes about 2 minutes, as my psoa are now well trained!)
This should start you off right, but there’s a tonne more to learn about the psoas. I’d love if you join me on January 18th for a two-hour deeper dive! All the details right here.