While most people are familiar with the larger muscles groups of the hips, back, and torso, the smaller ones are often overlooked. Just as often it is these muscles that are the culprits of our aches and pains.
The psoas are not typically targeted with traditional gym exercises, and since many of us don't know where it is, it can be difficult to diagnose as a source of pain or weakness.
What is a psoas?
The psoas (pronounced “so-az”) is the muscle that runs in front of the hips and connects your lower back to the top of your thigh. It is one of the main muscles of the hip flexor group and it contracts to pull the thigh and torso toward each other. It is located deeper in the body underneath the abdominals, quadriceps, and obliques.
Why should you care about the psoas?
The psoas plays a major role in keeping our spine in alignment, so when this muscle is out of balance, it may lead to lower back and hip pain. Because many of us spend a long time each day sitting, the psoas can become tight and even shortened. When this happens, it pulls the lower vertebrae forward when you stand up, causing anterior pelvic tilt (ATP) and often, excessive lumbar lordosis (a more pronounced curving of the spine). This also contributes to knee pain, weak abdominal muscles, and poor glute strength. ATP is often blamed for causing lower back pain, and the biggest cause of that may be a weak and/or shortened iliopsoas.
Conversely, when it is overstretched, it can cause posterior pelvic tilt, which is when the pelvis is pulled forward, causing tight hamstrings, as well as lower back pain and weakness. However, this is not as common as ATP.
Movements that work the psoas
Any time you lift your thigh upward toward your torso you are engaging the psoas, during activities like sitting, cycling, squatting or sit-ups. These activities, along with sitting, can also contribute to the shortening of the psoas; so proper stretching is needed to lengthen the muscle again once you have done any of these things.
Importance of stretching and proper posture
Stretching this muscle group and paying attention to proper posture is often recommended to relieve anterior pelvic tilt. This may prove difficult at first because many of us have spent years sitting at their desks incorrectly or standing with their backs arched. While you may find that you correct your posture a lot in the beginning, over time it will become more natural.
To stretch this muscle, find movements that lengthen the front of your quad and engage your hip flexors. Stretches like a lunge or bridges can also help (in addition to reversing the adverse affects of sitting for long periods of time). Of course, you should consult your doctor, physical therapist, or a trusted fitness professional to help you find the right stretches and exercises for you, as all of these things should be done under supervision until you are comfortable with the proper form.
Strength and exercise workouts
Need some help incorporating stretching and other mobility exercises into your regular exercise routine? Check out our Workout Center to explore exercise routines aimed at helping you achieve your specific goals.