The muscle of this month is powerful and awesome but also a pain in the back (literally) kind of muscle. It can give the body power in key movements or hinder the lower back if left unattended.
The Psoas Muscle
The Psoas is an interesting muscle. It's not an abdominal muscle, but it lives deep underneath the abdominal wall. Its a leg, hip and, in a way, a spinal muscle. It's one of the deepest core muscles and the only one that connects the spine to the legs. It spams from T12 in the lower thoracic spine and all the way through the lumbar spine. From there it passes through the abdominal core to the front of the hip bone, where it joints the Iliacus (together forming the Ilio-psoas muscle), and finally connecting all the way to the top inner corner of the femur (thigh bone).
It is a lovely muscle when it's strong and long
Yes, I said long! At it's best, the Psoas will help runners stride and sprint at their best, bikers to pedal faster and more effectively, swimmers to flip-turn with more agility, climbers to get their legs up higher, and all of us to walk with proper gait mechanics, sit up straighter and suffer less from the long periods most of us spend sitting.
The body's most powerful hip-flexor
Strong enough to lift the whole leg up with some assistance of other leg muscles, this is the hip flexor you should be working and feeling when doing abdominal exercises or any other exercise involving getting your legs up and closer to your torso.
Lower back stabilizer
Because it connects to the actual vertebrae, this muscle has the power to affect the spine and posture alike, especially during seated positions. In daily activities such as seating and walking, ideally, the inferior part of the muscle (hip and leg) concentrically contracts while the superior fibers (spine) remain long in isometric contraction with other spinal and postural muscles providing the lower back the support it needs against the compressing and shifting forces of gravity.
It's hateful when weak and tight
Chronic tightness in this muscle seldom comes from physical activity that relies on its strength or from exercise that is intended to strengthen it. The common-case scenario presents ilio-psoas tightness due to weakness and long periods of seating in where the muscle isn't actively contracting to maintain the seated position but rather succumbing to the shortening pressure gravity applies on the spine.
Posture and lower back pain
A chronically tight Psoas will remain in it's contracted state, shortened really, even when standing, causing the pelvis to tilt forward overarching the lower back (lordosis), leading to compression and eventually lower back pain.
Hip tension and imbalances
Once a muscle becomes shortened and weak, other supporting muscles will eventually take over its actions resulting in imbalances and tightness in other areas, especially in the front of the hips, as other hip flexors fight to bring the pelvis back to its normal position or over strain trying to perform activities that should rely on Psoas strength.
Releasing a tight Psoas
Foam Roller Hip Flexor Stretch
Place a foam roller across the width of the mat and lay down with the back of the hips resting on the roller and the torso on the mat. Hug the right knee towards your chest as you stretch the left leg long on the mat. To intensify the stretch, raise the left arm overhead and press the back of the left leg down toward the mat. Repeat on the other side.
Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
Half kneeling on a mat (right foot flat on the ground and the left knee on the mat), pull your abs in and press your hips forward. Lift the left arm up to the ceiling. For a deeper stretch, keep the left arm up as you lift your chest up to the ceiling, keeping your abdominals engaged to protect the lower back. Repeat on the other side.
Building a stronger Psoas
Alternated and Double Knee folds
1. Laying on the mat with knees bent and feet flat down, exhale as you pull your abs in and bring one leg up to the tabletop position (knee bent in a 90 degree angle in line with hips and ankle).
2. Inhale as you place the leg back down with control and repeat on the other leg.
3. Continue alternating for 30 seconds without rocking your pelvis in any direction (maintaining neutral) and making sure you are pulling your navel in at all times.
To intensify, try the double knee fold (toe taps): begin in the table top position with legs zipped together. Inhale lowering both legs as if you wanted to tap the floor with your toes and exhale as you pull your abs in to bring them back up to the table top position. Continue for 30 seconds.
If at any point you feel your lower back, pull your abs in more or work with a flat back until you develop enough strength to work in neutral spine.
Pilates Scissors (Single Straight Leg Stretch)
1. Begin laying down on the mat with both legs straight up to the ceiling arms down by your sides on the mat.
2. Maintaining your pelvis stable, inhale as you lower one leg straight toward the mat. On the exhale, pull your abs in and bring the leg straight up to the ceiling (from your core!).
3. Alternate legs for 30 seconds.
To advance, quickly alternate legs, with a sharp exhale as you simultaneously lift and lower right and left leg in opposition.
To integrate your abdominals, press your abdominals down to lift your head, neck and shoulders up, reaching your arms straight forward in line with your shoulders. Hold the position as you alternate the legs.
Double Leg Lift (Double Straight Leg Stretch)
1. Begin laying down on the mat with both legs straight up to the ceiling and zipped together.
2. Lower both legs to a 45 degree angle (or as far as your lower back feels safe and as far as you can keep your navel in).
2. Exhale to lift both legs back up to the starting position.
To integrate your abdominals, interlace your hands behind your head and press your abdominals down to lift your head, neck and shoulders up. Hold the position as you lower and lift the legs.
Header photo credit: BANDHA YOGA