Not many people have heard of the psoas (“So-as”) muscles, yet problems with these muscles can manifest as hip, groin, and low back pain. Fortunately, with a couple psoas-releasing stretches, you can help stabilize the spine to help relieve these issues.
What Are The Psoas Muscles?
The psoas is a general term, but refers to the combination of two muscles, the iliacus, and the psoas major muscle. These two muscles together are otherwise known as the iliopsoas muscle.
There are two psoas major muscles, one that runs on the left, and one that runs on the right. These long thick muscles originate deep in the abdominal cavity, from the lower half of the spine on each side of the vertebrae. They run down into the pelvis where they join with the iliacus, before attaching to the femur (thus forming the iliopsoas). The psoas muscles essentially connect the low back to the thighs.
The iliopsoas muscles are apart of a group of hip flexor muscles, which together help contract to pull the thigh and torso toward each other. If spend a lot of your time sitting at a desk, driving, or repeatedly work these muscles in activities like bicycling, weight-training or sit-ups, they can become short and tight.
Issues Surrounding A Tight Psoas
When your psoas becomes tight, you will likely experience many postural problems. For example, after a long day of sitting, when you stand up, the psoas muscle will pull the low back vertebrae forward and down toward the femur, which results in lordosis (overarching of the lumbar spine). This results in low back pain, stiffness, and pelvic pain.
You can also overuse the psoas muscles. If you’re a runner, soccer player, cyclist, or dancer, it’s likely that you’ll end up with a tight psoas muscle as a result of overuse. Tight psoas muscles reduce the length of your stride while you walk or run, as your hip flexibility has decreased.
Through stress or repetitive activity, constant contraction of the psoas muscle limits range of movement in the hip sockets, resulting in strain in the lumbar spine and knees.
How Do I Know If My Psoas Muscle Is Tight?
You can determine whether your issue is caused by a tight psoas muscle by doing the Thomas test. This involves lying on your back on a bed or table with your knees hugging your chest – you then extend one leg at a time to see how far you can hang it off the end of the bed or table (illustrated in the video below).
If your psoas muscle is tight, the leg that you extend will not drop very far, and you will end up arching your lower back in an attempt to make the leg go down lower. Try the test with each leg, too, because one side might be more tight and need more attention than the other side.
10 Psoas-Releasing Stretches And Strengthening Exercises
Treating a tight psoas muscle requires stretching, but it also requires strengthening of the surrounding muscles. That is why I have included both in this regime.
If you are new to stretching or recovering from a recent injury, go slow with these stretches. Be gentle with yourself and understand that it can take time for the body to heal.
Also, make sure you perform the psoas-releasing stretches before the strengthening exercises.
1. Lying Psoas Stretch
1. Lie on the floor with your legs out long and straight (if you have a foam roller, use it, and have it supporting your lower back at the base of your sacrum).
2. Bend your right leg, while keeping the other one extended.
3. Grab your right leg, or knee with your hand and gently pull it backwards until you feel a stretch in your hip.
4. Hold it here for 30 seconds and relax into it. You can go up to 1 minute if you please. Repeat on the other side, and do 3 repetitions on each side.
2. Crescent Lunge (Stretch)
1. Start on your hands and knees, and lunge forward with your right leg so your right foot and left knee are contacting the ground.
2. Keeping your back straight and pelvis tucked, lunge forward until you feel a stretch in your left hip. You can use a wall or chair for support if necessary.
3. Hold this stretch for 15 seconds, and then repeat 3 times. Repeat on the other leg.
3. Bridge Pose (Stretch)
1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and the feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart.
2. If you have two yoga blocks, place one between your feet, and second one between your knees. The blocks make sure that your thighs remain parallel throughout the pose, which prevents the psoas muscles from externally rotating (which can cause back pain).
3. Start to lift your pelvis off the floor, pressing your pubic bones upward.
4. Hold the pose for 20-30 seconds, and then repeat 2 more times.
4. Myofascial Psoas Release
1. For this exercise you will need a lacrosse ball, which can be purchased online, or at a sports therapy store.
2. Lay on your stomach and find the hip bone. Place the lacrosse ball toward your bellybutton, just a little bit lower than the hip bone (about 2 finger breadths).
3. Holding the ball here, slowly roll onto the floor, putting your weight onto the ball.
4. Hold this position for 20 seconds, or up to 8 breaths. You can also pivot on this muscle, and you will likely immediately find it to be quite tender. This should allow the psoas muscle to release.
5. Repeat on the other side. You can do this up to 3 times per day if you are not too tender.
5. Frog Pose (Stretch)
1. Beginning on all fours, bring your forearms to the floor. You can put a blanket under each knee for padding if you like.
2. Widen your knees, one at a time, as far apart as possible, and bend them so that your thighs and your shins are at 90-degree angles. Flex your feet.
3. Keep your front ribs in, your waist long, and your tailbone down.
4. Take 5-10 long, deep breaths. It will likely be very sore, but easing into this difficult pose only takes time and patience.
6. Pigeon Pose (Stretch)
1. Start in a downward-facing dog with your feet together.
2. Draw in your left knee and turn it out to the left so that your left leg is bent and near-perpendicular to your right one. Lower both legs to the ground.
3. Keep your right back leg extended straight behind you, and stabilize yourself with your elbows on the ground, or if you feel comfortable, fold your upper body forward and collapse over the left leg to a fully relaxed position.
4. Stay in this position and hold for 5 to 10 deep breaths.
5. Switch to the other side and repeat.
7. Navasana (Strengthening Pose)
1. Sit on the floor, knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Roll your shoulders back, with your back straight and lean back a bit.
2. Inhale, and lift your legs slowly off the floor, and keeping your upper body straight, inhale and lift your legs all the way up. You can support your hands on your thighs just underneath your knees.
3. Sit in this position and breathe for 5 deep breaths. Do 5 repetitions.
Alternatively, you can sit tall on the front edge of a chair, with your arms stretched out in front of you, parallel to the floor. Then, lean toward the back on the chair without touch it, while your chest stays lifted. This will allow the psoas to contract in a similar manner to hold you in the position you are in.
8. Psoas Pulse (Strengthening Pose)
1. Lay down flat, and take your right leg out to the side, about 45 degrees, and 30 degrees up from the floor. Turn the foot out, so that the in-step is facing the ceiling.
2. Pulse the leg up and down. If it is too difficult, do a small pulse, but if it is easy, you can bring the leg higher up toward the opposite shoulder, and down closer to the floor.
3. Do 10-15 pulses, or as many as you can do until fatigue. Repeat on the other side.
9. Standing Knee Raise (Strengthening Pose)
1. Stand tall in front of a chair if you need to hold on for extra support. You can also attach a 1-2 pound ankle weight on whichever leg you are doing first (to make the exercise more effective).
2. Flex hip, and bring your knee up as far as possible. Lower back down to the ground, and repeat.
3. Do 3 sets of 15 knee raises on each leg.
10. Straight Leg Raise (Strengthening Pose)
1. Lying on your back, have one foot flat on the floor, knee bent, and the other leg straight.
2. Lift the straight leg up, while keeping your knee straight. Then, slowly lower the leg back down.
3. Make sure you don’t arch your lower back during the exercise, and to not lift the working leg higher than the opposite bent knee (the non-working leg).
4. Do 3 sets of 10 raises on each leg.