The muscle of the soul - the Psoas!
The Psoas is an incredibly important muscle that many people don’t think about, but stretching and strengthening the psoas can make all the difference to our well-being.
If you have low back pain, hip pain or various other tightness and stress in your body, stretching and/or strengthening the psoas can potentially completely fix these issues.
In this article, we are going to cover the following:
So, without further ado, let’s dive in…
The psoas muscle (pronounced with a silent “p”) is a primary connector of the torso and legs. It is a deep-rooted muscle in your core that connects your lumbar vertebrae with your femur. Essentially, it is the filet mignon of the human body.
The word comes from the Greek language. Its literal meaning is “muscle of the loin”.
Most people consider the psoas the area in our core where we have ‘gut intuition’. It’s the primal messenger of the central nervous system. So, as such, it’s a connection path to many other parts of our body. It's directly at our center after all.
There are three muscles that make up the “psoas”: psoas major, psoas minor, and iliacus.
Fun fact: the psoas minor, which is the smallest muscle of the psoas is not present in around half of the population.
The psoas is part of the group of muscles known as hip flexors, and it is the largest and strongest muscle in that group. As a whole, hip flexors contract to pull your thigh and torso towards one another. As you can imagine, this is a very important function for people.
Not only does the psoas play a major role for the hip flexor, but it also helps stabilize the lower back.
Now that you know approximately where the psoas muscle is, let us show you the anatomy of your hip flexors and psoas muscle.
Psoas Muscle Anatomy:
As you can see, it starts at the lumbar vertebrae and runs along each side of the spine. Your psoas is about as thick as your wrist.
Now that you know where the psoas is, you can build a strong mind-to-muscle connection when you stretch and strengthen it. If you want to skip straight to the exercises, scroll down.
The 3 psoas muscles (or 2 for many people) are grouped together when referring to the function of the psoas. These muscles are also commonly referred to as the “iliopsoas”.
Here are the main functions:
A healthy psoas will allow you to move with greater ease, and have better posture and comfort.
A tight psoas can have a lot of negative effects on us. Most commonly, a tight psoas will lead to postural problems. A tight psoas will pull the low back vertebrae down and forward which results in an overarching of the lumbar spine. The result will be low back and pelvic pain and stiffness. Without addressing this, it can eventually lead to arthritis in the lumbar facet joints. Moreover, it can cause harmful and unwanted imbalances.
But wait, there’s more, unfortunately…
A tight psoas muscle is said to cause:
When it comes to stress and anxiety, the psoas reacts to stress and anxiety just like the neck and shoulders do. So if you are stressed, your psoas may become tight, and if it becomes tight, the psoas can cause you more stress. It’s almost a paradoxical situation that can only be addressed by dealing with stress…and stretching your psoas.
It’s sort of mind-boggling how one muscle can cause so many issues.
On the other hand, dealing with it can fix and change your life. David Goggins is proof of this and he lets the world know.
All you need to do to is stretch or strengthen your psoas (more on this below). After a week or so, if you start feeling better, you know you found the culprit. Likely you will feel a bit better even after one session of stretching your psoas.
Conversely, if you overstretch your psoas, it can also have negative effects in terms of postural problems, but in the opposite direction of what a tight psoas does. Overstretching your psoas may cause you to stand with your pelvis pushing out past your chest and knees.
So, we don’t want to overstretch the psoas. Moreover, it is equally important to do contraction exercises to strengthen the psoas as it is to do stretching exercises to release the psoas.
Essentially we just want to create normalcy in the muscle. This will create a happy psoas muscle, making you feel more relaxed, less stressed and tense, and less fatigued throughout the day.
There are a few common causes of a tight psoas muscle.
First and foremost, if you spend most of your waking hours sitting, then your hip flexors, and psoas will become shorter and tighter. As you can imagine, the vast majority of people in the modern world work in a seated position, so many of us have a tight psoas…and we might not even know it.
If you are sitting down most of the day, and you have some of the issues we mentioned above, it’s very likely that you are dealing with a tight psoas. At least to some extent.
Conversely, if you do tons of sit-ups, bicycling, and running without adequate stretching, you can develop an extremely tight psoas muscle.
This is exactly what happened to David Goggins. He ran tons of ultra marathons, some as long as 250 miles, and never stretched afterward, and it caught up to him big time. He states that stretching his psoas and hip flexors saved his body from the disaster it was becoming from such brutal training.
This makes perfect sense, as when you are constantly running, your body constricts and tightens, as stretched muscles are not as effective for running.
So, stretching after a run to create normalcy in your muscles is crucial.
Another common cause of a tight psoas is stress and anxiety, as we mentioned above. Just like your shoulders and neck, your psoas gets tight from stress, but it’s less noticeable than the neck and shoulders for those who aren’t in touch with their psoas and the symptoms…
A tight psoas from stress can show its face in your low back, knees, and literally anywhere from your ankle to the top of your head (look up ‘psoas and bump in back of head’).
Moreover, it’s very possible that your body has imbalances and those imbalances are causing your psoas to overwork, compensating for other muscles like your pelvic region or a previously torn ligament. This can quickly lead to a tight psoas. In this case, you need to work on those imbalances too.
Now that you know the causes, the importance of a happy psoas, and how to find it so you can create that mind-muscle connection, here’s how you can check to be sure if it is weak and/or tight.
This is one simple test. If you are able to perform the above for 30 seconds, without compensating, and you feel your lower abdomen working, you likely have adequate psoas strength. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strengthen it more, though. Because a strong psoas will make your entire lower abdomen area more powerful and stable.
Another test is to attempt to do some of psoas strengthening exercises. If you can’t complete the exercises at a minimum, it’s likely that you have a weak psoas.
Moreover, a very obvious way to know if your psoas and hip flexors are tight is to pay attention to the restriction of your hips. If you have troubles rotating your hips, or you have pain and aches in your hip socket, it’s likely that you have a tight lower psoas.
Note: It’s possible for people to have both tight and weak muscles, and of course, the psoas is no different. However, it is important to know the difference as if you are stretching a weak psoas that isn’t tight, you are not helping your situation at all.
Often times, tightness can often be confused for weakness. In fact, most people have a weak psoas, not a tight psoas. So be sure to figure out what you are dealing with.
This video explains whether you should strengthen or stretch your psoas really well. It also shows you two ways to test for tightness or weakness in your psoas.
Psoas Muscle Strengthening Exercises:
How many sets and reps should you do?
Choose a few of these exercises during your workout and do 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps.
Remember, most of these exercises will target multiple muscles, not just the psoas, so be sure to keep the mind to muscle connection and contract your psoas to strengthen it. Don’t cheat! Go slow and be in control.
Isometric contractions are a fantastic way to strengthen your psoas muscle. An isometric contraction is done by holding your body in the working position without moving. So, if you are doing hanging leg raises or hip flexions, hold the position where your legs are at 90 degrees for a set time. You can do this after the recommended reps, in between every rep, or you can simply do these exercises as isometric contractions and hold the position for a set time rather than do repetitions.
YOGA AND THE PSOAS
Yoga is one of the best activities that you can do to release tight muscles. There are whole routines just for the psoas and hip flexors, because yoga emphasizes the importance of releasing this “muscle of the soul”.
So, if you really want to release tension and strengthen your psoas, you can perform yoga flows and/or you can look to their poses and focus just on the poses that will help you release your psoas. Yoga is a dynamic way to stretch out the body and improve range of motion, and it also involves isometric contraction, which is a great way to strengthen the body as well.
Psoas Muscle Stretch Exercises:
Hold each of the psoas stretches for 20-40 seconds. You can do each exercise a few times during one stretching session.
When should you stretch your psoas?
Stretch your psoas as part of a static stretching routine after a workout or at the end of the day.
Tip: A weak or tight psoas can cause low back pain, hip neck pain, poor stability, stress, and various other issues. So, be sure to spend time doing psoas muscle exercises, as a happy psoas makes for a happy body and mind.
Check out this video of a simple hip mash psoas myofascial release using a 7LB mace. It's truly the perfect tool to target and release the psoas and hip flexors. The lever of the mace makes it easy to massage the area and the head of the mace is similar to the shape of a massage ball. With the mace, you don't have to get face down on the floor to trigger point the psoas as you do with a massage ball. You can easily aim and press into your psoas lightly to help relieve any tenderness. For psoas trigger point massage specifically, a steel mace is definitely way easier than a massage ball.
If you have low back pain, you should also read this: 5 Movements to Cure Low Back Pain.
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