One of the most common issues that people want to solve with personal training is lower back pain, usually stemming from the psoas muscle. Plenty of exercises exist that strengthen the back and help alleviate these issues, but one pair of muscles is often overlooked as the culprit. The psoas muscles act as pillars in the success of many of our bodily functions.
Let’s break down what the psoas muscles are, how they function, and how they can affect your overall health if not taken care of.
What is the Psoas muscle?
The psoas muscle, or The Muscle of the Soul, supports your body through just about every form of movement. The muscles allow you to bring your legs upwards as if you are marching. It is the only muscle that provides support all the way up from your torso to your thighs. So the pair of them have quite a job to do. They connect the last five vertebrae of your spine down to the top of your femur at the inner thigh.
The muscles actually make up a large portion of your core. Located deep within the core, closest to the back where it connects at your lumbar spine, these muscles actually control many bodily functions. In all, because of its location, it supports your breathing, posture, digestive system, and hip health.
The muscles affect a person’s breathing because of its placement behind and around the diaphragm. If the psoas muscles are tight, then they cannot properly support the movements and the weight of the diaphragm. They work together to support your breathing while walking.
As for the digestive system, the psoas is located near the colon. So if the muscle is constricted, then the colon will not function properly, disallowing the body to digest and excrete how it normally should.
The psoas also holds quite a bit of power around the way the muscle reacts to certain environmental and emotional stimulants.
How sensitive is the psoas muscle?
These muscles directly connect to the reptilian brain, the part of the brain that controls our most primitive responses. Responses like eating, reproducing, fighting, and fleeing. Therefore, the psoas muscle is also considered the fight-or-flight muscle.
This connection with the central nervous system means it reacts and goes into a prolonged state of contraction when a person is stressed or experiencing/has experienced trauma. This pair of muscles also remembers that and responds similarly when the body finds itself in another position of stress or extreme activity.
Sedentary positions for long periods of time contract the psoas muscles, making them in dire need of a stretch. If you are often sedentary, do not stretch, and get ample exercise to compensate for the lack of daily activity, then you might be in for some trouble down the road.
A strain in the psoas can lead to other muscle groups in the lower and upper back and the legs to overcompensate causing pain and soreness. In more serious cases it can lead to sciatic nerve pain, bulging discs, scoliosis, and hyperlordosis.
If this muscle is tight, then it will compress your spine. It can also pull your body to either side if they contract too much. Generally, any symptom involved with a contracted psoas is called iliopsoas syndrome.
Psoas Muscle Stretches
A few key stretches to implement into any daily routine that can help strengthen and lengthen the psoas. Now, to be clear, stretching and exercise might not be the end all be all of relief. However, paired with other forms of therapy (both emotional and physical) and good habits, it will help tremendously to prevent worsening issues in the long run.
For the kneeling lunge, place one knee on the ground and keep the other foot and leg at a 90-degree angle. While kneeling, straighten your posture and roll your hips backwards. Then lean forward as you push into the stretch with your hips and your core. Other variations of active lunging are good for stretching and strengthening the psoas.
For this stretch, start on your hands and feet and swing your leg underneath you in a controlled movement. Make sure that the leg you are keeping in front of you and essentially sitting on is parallel with your shoulders or at a 90-degree angle with your knee. This may not be possible if the hips and the psoas are too tight, so keep the knee bent at an angle that is comfortable and continue to work up to the 90 degrees. Push the knee of that leg just outside of the hip. Do not tuck the toes of the extended leg underneath, but let the top of your foot touch the ground instead. Sit upright to get the most out of the pigeon pose for your psoas and hips.
The King Pigeon Pose
This is a more advanced stretch than the regular pigeon pose and the only difference is that the extended leg and foot are pulled up to the back to pull through the iliopsoas region.
From the pigeon pose, open your shoulders and reach back for your foot. Lift your foot and grab it with the opposite hand to stabilize yourself until you can grab it with the same side hand. Start with your elbow down, then pull the elbow upward to complete the pose.
Source: Alo Moves
Half Frog Pose
This is a restorative yoga pose has both easy and intense variations. To start, lie on your stomach with one of your knees bent outward at or almost at 90 degrees depending on your tightness and flexibility. Keep your arms out and bent at 90-degree angles.
Stretching consistently to relieve the psoas might not provide a full fix for someone who has this issue ingrained in their muscles. As you develop and live day-to-day, your muscles grow accustomed to the movements and positions you find yourself in. Pandiculation helps to revert negative muscle memory into positive through active stretching.
Pandiculation requires that you first consciously contract the muscles, then consciously lengthen and stretch them. This reminds the brain that muscles do not have to continue staying contracted.
One way to do this is to do in movements that contract and release the psoas like marching in place in controlled movements.
You will undoubtedly have clients approach you to help solve lower back pain, a problem that stems from a multitude of different conditions. The average U.S. adult sits for 6.5 hours a day. That means that the average person probably has experienced back pain from a constricted psoas at some point in their lives. The psoas muscles should not go unnoticed in these cases. In fact, the consistent targeting of these muscles through stretches, restorative poses, and exercises could benefit anyone.