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Don't Underestimate your Hip Flexors

Published by Ingo Zirpins, MSPT 02/11/2020

The psoas (pronounced SO-az)  has its name derived from the Greek  ψόας, psóās, meaning “of the loins.” Some call it “the Muscle of Soul,” as it is structurally the deepest muscle in your core. It is also the body’s most powerful hip flexor.  Many might recognize it by another name, when being served a cow’s hip flexor on a meal, aka a “Filet Mignon.”

 Whether you run, walk, sit, dance or just hang out on the couch, the psoas muscles are involved in almost every movement activity involving your back and legs. This is because the psoas muscles have attachment points from the 12th mid back (thoracic) vertebra to the 4th lower back vertebra before weaving themselves through your abdominal cavity, to finally attach to your thighbones. They are the only muscles that connect the spine to your legs.

The psoas muscles are very busy muscles. Considering that they help you to advance your legs when walking or running, the left and right psoas each contract and lengthen more than 4,000 times on an average 30 minute jog.  They also afford you to bend your hips and legs to your chest, help you to pull the legs together or roll them out like a ballet dancer, stabilize your back on top of the hip in standing or sitting and help you to bend forward to pick up something from the floor. More-so, the psoas muscles also support your inner organs and act as pumps in the movement of the lymph in your core.

Many people  have some chronic tightness in their hip flexors, whether it is from overuse during athletic training or due to adaptive shortening from limited movement, such as prolonged sitting or sleeping in fetal position. Psoas tension is also linked to physical and emotional trauma. Due to its deep location, it tends to tighten with stress or fear, and the letting go of this tension can trigger a deeper emotional release.

A tight psoas muscle can elicit many different types of symptoms, such as tension, spasms, and pain in the lower back, hips, buttocks, pelvis, or groin. It could cause radiating pains down your leg. It could shift your pelvis and make it appear that you have a leg length discrepancy.  Some have a snapping hip syndrome or might develop a limp. It could cause lumbar disc problems, as it continuously pulls on your lower back and it could also limit you from standing upright.

Please be aware that many of these symptoms, especially low back pains, could also mimic more serious conditions, and you should consult your primary healthcare provider if you have any of those symptoms.

Static stretching can bring intermittent relief to tight psoas muscles. Static stretching is considered holding a muscle at maximum available length for a period of 30 seconds or more. A lunge is a classic deep hip flexor stretch.  It has been shown, though, that such stretching does not really release the involuntary muscle contraction, as the nervous system has learned to maintain a level of core tension based on your most common holding patterns. In other words, your nervous system will pull the muscle tight again, soon after you release your stretch. 

Ideally, you would want to actively stretch, or pandiculate, like dogs or cats do when they first get up after lying around for a while. Pandiculation is like a “reset button,” informing your brain about the level of contraction in your muscles.  It is said that when done regularly, it can help resolve muscle tightness, lengthen shortened muscles, and restore overall muscle control.

There are 3 steps to follow with proper active stretching: 1) gently contract the tense muscle, 2) slowly lengthen the muscle while resisting, and then  3) relax all muscles and allow the brain to integrate the information. This should not be painful!  Look below, to see some examples for effective active hip flexor stretches.

If you are suffering from tight hip flexors, you might also want to address the causes by taking microbreaks from prolonged sitting, adding support to your lower back in your chairs, lay off extreme exercises, get a massage, and, not to forget, check with your local physical therapist or personal trainer for more detailed guidance.

Liberating your  psoas muscles will help you liberate the way you hold your body in this world. 

Move better, live better.

psoas stretching
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