How to Release Tight Psoas Muscles

Women doing Pilates exercises.
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The psoas muscle is one of the most important muscles in the human body. It is located deep within the core and is attached to the spine and the hip. Without the psoas, everyday movement such as walking wouldn't be possible, since it is the only muscle that connects the spine to the legs. In addition to flexing the hip, this deep core muscle works to stabilize the spine and regulate breathing.

The psoas can become tight as a result of strain or overuse, resulting in lower back and leg pain. A tight psoas muscle is typically a byproduct of too much sitting or overuse from walking or physical activity such as running, bicycling, and even situps.

Advocates for Pilates will attest that a strong core is integral to the optimal function of the psoas muscle. Pilates exercises can offer release since they emphasize core engagement and deep breathing to promote trunk stability.

The Psoas Muscle Group

The psoas is part of the iliopsoas musculotendinous unit, which is commonly known as the iliopsoas muscle. It consists of the psoas major, psoas minor, and the iliacus, which work together to flex and rotates the thigh bone. As a large muscle located in the lumbar region of the spine, the psoas is the only muscle that connects the spine to the legs. It attaches at the bottom of the thoracic spine (T12) and along the lumbar (through L4), runs through the pelvis and over the hip joint, and connects at the top of the thigh bone (femur).

The psoas major is considered a hip flexor since it’d the leg closer to the torso. This means you use your psoas whenever you're walking, running, or performing any activity that flexes the hip. The psoas minor is a smaller muscle that runs along the top of the psoas to flex the torso forward.

The psoas also assists with side bends since it functions by eccentric contraction, which is when a muscle lengthens with exertion rather than shortens. Unlike surface muscles such as a bicep or quad, the psoas muscle isn’t visible on the outside of the body and can’t be flexed. It is essentially a deep core muscle that's essential to how the upper and lower body move and function together.

How a Tight Psoas Feels

A tight psoas is commonly associated with lower back pain. If your psoas muscle is tight, you may find that you've been compensating by arching your back.

When a psoas muscle is shortened and weakened it becomes harder to flex your hip. The psoas moves over the head of the femur in the hip socket and becomes constrained with overuse, which limits hip mobility. As a result, discomfort, pain, and aches in the front of the hip socket are also symptoms of tightened psoas muscles in the L4 region. This could affect your ability to climb a flight of stairs, walk uphill, stand up from sitting, or get up from lying down.

In the upper psoas, tension and shortness of breath is often a symptom of tightness. The diaphragm connects to T12 at the bottom of the thoracic spine, causing a restriction in the abdomen and limitation of the breath. Not only is the psoas a deep core muscle (and a Pilates powerhouse muscle), but it is also linked to the central nervous system.

The Pelvis and SI Joint Connection

The psoas becomes tight when it has to compensate for overstretched or torn ligaments as a result of dysfunction in the sacroiliac (SI) joint, which connects your spine to your pelvis.

Biomechanical descriptions of the psoas classify the psoas as a hip flexor. But Liz Koch, author of "The Psoas Book and Core Awareness: Enhancing Yoga, Pilates, Exercise, and Dance," believes that the psoas is neutral since it literally grows out of the spine. She says that it's more like a messenger of the midline than a hip flexor.

Koch, who has been investigating, teaching, and writing about the psoas for over 30 years, says that pelvic stability and neutrality is more about balance more than anything else. Problems with the psoas can signal an imbalance in the SI joint or pelvis. For instance, if your pelvis moves with your leg instead of from your core, you will likely develop tight psoas. Over time, this static, unnatural movement pattern causes the psoas to lose its supple dynamic behavior as it starts to shrink and create tension.

Pilates teaches how to perform exercises from the core or midline, which can help you maintain the function of your hip from the core versus the leg. In other words, you cannot approach your body's movements assuming that the spine is static and the legs are what's moving the body. According to the Pilates Method, movement should originate from the core.

Many people turn to Pilates to rehabilitate from injury to their SI joint. Working on the abdominals and the muscles surrounding the pelvis will help restabilize the joint during recovery.

The majority of psoas issues stem from sacroiliac joints (SI) that are overstretched or ligaments that are torn, which ultimately shortens and weakens the psoas muscles.

How to Release a Tight Psoas Muscle

Pilates instructs that the spine is not static and movement should be facilitated from the core. Engagement of the core takes practice but is the key to developing torso and hip stability. This can help keep the psoas strong and lengthened since the muscle is involved in core function.

Performing exercises with a strong core can allow each movement to feel lighter and less forced. Koch says that rather than resisting gravity, you can work with it and feel supported and lifted when you engage your core. Proponents of Pilates say that movement from the core cultivates more grace, ease, and agility in everyday life, which is likely why the method has long appealed to dancers.

Similar to yoga, Pilates focuses on muscular engagement, alignment, and breath. Though Pilates exercises are different from yoga postures, there is some overlap between the teachings of the two modalities. The following Pilates and yoga exercises can help release the psoas muscle and facilitate deep diaphragmatic breathing to soothe the nervous system.

  • Psoas Stretch: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Bring one knee toward your chest and extend the other leg long. Try to avoid overarching your lower back.
  • Boat Pose: From a seated position bring both feet to the floor and place your hands on your hamstrings as you lift your shins, keeping your knees bent. Straighten the legs to form a V-shape as you reach your arms out in front of you. Try to maintain a tall and upright spine.
  • Modified Gate Pose: From hands and knees, extend one leg out to the side and turn the toes in slightly to press firmly into the outside edge of the foot. Cycle through a few rounds of mini Cat-Cow stretches by extending and flexing your spine—similar to pelvic tilts—to work your psoas muscle.
  • Pyramid Pose: From Downward Dog, step one foot forward between your hands and hop the back foot in slightly so you can turn the back toes in and press firmly into the outer edge of the foot. Soften the knees and fold the torso forward.
  • Tree Pose: From Mountain Pose, shift your weight into one foot and bring the sole of the other foot to the inside of the calf or inner thigh. Keep your hands on your hips, bring them together in front of your chest, or extend the arms overhead.
  • Constructive Rest: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Rest your arms wherever is comfortable—either by your sides or out wide. You could also bend the elbows. Optional: extend one leg out long at a time. Koch says one of the best ways to release the best psoas is constructive rest. She says it's a position that's more about being than it is doing. Constructive rest allows the psoas and lower back to release, which regulates the central nervous system.

According to Koch, when it comes to exercise and tight psoas muscles, it's not what you do but how you do it, which can, in turn, affect how you move. If your intention is to relax the psoas, you will likely move from a place of lightness and ease rather than tightness and rigidity.

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