Updated: Feb 4, 2021
Let's break down the mysteries behind how hips work, and what can happen when they don't. This week we're focusing on functional anatomy and the all powerful psoas.
Ah, the hips. Such a small and simple word for such a complex structure. Arguably the primary engine behind all powerful movement, your hips can also be stiff, weak, checked out, and your biggest source of ongoing pain. But one of the most effective tools for addressing such issues is to have a better understanding of how this part of your body actually works. So today we're going to delve into some of the amazing muscles and structures that allow your hips to preform their crucial duties, and along the way we'll address some things that can go wrong.
First, let's clarify some terms. For the sake of this post, "hips" will refer to your pelvis, sacrum, and all the muscles and soft tissue woven in and around those bones. Healthy hips have the ideal balance of flexibility and strength- they will move freely but not be unstable. Unfortunately, since bodies are imperfect machines, a person usually finds themselves on one side of the fence or the other- painfully tight hips that limit range of motion and produce little power, or overly mobile hips that lack stability and leave the body at risk for injury. Often we get so hung up on things being tight we forget that what we should really be aiming for is elasticity.
Your hips can move in 4 primary ways- flexion, extension, abduction, adduction. Flexion would be your typical squat (or chair pose for you yogis). Abduction- raise your leg out to the side away from your body. Adduction- bring your leg in toward your body. And extension- when you lift your leg behind you, like with a donkey kick or bridge exercise. Your hips are also able to rotate through a combination of all the movements above.
Now most people are familiar with the basic exercises that are associated with these movements. Whenever I go to the gym (or back when I used to...) I would always see a line of people trying to use the hip abduction machine, probably because they read in some magazine that it would give them a perky butt. And to some degree that could be true. But the issue with using such single movement machines is it robs you of a crucial thing- the need for stability. Your hip muscles are not made to act independently of each other. Indeed NONE of your muscles in your body are made to act independently. While there may be a single muscle group primarily powering the exercise, that group is relying on all the surrounding musculature for support and assistance. And when those supporting muscles are unable to do their job, the whole chain of movement suffers.
This brings us to the star of our discussion- the psoas. You may already know about the psoas (especially if you've had a massage with me), but don't feel bad if it isn't familiar. It's a rather sly muscle- tucked away on the back of our abdominal way, unassuming but oh so important.
For a long time the psoas has been called your primary hip flexor. This means when you take a step to walk up a stair, your psoas is lifting your leg. When you're on your back holding your legs up in boat pose, your psoas engages to raise your legs. And while there has been debate if this title is actually true and your psoas is powering these movements, it's undeniable that the muscle is involved in all hip flexion. It's also important for stabilization of the your hip joint because it's the only muscle that connects your low back to your femurs.
But why does this muscle matter when it comes to hip health? Because right now, thanks to Covid and computers and school and life, we sit. A LOT. And when you sit your psoas becomes shortened (hip flexion, remember). This shortening isn't a problem in and of itself. A short and relaxed psoas won't cause pain as long as the hips are flexed. The problem comes when you have to stand up. Standing requires the psoas to lengthen so the hips can come out of flexion, which it might not be inclined to do if it's spending a significant amount of time doing the opposite. The result is strain on your lumbar spine, where the psoas originates. Your lumbar spine is already a somewhat vulnerable area because it does not have other bones to reinforce its stability. Therefore a tight psoas is able to pull the vertebrae forward and down, causing a more exaggerated curve and, worst case, disc compression. If you couple this with tight quads (which are almost universal) your entire pelvis can tilt forward and down, impacting the balance and biomechanics of all movement involving the hip area.
Now, after all that doom and gloom, the main question on your mind is probably "how do I address this?" As with any other muscular imbalance, there is not silver bullet- it takes a combination of tactics and, most importantly, consistency. But the good news is these tactics are fairly simple, and we'll start with the most basic-
Move your body! If you have a long day in front of the computer, prioritize opportunities to stand up and have a stretch. While taking a walk around the block is great, doing 5 minutes of stretching and mobility is also very beneficial. I have some suggested stretches at the end of the post.
It may seem counter intuitive to strength train a tight muscle, but just because a muscle is shortened and inflexible does not mean it's strong. Strengthening a stressed out muscle allows the body to use this muscle fully, instead of going into "protection mode" and locking the area down. You can find some good psoas strength here-
While I'm a big fan of foam rolling, the location of this muscle makes it very difficult to self-massage. There are a few gadgets on the market that claim to specifically target your psoas, but I have not tried any and therefore cannot personally recommend them. But I would love to hear feedback from anyone who has! However, nothing replaces a professional massage from a licensed and qualified practitioner when it comes to releasing this muscle.
It can be a little tricky to stretch this muscle- you typically won't feel an isolated "pull" like you do when you stretch your hamstrings or quads. But if you stretch in a way that addresses your hips holistically, it can be beneficial. And my top recommendation for that are some yoga poses. If you don't consider yourself a yoga person, don't be turned off by this suggestion. These poses are simple and accessible for beginners.
20 minute flow (highly recommend)
I hope you've found this run down on the psoas helpful and informative. It's an amazing muscle that deserves our attention! If you have any questions (or just want to nerd out on some anatomy with me) drop a comment or send me an email.
Have a great day, friends!