Activating Your Psoas
Written by Melissa Hurley
Now that you have a picture in your mind of the psoas from our last blog, “Where is my Psoas and Why is it Important”, let’s see if we can feel it contracting. A weak and overstretched psoas can contribute to a common postural problem in which the pelvis is pushed forward of the chest and knees, contributing to a flattened lumbar spine. Without its normal curve, the low back is weakened and vulnerable to injury, especially at the intervertebral discs. When the psoas contracts, it will pull the femur and the spine closer together (hip flexion).
Strengthening and lengthening the psoas can release habitual muscle-holding patterns, improve your low-back alignment, and create a more balanced posture. Let’s start with the bridge pose.
Set it up:
1. Lie down on the ground with your knees bent.
2. Keep your legs and feet parallel and hip-distance apart.
3. Move your feet closer to the buttocks.
4. Grasp your ankles, bringing your fingers around the front of the ankle. (If you can’t reach, put a belt around the front of your ankles and grasp it with both hands.)
5. Press down firmly through the entire foot and raise the hips.
Begin to lift your pelvis off the floor, lifting your tailbone first. This simple action sets the pelvis into a posterior tilt, and, if your hip flexors are lengthened enough, helps you keep space in your low back. As you continue to roll up into bridge pose, press your pubic bones up into the skin of your lower abdomen. Hold the pose for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat the pose two more times; as the hip flexors lengthen, you may find that you can go deeper and lift higher.
A variation of the bridge involves placing a block between your feet, grounding down through the big toe and inner heel, and squeeze a second block between your knees. The blocks ensure that your thighs remain parallel throughout the pose to prevent the psoas muscles from externally rotating the hips while extending them, which can contribute to low back compression and knee pain.
Let’s continue to recruit your psoas through the 90’ leg lift. The psoas should fire with the deep muscles – transversus abdominals, pelvic flooring, and diaphragm – to help centrate the femoral head.
Set it up:
1. Lie down on your back with your feet against the wall.
2. Keep your knees and hips bent at 90 degree angles.
3. Feet flat against the wall and hip-distance apart.
4. Place your hands on your rectus femoris and Tensor Fasciae Latae (located just below your hip bone). Focus on keeping these relaxed through hip flexion.
5. Breathe in through lower abdomen, breathe into sides, performing slight transverse abdominal activation.
6. Slowly start to lift one leg off the wall, initiating the psoas, without engaging the rectus femoris and TFL.
The initiation should happen through the psoas. If you lift the leg too high you will feel your rectus femoris and TFL tighten and begin to do the lifting. Avoid letting these superficial muscles take control and focus deep within to contract your psoas.
If you want to take it up a notch, the Full Boat is a challenging pose, working not only the psoas, but also the abdominals, the back muscles, and the quadriceps.
1. Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. Press your hands on the floor a little behind your hips, fingers pointing toward the feet, and strengthen the arms. Lift through the top of the sternum and lean back slightly. As you do this make sure your back doesn’t round; continue to lengthen the front of your torso between the pubis and top sternum. Sit on the “tripod” of your two sitting bones and tailbone.
2. Exhale and bend your knees, then lift your feet off the floor, so that the thighs are angled about 45-50 degrees relative to the floor. Lengthen your tailbone into the floor and lift your pubis toward your navel. If possible, slowly straighten your knees, raising the tips of your toes slightly above the level of your eyes. If this isn’t possible remain with your knees bent, perhaps lifting the shins parallel to the floor.
3. Stretch your arms alongside the legs, parallel to each other and the floor. Spread the shoulder blades across your back and reach strongly out through the fingers. If this isn’t possible, keep the hands on the floor beside your hips or hold on to the backs of your thighs.
4. While the lower belly should be firm, it shouldn’t get hard and thick. Try to keep the lower belly relatively flat. Press the heads of the thigh bones toward the floor to help anchor the pose and lift the top sternum. Breathe easily. Tip the chin slightly toward the sternum so the base of the skull lifts slightly away from the back of the neck.
5. At first stay in the pose for 10-20 seconds. Gradually increase the time of your stay to 1 minute. Release the legs with an exhalation and sit upright on an inhalation.
The lower front belly should never get hard. If having your legs out straight compromises your position, don’t hesitate to bend your knees. Even with your knees still bent, the psoas has to work harder, as it’s now holding up the weight of your torso plus the weight of your legs against gravity’s pull. The psoas acts like a guy-wire between your spine and the thighs to hold the beautiful V shape of the pose.
A healthy iliopsoas is important for all the movements that you do in daily life. So it is vital you take the time to strengthen and lengthen these muscles to get the most out of your workouts and to prevent injuries. Releasing that tight psoas is also very important, which we will talk about in our next blog, “Releasing your Psoas”. If problems persist seeing a physical therapist or massage therapist can help alleviate pain and alignment problems.