What Having Tight Psoas Muscles Actually Mean

Learn Why Liz Koch Doesn't Call Your Psoas a Hip Flexor

Women doing Pilates exercises.
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The psoas muscle lies deep in the core of the body. For those of us in Pilates and other exercise sciences, where attention to the core is paramount, the psoas is an important yet enigmatic muscle. Our understanding of what the psoas is and its role in the body is still changing. One of the reasons for that is the work of expert Liz Koch, who has been investigating, teaching, and writing about the psoas for over thirty years.

In my interview with Liz Koch, I wanted to explore the unique nature of the psoas as well as how to work with the psoas through movement and release with some Pilates-specific questions. Here is what I learned. 

How to Know If Your Psoas Is Tight 

The psoas is not only a core muscle (and a Pilates powerhouse muscle), but it is also a primitive messenger of the central nervous system. According to Koch, the psoas reflects any incoherency in your core or disruption in the way your body is responding to gravity.

The most obvious symptom of a tight psoas is restriction in the hip socket. The psoas literally moves over the ball of the femur head so when it is tight, it constrains rotation in the socket. Discomfort, pain, and aches in the front of the hip socket are symptoms of a tight lower psoas.

In the upper psoas, the symptom that is most prevalent is the sense of holding or tension in the solar plexus.

This tension can push the diaphragm forward so that you’ll see limitation in the breath, a pulling up, compression, and a restricted belly. While low back pain is associated with tension in the psoas, the causal relationship is actually the other way around: the tight psoas is messaging an imbalance along the spine.

Why Your Psoas May Be Tight

Now why is the psoas tight? It’s tight because it is compensating for some disruption along the midline,  usually overstretched or torn ligaments. In the Pilates world, the first thing we'd look at according to Koch is sacral iliac (SI) joint dysfunction and/or pelvic imbalance. When the psoas muscle must compensate for dysfunction, it begins to shrink. Over time, if we engage the psoas in a static holding pattern like this, it begins to lose its supple dynamic behavior; it shrinks and creates tension.

The Relationship Between You Psoas, Pelvis, and SI Joints

In the biomechanical description of the psoas, the psoas is a flexor because it comes from the front of the body moving forward. But Koch doesn't think of the psoas as a hip flexor because the psoas is neutral; it literally grows out of the spine. She thinks of it more like a messenger of the midline.

Problems with the psoas can signal a sacroiliac joint/pelvic imbalance. For instance, if your pelvis moves with your leg or one ileum moves without the other, you are going to have psoas problems because the pelvis should be acting as part of the core, not move with the leg.

When we talk about pelvic stability and a neutral pelvis in Pilates, what we should be looking for is a balanced pelvis, says Koch. The majority of psaos issues stem from sacroiliac joints (SI) that are over stretched or ligaments that are torn, which ultimately shortens and weakens the psoas muscles.

Many times, people will injure their SI doing some other activity and then end up in Pilates to heal them. You can get some of that balance back by working on the abdominals and the muscles around the pelvis, but ultimately you have to heal the sacroiliac joints. Otherwise, the moment you lose the tone of your musculature, the skeletal disruption shows up again, starting the cycle again. 

How You Exercise Affects Your Psoas

According to Koch, when it comes to exercise and tight psoas muscles, it's not what you do it's how you do it. It's more about the impulse before the exercise movement. If the impulse behind the movement is to keep the psoas supple, you are going to move from a very different place than if you think the impulse is to activate it or anchor it in some way, which creates tightness and rigidity.

How to Exercise with a Psoas-Friendly Approach

First, you cannot approach your body's movements assuming that the spine is static and the legs are moving the body. In the embryonic model, the model Koch follows, every movement comes from the core, which is where exercise should begin.

First, you must let go of the idea that you have to anchor. It's just a little shift to go from the idea that you are moving from a stable core to moving out from a supple core, which is what you want. But this requires a certain level of awareness, which must be cultivated.

Koch believes that this can start with Pilates instructors, who should approach exercise and movement in terms of layers. When you think of layers, movement senses differently on each layer. For instance, the psoas transfers weight down into the earth while the toned abdominals express up. It's that "buoyancy" you're looking for rather than controlling movement by locking down tissue. If you don’t resist gravity, but instead sense its flow, Koch said, you can feel a natural rebound that comes up and supports these movements of lift

How to Help Release a Tight Psoas

According to Koch, the best psoas release for most people, at least in the beginning, is constructive rest. It's a being (not doing) position, she says. Before you exercise or at the end of the day, constructive rest changes the whole expression of the central nervous system which is inherently linked to your psoas. Remember, your psoas is a messenger of the central nervous system: a bridge between upper and lower body, between the enteric brain and the gut brain, and expresses the messaging between sympathetic and parasympathetic. There's a lot going on in constructive rest, but you're not doing it. You just allow it to happen.

More About Liz Koch

Liz Koch is the author of The Psoas Book and Core Awareness: Enhancing Yoga, Pilates, Exercise, and Dance as well as many articles on the psoas. 2011 marks the 30th anniversary of The Psoas Book. She teaches workshops throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe and tele-classes are regularly available to everyone. More information and a complete list of class schedules are available online at coreawareness.com.

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