Tight Quad Muscles and How they Relate to Low Back Pain

Woman stretching quad on beach
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Are your quad muscles tight? If they are (as they tend to be in most people), they may be creating a chronic posture problem. There are two main mechanisms by which this can occur, and quite often both are at play at the same time.

First, by pulling the front of the pelvis down, tight quads can lead to tight and painful lower back muscles. Second, tight quads can contribute to weak hamstring muscles.

Hamstring muscles are the quads' opposing muscles; they are located at the back of your thigh.

Both scenarios affect your pelvic alignment, which in turn, may affect your posture and pain levels.

Here’s what happens:

Tight Quads Pull the Pelvis Down

The quadriceps are front-of-thigh muscles. Of the 4 that comprise this group, one if them, the rectus femoris, attaches onto the pelvis (on a place technically known as the anterior superior iliac spine, or ASIS for short). This means the rectus femoris is the only one in the quadriceps group that crosses over your hip joint (and effects movement there.)

Keep things simple by thinking of your ASIS as the front part of your hip bone. For your reference, the ASIS is a place you can actually touch.

When the quads, and especially the rectus femoris, get really tight, they pull on the hip bone, which in turn tips the whole pelvis downward, or forward, into a position technically called anterior tilt of the pelvis.

Because the spine wedges in between the two hip bones in back of the pelvis, as the pelvis is brought into a forward tilt by your tight quads, your lumbar spine goes with it. This tends to increase the arch in your lower back. An increased lower back arch, technically called excessive lordosis, is often accompanied by very tight (and painful) back muscles.

Tight quadriceps muscle also may result in weak or overstretched hamstring muscles.

Tight Quads Overpower Hamstrings

At the hip, the hamstring muscles attach on your sitting bones (those small bones you can feel when you spend a lot of time in your chair.) If you have good posture in general, most likely there's enough tone in your hamstrings at any given time to pull your pelvis down a bit in back. This is a good thing, because it helps keep the pelvis in the best position possible. 

But much of this back-protecting muscle tone can be lost if your quadriceps are tight. When your quads are too tight, as the pelvis is pulled down in front, there is a corresponding lift up in back, near where the sitting bones are. This puts the hamstring "on a stretch," as therapists like to say. If you don't strengthen you hamstrings and stretch your quads, most likely the hamstrings lose their ability to support your ideal pelvic and spinal positions.

How Do You Know When The Quadriceps Are Tight?

Because of our sedentary culture, and in particular how much time we spend seated every day, most of us have tight quadriceps.The more time you spend in a chair, the tighter these — as well as your lower back muscles — will likely get. 

Other than that quick lifestyle evaluation, how do you know if your quads are too tight?

Going to your doctor and/or physical therapist for a posture evaluation is perhaps the most accurate and reliable way to determine how tight your quadriceps muscles really are.

But there are also a few screening tests you can give yourself. For example: 

  1. Try standing up and push your hips forward. (Push from your sitting bones in order to target the correct level.) How far forward can you go and what does that feel like? If you have pain and/or limitation, you may have tight quadriceps.
  2. If you are able to assume a lunge position where one leg is forward (and bent) in front of the other, and the back leg is straight, ask yourself the same question as in #1. What does it feel like at the front of your hip of the back leg?
  3. If you do yoga, yet another way to tell if your quads are too tight is to reflect on your Warrior II pose (also known as Virabhadrasana II). This is a standing pose in which your front leg is bent and your back leg is straight. If you have tight quadriceps (and psoas) muscles, you'll likely feel it in your back leg in this pose.
  4. Another yoga pose with tell-tale signs for tight quadriceps is the camel pose. The camel pose puts the quads on a stretch. From a kneeling position, and depending on your level of ability (and flexibility), arch back gently, with the ultimate goal of grasping your ankles behind you. Be sure to modify the pose to accommodate any pain or joint issues you may have. If you need to prop up and modify the pose a lot in order to tolerate the pain, chances are your quadriceps are tight.
  1. Finally, if you can easily touch your toes while bending at your hip joints (and not your lower back), this is another possible sign that your quads may be too tight.

What to Do for Your Tight Quads

The fix for chronically tight quad muscles is certainly simple enough — stretch them! Here are a few to get you started: Quadriceps Stretches.

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