Releasing your Tight Psoas Muscle with Clinical Somatics exercises

Releasing your Tight Psoas Muscle with Clinical Somatics

What is the psoas muscle?

The psoas muscle, formally called the psoas major, is a very important core muscle. The psoas attaches the lumbar vertebrae to the lesser trochanter, near the head of the femur. The psoas muscle is often grouped together with the iliacus muscle, and together they are referred to as the iliopsoas. Due to its location deep within the core of the body, the psoas is difficult to feel with your hands and to sense internally.

psoas muscle diagram

What does the psoas muscle do?

The psoas muscle performs several important actions:

  • The psoas flexes the hip, meaning that when it contracts it brings the knee in toward the stomach. If you spend a lot of time sitting, your psoas is likely tight as a result of spending so much time in a shortened state.

  • The psoas laterally rotates the hip, allowing you to stand like a ballet dancer with your feet pointed outward. Dancers often have a great deal of tightness in their psoas muscle.

  • The psoas adducts the hip, bringing the leg in toward the center of the body. If you squeeze your knees together, you are engaging your adductors.

  • Because of its attachments to the lumbar vertebrae, the psoas muscle contributes to lateral tilting of the pelvis (hiking the hips up one at a time) and lateral flexion of the spine (bending the spine to one side).

What happens when the psoas muscle is tight?

The most common condition resulting from a tight psoas muscle is back pain. When your psoas is tight and you are standing up, the contraction of the muscle brings the lower back into hyperlordosis, or a greater than normal degree of arching. This arching of the lower back compresses the vertebrae and brings all of the lower back muscles into a shortened state. The result is muscular tension and pain, disc problems, sciatica, and a tendency to throw the lower back into spasm.

A tight psoas muscle also causes or contributes to a number of other conditions, including hip pain, groin pain, uneven leg length, scoliosis, instability in the core of the body, and limited flexibility in the lower back.

Using Clinical Somatics exercises to release your tight psoas muscle

It’s safe to say that most people, from office workers to professional athletes, have some chronic tightness in their psoas muscle. It is widely believed that you can release a tight psoas by stretching, but in my experience, stretching does very little to release involuntary muscle contraction. You can read more about why stretching doesn’t work here.

As a former ballet dancer, I used to have an extremely tight psoas muscle, which caused me to have back pain, back spasms, and uneven leg length. In the course of my training to become a Clinical Somatic Educator, I learned the technique of pandiculation, which allowed me to finally release years of built-up tightness in my psoas. Pandiculation resets the alpha-gamma loop, a feedback loop in the nervous system that regulates the resting level of muscle tension. As I practiced Clinical Somatics exercises daily, my psoas muscle gradually lengthened, my back pain and spasms disappeared, and my hips evened out.

It’s important to understand that tightness in a single muscle is never the sole cause of a painful condition or limitation. Every movement that we make involves many muscles working together, so every pattern of tension that we habituate involves chronic tightness in a number of muscles. You must work with the entire pattern of tension in order to relieve your problem. So while we teach a highly effective psoas release exercise in Clinical Somatics, we still always work with the entire pattern of tension.

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About the Author:

Sarah Warren St. Pierre is a Certified Clinical Somatic Educator and owner of Somatic Movement Center. She has helped people with conditions such as chronic back pain, neck and shoulder pain, hip and knee pain, sciatica, and scoliosis become pain-free by practicing Thomas Hanna's method of Clinical Somatic Education. St. Pierre is the author of the book Why We're in Pain, which explains the science behind why learned muscular patterns lead to chronic pain and degeneration.