Why I Want You to Care About Your Psoas

Your psoas is an amazing muscle which is fundamental to free movement, strength and wellbeing but our lifestyles are screwing it up.

Back in the 90s and 00s it was all about core stability and your transversus abdominis (TVA). We taught about layers of abdominal muscle and how strengthening them would magically restore your back to health. It was all about strength and core as if you had the ability to create a tube of supportive muscle. But in the past 10 years the psoas movement has gathered momentum. The more we know about this muscle, and the more I watch people move in my classes, the more I understand that movement and strength is about the combination of the psoas, the muscles of the back and the abdominals working together. 

Yes, there is a lot to be said for strengthening abdominal muscles. But a strong muscle without movement is like having your fish covered in beautiful batter when it’s raw on the inside.

So what is the psoas?

The psoas is our movement muscle. If you consider that it’s linked with the lumbar vertebrae, the pelvis and the femur (thigh) this is where human movement originates – although to be precise movement really starts before that with neurons firing and all that jazz.

Think of your psoas as the muscle responsible for getting you ready to run.

Your psoas is part of a group of muscles known as the hip flexors. There’s a psoas, an iliacus and a psoas minor. Together they are often referred to as the iliopsoas.

Your psoas is much more than a muscle that attaches your upper body to your lower body. It connects your spine with your pelvis and legs. It sits across the pelvic basin. It weaves its way from the vertebrae of the lumbar spine, across the sacrum and hips to the top of the femur.

According to scientists it is also some of the tenderest meat in your body, or at least, it should be. Your psoas should be juicy and tender.

But … for many of us the psoas is dysfunctional.

We sit down at our desks. We get stressed. We wear high heels. We play football. We play rugby. We run. We have babies. During pregnancy we sit down lots. Then once we’ve had the babies we don’t take time to restore those pre pregnancy movement patterns. We age. We run. We dry up. We think we’ve got old and therefore getting stiff is normal. We get back pain. We stop moving. We think yoga or Pilates or taking up cycling is the answer. We get frustrated. We seize up.

Our psoas gets dry and crusty.

Sitting down and not moving is just about the worst thing you can do for a major muscle that wants you to move. So get moving.

Psoas and back pain

Psoas dysfunction is associated with sacro iliac joint pain, lower back pain, pelvic floor dysfunction, abdominal separation, hip pain, pelvis pain, in fact the list is endless because for all of the above there’s a strong link between these issues and joints further away from the pelvis. If you have pain around the pelvis, it’s worth finding out from a movement specialist or physiotherapist what your psoas is up to and what exercises you can do to get it ripe and ready again.

One of the roles of the psoas is to stabilise the pelvis. Imagine your pelvis isn’t quite straight, it’s tipped forwards, as is the case with most high heel wearing postures or someone who’s pregnant or has recently had a baby. If that pelvis is constantly tipped forwards, the psoas is working constantly to stabilise the pelvis, so it’s sort of pulling it back again. It gets so worn out doing this crappy stabilising job that it becomes much harder to do the movement thing.

It’s something I notice a lot when I teach my older populations classes. Movement in the hips and pelvis becomes more rigid. It’s harder to re-train movement patterns because the body has got stiff.

Your psoas and your stress

Now here’s where I’m going to go a bit woo woo (although believe me this is tame compared with some psoas woo-woo-ism) – your psoas, as your ‘running’ muscle, is also massively affected by your fear or fight or flight response. When you get anxious or stressed, your body gets ready to run. As well as diverting blood to your muscles at times of stress, your psoas gets ready for action. Except when it’s a stressful phone call rather than a lion, we’re unlikely to run. It adds to its overuse and fatigue.

So where does this leave your psoas?

It is exhausted because it is doing a crappy stabilising job. It is often tight, weak and exhausted, which isn’t a great combination for physical health.

Your psoas wants to be a healthy, juicy, ready for action, super movement muscle.

So we need to Save Our Psoas (that’s almost an SOS if you’ll excuse the silent ‘p’ – apologies if you’ve read to here whilst mispronouncing it in your head).

How do we do that?

  1. We need to let the exhausted psoas relax, with muscle releases and massage. There are some great ideas in this article by Liz Koch https://www.yoganatomy.com/psoas-resources/.
  2. We need to re-train ideal movement patterns in the pelvis and hips – this is where classes like Pilates are great.
  3. We need to encourage the psoas to do the job it wants to do. Again, Pilates and yoga can be fantastic for this.
  4. We need to move more. And not just running. Multi-planar movements like dancing. Lift weights. Get a massage. Swim. Hike. Just don’t get a saggy bottom.
  5. Learn more about your psoas through books and asking questions. I’d thoroughly recommend finding out more about Liz Koch who’s a leading expert on the subject. This article is great and there’s a useful diagram too http://www.pilatesdigest.com/pilates-psoas-back-pain/.

I think we all need to understand our psoas a little better. By doing so we can help look after it so it can look after us well into our golden years.

Want to read a little more? Check out these articles:

Pilates is not an abs workout

You can also try this basic Pilates workout, part of Karen’s online Pilates programme.

2 Comments

  1. This is a really useful, article, thank you. I had never even heard of the psoas muscle before reading this. Now I have to motivate myself to make sure I am looking after mine!

    • Thanks Fay. I think it’s easy to forget when you’re an expert at something that it’s still all new to others. ‘Psoas theory’ for me is the fact that we need to train the back of our body drive our movement, whilst many are still so focused on the abs and front of the body.

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