It’s time for more Meet Your Muscle!
I’d like to introduce the Iliopsoas muscle, a key hip flexor (bringing your knee towards your chest) and a common source of lower back pain. First note that the Iliopsoas is actually made up of the Iliacus and the Psoas Major and Minor. In the lower back, they are separate muscles but once they cross the pelvis into the thigh they merge as one and are usually just referred to as the Iliopsoas, or inner hip muscle.
One of the most important features of the Iliopsoas is that it originates from either side of the spine in the back on the sides of the lumbar vertebrae and reaches across the body to attach in the front at the top of the inner thigh. Specifically, the psoas muscle is starting at the lateral surface of T12 and L1-5 vertebrae, merging with the iliacus in the concave surface of the pelvis and ending at the lesser trochanter of the femur. These landmarks aren’t as important to know as the fact that this muscle reaches from the spine in the back to the leg in the front and that abdominal work or hip flexion can lead to pain the lower back region even if you feel that you haven’t been working your lower back. For example, I tried the P90X Ab Ripper X program for the first time a few years back and was confused when the next day I couldn’t stand up from pain in my back above my sacrum (tailbone area). Critics have suggested that this P90X workout works hip flexors more than abdominals, but it certainly showed me that they definitely can work together even when you don’t realize it.
In Western culture, we spend a lot of time seated, be it in the car, at our desks or on the couch, keeping our hips in a flexed position (versus the extended position of standing). This and the fact that like most posture muscles, the iliopsoas is predominantly slow twitch fibres, makes the muscle susceptible to pathological shortening and contracture. Bodyworkers often candidly refer to this muscle as the Ilio-So’-Ass, and for good reason :) (NB - There are two types of muscles - slow and fast twitch - slow twitch fibers contract for long periods of time but with little force while fast twitch fibers contract quickly and powerfully but fatigue very rapidly - long periods of contracture lead to chronic shortening.)
So what do you do with your tight Iliopsoas muscle pulling on your lower back and upper thigh? How do you correct the contracture that is tilting your pelvis, compromising your posture and causing you pain? Good news! This is a very treatable condition with Massage Therapy. Put as much of a priority on recovery as you do exercise and book yourself an appointment with a competent therapist.
All of Massage Therapy is complimented by a consistent stretching routine, but if you cannot get a massage right now, be sure to add the “fencer’s stretch” to your recovery routine. Refer to the picture for the proper form, but what you want to do is rest on one knee and one foot, each bent at 90 degrees. Keeping your body upright, track your front knee forward until you feel a stretch in the opposite side of the hips. Breathe deeply and hold the stretch for at least 90 seconds per side, letting each exhale take tension away. Coax the muscle into it’s original length with the stretch’s duration, which is always more important than intensity when it comes to stretching.
This pose in yoga is often used to open the ‘front gate’ of the hips, a key step in developing freedom of motion in the joints this muscle crosses (i.e. the lumbosacral joint and the hip joint). Many people will place their opposite elbow on the leading knee to create a torso rotation, but it is well enough to stretch out the Iliopsoas by gently moving your knee forward and simply breathing deeply into the stretch. It is called the 'fencer’s stretch’ because it resembles the lunging stance a fencer makes when he strikes.
If you want to address other muscles that attach to the lower spine, look up the Quadratus Lumborum, another usual suspect in low back pain and easily treated/stretched back to it’s healthy length.
I hope you have enjoyed getting to know the Iliopsoas and creating a greater understanding and awareness of what is going on inside your body. Please feel free to make any requests of areas of the body you’d like to meet!