Personal & Athletic Training in St. John's, Newfoundland

The Iliopsoas: Tightness or Weakness?

By jonerikkawamoto | In Rehabilitation | On January 24th, 2012

Jon-Erik Kawamoto fitness coachThe Deep Hip Flexor is the deep muscle (close to your lumbar spine) that brings your knee upward resulting in flexion at your hip joint.

The Deep Hip Flexor is actually made up of two muscles: 1) The Psoas Major and 2) the Illiacus but is commonly referred to as the Iliopsoas because these muscles share a common tendon.

For all you anatomy geeks out there:

Psoas Major:

Origin: Anterior surfaces and lower borders of transverse processes of L1-L5

Insertion: Lesser trochanter of femur inserts as iliopsoas tendon

Action: flexion at the hip joint, external rotation, bends lumbar vertebral column

Illiacus:

Origin: Iliac fossa and crest; ala of sacrum

Insertion: Lesser trochanter of femur inserts as iliopsoas tendon

Action: Flexion and external rotation at hip joint; ipsilateral (same side) bending of trunk, raises trunk from supine position

Commonly, runners develop weakness in this muscle.  Unless you’re sprinting, the iliopsoas isn’t really worked at slower paced running – the other hip flexors (rectus femoris (part of the quadriceps), sartorius and tensor fasciae latae, which are superficial) tend to take over – because the hip angle does not reach greater than 90 degrees, which is where the iliopsoas activates more in relation to the more superficial hip flexors.  Since middle-long distance running takes place below a hip angle of 90 degrees, the deep hip flexor can weaken over time.

Check if you’re weak: Stand super tall and bring one knee to your chest.  Bring it super high, well above 90 degrees.  

Keep it there for 30 seconds.  Did your low back round?  Did you round forward to “meet” your thigh?  Were you not able to hold your thigh above 90 degrees?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, you have weak deep hip flexors (either uni- or bi-lateral).

If you felt a fatigue-feeling or cramp deep in your stomach, while keeping the thigh above 90 degrees for the full 30 seconds, your deep hip flexors are probably sound.

This drill is one of my favourites to activate the iliopsoas prior to a run or workout.  Place a band around your feet.  
Bring both knees to your chest.  Press one leg away, keeping the opposite thigh tight with your stomach.  Hold for 5 seconds and repeat.

However, having said that, the iliopsoas can also be tight and short because of all the sitting we do.  A tight iliopsoas pulls the lumbar spine anteriorly, creating a large lordosis of the lumbar spine and a subsequent anterior pelvic tilt.

Running with an anteriorly rotated pelvis restricts how much hip flexion you can achieve when running at faster paces. This would negatively affect your stride length and obviously your running performance.

Test to see if you have tight deep hip flexors:

Lie on a coffee table or bed.  Let one leg hang over the end and hug the opposite leg.  Only hug enough to keep a neutral pelvis and lumbar spine **Note: if you hug too tightly, your pelvis will posteriorly rotate and pull your “down” thigh upward.  This will give a false positive reading.

Your “down” leg should be in contact with the end of the table if your one joint hip flexor (iliopsoas) length is “normal.”  If your “down” thigh is hovering in mid-air, it’s too tight and short.

If you’re tight, sorry to kick you when you’re down, but you may also suffer from lower cross syndrome.  This is a syndrome found by Professor V Yanda and describes this anterior pelvic tilt and hyper lumbar lordosis as resulting from tight hip flexors, weak abdominals, weak gluteals and weak and/or tight lumbar extensors.

Glute and core training are a must in addition to hip flexor lengthening to fix this problem.  Long term lower cross syndrome and hyper lumbar lordosis can result in lumbar disfunction including:

  • disc degeneration,
  • spondylosis (degeneration of lumbar spine),
  • spondylolysis (vertebral defect),
  • spondylolisthesis (vertebral anterior or posterior displacement).

If your iliopsoas is tight, add in this hip flexor stretch with core activation into your routine.  The core activation is essential to maintain a neutral spine – remember, the iliopsoas will pull your lumbar curve into hyper lordosis, so in order to prevent that from happening when you’re trying to stretch the muscle, the core needs to be activated to maintain neutral spine.

See the picture below: Kneel on the side that is tight.  Place the opposite leg forward. Get tall and tight, squeeze your glutes on your kneeling side and press your arms straight into a rod or table that is roughly chest height (when in this 1/2 kneeling position).  You should feel a stretch in the front of your kneeling leg hip.  Hold for 6 to 30 seconds depending on if it’s before or after a run.

The iliopsoas also has 3 trigger points that when present, can refer pain in the lumbar region or along the thigh.  Active Release Techniques, a type of massage therapy may be required to remove these trigger points.

So there you go.  Iliopsoas strengthening and lengthening exercises.

See where you’re at and judge accordingly.

Thanks for reading and RUN STRONG.

Please leave your comments below.

Oh ya, share this post with your running friends so they can benefit from the content too :)

-JK

7 Responses to “The Iliopsoas: Tightness or Weakness?”

  1. tuftug Says:

    Great read. I like the way you explained the subject.
    thanks.

  2. o shah Says:

    does a tight hip flexor mean that those muscles are overdeveloped and strong enough as it is and hence you need to stretch them out? I;m finding i have pain in that region when i squat, but i’ve always thought it’s because i have weak hip flexors?

  3. Jon-Erik Kawamoto, CSCS, CEP Says:

    Tight hip flexors can result from sitting too much but they can also result from a lack of core stability (because they attach directly onto the lumbar spine). Correcting for a lack of stability (plank variations) might release your tight hip flexors without even stretching them. Might be a good time to do some single leg squatting variations (which can help open up the front of your hips) for a while – they shouldn’t result in pain in that region you speak of. After single leg training and core stability training, try the bilateral squat again and reassess. Cheers.

  4. o shah Says:

    So tightness in the hips is the result of weakness in the muscles around the hips. That’s what others seem to be saying as well. Fellow Canadian fitness coach, Adrian Crowe, on his youtube channel discourages hip flexor stretches and recommends doing elevated glute bridges instead. In fact, he states that tight hip flexors are also weak and also recommends doing hip flexion strengthening exercises.

    Some fitness professionals are totally against hip flexor stretches like hip extensions and go so far to state that they are dangerous. See the following article (particular the cross link on point 3 in below article)
    http://www.thebodymechanic.ca/2012/03/31/are-you-sure-your-hip-flexors-are-tight-if-so-why-and-who-cares/

    Dean Somerset is also against stretching the hips, but i’m not sure if I understand his reasoning. See http://deansomerset.com/2012/05/24/some-reasons-why-you-should-stop-stretching-your-hip-flexors/

    I’m not a proponent generalized statements that say to completely avoid doing a thing (just like i don’t avoid doing crunches), but i was wondering what you thought of those articles?

    Btw as per your recommendations I did some plank warmups in addition to performing glute activation exercises as recommended by Dean and overhead squat/lunges as per Jarueba Taylor and i found my hips opened up much better during the squat. I appreciate the feedback.

  5. Jon-Erik Kawamoto, CSCS, CEP Says:

    I don’t like saying generalized statements either, especially ones that make a strong conclusive point. I’m a huge fan of Dean’s work and actually, have never been to the body mechanic’s webpage before. I agree with most of their points as well. Tightness of the hip flexors, in my experience, usually results as a compensation from weaknesses in other body areas, for example the core stabilizers as I mentioned previously. Or, a muscle may become tight or restricted to lengthening because it’s guarding or protecting a joint – think of a tight hamstring in an ACL injured leg. There are too many variables to consider and a full assessment is required to make accurate recommendations. What you’re doing seems to be working and that’s the best we can do: choose individually specific strategies to help us move and function better.

  6. Danny Messina Says:

    Awesome information im excited in getting in control of this rather than vise versa. I’ve been dealing with this for so long and it has been effecting my mid back/spine for a few years now and has been torcher even just not knowing what it was. appreciate the advice and from what I got maybe its a good idea to strengthen and then stretches what do you guys think of that theory? If so should I completely build up for months till really strong and then stretch or maybe after a few weeks of strengthening begin to get stretches in? Or both can’t hurt? im very analytical on processes sorry for the precision im looking for, just want to do it the best way for fastest strengthening but more importantly long term although I wouldn’t doubt they go hand in hand.

  7. Jon-Erik Kawamoto, CSCS, CEP Says:

    I would incorporate strengthening and stretching in the same program, but I would also focus on improve core function and core stability. Learn what neural spine is and be able to keep it during a simple front, side and back plank. Remember, the hip flexors can become over active or tight by compensating for a weak core. I hope that helps. Good luck.

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