Having a tight psoas can lead to pain, anterior pelvic tilt, and more. That's why I've created this ultimate guide on how to release your psoas. Not only will you learn 14 different methods for releasing it, but you'll also learn about other muscles that can cause your psoas to stay tight, which no one is talking about.
The Psoas Muscle
The psoas muscle is a deep muscle that starts in the lumbar spine and attaches to the inside of the femur, which is your thigh muscle. This positioning of the muscle allows it not only to stabilize and control the curvature of the lumbar spine but can also help control the hips during certain movements like flexion or external rotation.
And, of course, when you mention the psoas, you also must remember the iliacus. Which also attaches to the same spot on the hips, but instead of the spine, it attaches to the inside of the pelvis.
The Myofascial System
When you think of your fascia system, you can think of it as a shrink-wrap that goes around not only the muscles but the entire body, from the organs to bones to blood vessels. And because this fascia system acts similar to how a muscle does, it will actually create tension throughout the entire body, including the surrounding muscles which is how it gets tight.
Luckily for us, we can actually manipulate this fascia using massage techniques like myofascial release.
Myofascial release techniques on the psoas muscle have been shown to not only relieve lower back pain, but it has also been shown to improve hip mobility and even hyperlordosis, aka Anterior Pelvic Tilt.
And what's cool here is that we even have a specific fascia line that we can follow and work on called the Deep Front Fascia Line.
The Deep Front Fascia Line
The DFFL is a fascia line that runs from the deep calf muscles through the stomach and psoas muscles into the diaphragm and finally ends in the deep cervical flexors of the neck.
This is one of those lines that's designed to create stability within the spine, pelvis, and head. But, if this fascia line remains unstable, weak, and without proper tonus, meaning tightness; Then this fascia line can prevent your hips from opening up back into extension.
And sadly, having a tight DFFL will go unnoticed until it begins to affect your other fascia lines and put more stress on your other joints and tissues. Which is the main problem when the source is really coming from here.
Like I said earlier, the only way to really fix this is by using self-massage techniques like the myofascial release on the psoas and the muscles surrounding them, which I'll be showing you how to do after going over some quick assessments and the rules of myofascial release.
Modified Thomas Test
The modified Thomas test which is going to help to see if your psoas is tight and shortened by testing out your hip extension. And the reason why this will tell us or not if the muscle is shortened is because if the psoas is at its regular length, then you should have full ROM during hip extension. But if it's tight, then it's going to limit hip extension, and I will be able to see it on this test.
To start this assessment, lie flat on your back on either a bench or the floor. Pull one leg towards your chest until your lower back is flat against the floor. As you perform these assessments, you are looking for two different things.
First, look to see if your opposite knee bends or moves up toward the ceiling. Second, look to see if the leg externally rotates by looking at the knee or the foot.
If either of these is happening, it is a positive sign that your myofascial system is shortened and tight on the side that's not getting pulled in.
Hip Flexion Test
The next test is going to be a strength test for your psoas. Having a weak psoas means having weak stability around your lower back, which is why you want to test this as well.
You can do this in 2 ways. For the nonathletes, you're going to be doing this in a seated position with the goal of 20 seconds. If you are an athlete, then you're going to be doing this standing for 40 seconds.
For nonathletes, prepare yourself by sitting at the end of a table or desk. Once you are in position, bring up your knee to a few inches off the table on the side you want to test. The goal here is to be able to hold it in this position for at least 20 seconds.
For athletes, prepare yourself by standing next to a wall. Once you are in position, bring up your knee to hip level on the side you want to test. The goal here is to be able to hold it in this position for at least 40 seconds.
Now during this time, you should be paying attention to 3 key factors:
- The first one is whether or not the exercise feels difficult, meaning you shouldn't be struggling to hold it up.
- The 2nd thing you're looking for is if there's any pain or discomfort anywhere in the body during the test.
- And the 3rd thing is if you're shifting your body to compensate for holding up your leg.
If any of these 3 things happened to you during your test, then that's a positive sign for a weak psoas.
Three Rules of Myofascial Release
Rule #1 - Use Less Pressure
Now the entire goal of performing a myofascial release is to help loosen up the tissues so they can properly slide on top of one another.
And the only way to really affect the deeper layers that we need to target is by using less pressure. Now this sounds counterintuitive, but let me try to explain how this first rule works by using this sponge.
Let's pretend this sponge is your muscle and the bottom of this plate is your deep fascia. And right now, these 2 are stuck together, which isn't allowing your muscle to fully contract or stretch.
Now when you think of releasing this muscle from the tissue, most of us will try to press down hard and at an angle on the muscle so we can get to the deeper layers. But as you can see, that's not really working because we are compressing the muscle more than actually pushing it. This is why you want to use less pressure to affect the deeper layers.
By pressing down with less force but still, at an angle, you will be able to push the muscle over the fascia, helping the tissues to slide easier.
This is rule #1, use gentle pressure.
Rule #2 - Hold For 3-6 Minutes
Now this brings me to rule #2, which is to perform each release for 3-6 minutes.
Any study you find that was able to successfully release the fascia was able to do it by working on the fascia for roughly between 3-6 minutes for each spot.
- Fascial Manipulation® method applied to pubescent postural hyperkyphosis: A pilot study.
- Comparative analysis of ultrasound changes in the vastus lateralis muscle following myofascial release and thermotherapy: A pilot study
- Acute effects of myofascial release with portable electric massager at different frequencies: A randomized pilot study
This tells us that we need to be spending roughly 3-6 minutes on each spot for it to properly release.
Rule #3 - Focus On The Pain
And this brings us to rule #3, which is to focus on the pain.
If you have never received a myofascial release, then chances are it's not going to be the most comfortable thing in the beginning. And that's ok.
Even with gentle pressure, the fascia system can create extreme pain when you press on it. And this is because the fascia system has more pain sensory nerves than your muscles and even your skin. This means if the fascia system becomes tight or distorted, then it can create extreme pain not only where it's tight but it can also create pain in other areas of the body, not even near that one spot. This is called referred pain.
This is why you need to focus on the pain and what's happening to it because as you perform your MFR for the recommended amount of time, the pain will begin to slowly disappear, ease up, and even move from one spot to another.
Now a quick note. When you are working on yourself, your goal isn't to make your MFR the most uncomfortable thing possible. But it is ok to flirt with the line as long as you're able to take in-depth breaths not only with your chest but also your stomach. This will help relax the nervous system so the fascia can loosen even faster.
Self Massage These Muscles
The pectineus is a little adductor muscle, located on the high, inside thigh, might be acting as an anchor to the end of the psoas, holding it in a locked-down position. And because they share a fascia system, if this muscle becomes locked up, the rest of the muscles and the fascia system can also become locked up, which is why you are going to want to release this muscle.
Now to perform a myofascial release on this area, what you'll need to do is grab a soft foam roller and place the edge on the high inside thigh area. Don't worry about being precise here; as long as you're in that area, you will be able to hit the fascia system, which is what we really want.
From this position, simply hold static pressure on this one area for 3-6 minutes. If you're a beginner, you can go for less time, but if you have massaged yourself before, then you can not only go for a longer time, but you can also use a smaller ball if you need to.
To make this even more effective, I would recommend creating pressure while also trying to pull the muscle away from the psoas area. When you think of a tight fascia system, you can think of it as the muscles getting locked together, which means when one muscle contracts, it will pull the rest of the muscles with it.
So by doing this, you will loosen the connection between the pectineus and the psoas, so hopefully, when one muscle contracts, the other one doesn't go along for the ride.
To do this, start by applying pressure to the middle of the muscle using your foam roller. Now roll down the leg just a little bit, just enough to stretch the area out while still maintaining pressure.
Example: Just like how I'm stretching this area of my leg while still applying pressure, you're trying to do the same thing using the foam roller.
This is a technique you can do for any muscle you are releasing, just an FYI.
Now the next muscle you will want to work on is going to be the Quadratus Lumborum (QL). Now this is technically not part of the Deep front fascia line, but because it's one of those muscles that partners with the psoas, it's also something you might want to work on.
Studies have shown that by simply working on the QL, you're able to get a greater increase in hip extension, which is what you're trying to do for the modified Thomas test.
So to get things started, the first thing we want to do is locate the QL, which is going to be behind the erector muscles.
And as you can see, it's pretty deep within the lower back, but there is a way to access this muscle.
To get to it, start off by grabbing a smaller ball, like a lacrosse ball, and placing it into your lower back and to the side.
Now from here, press your lower back into the wall, but make sure to go at an angle so you can get into the sides of the QL.
Once you start applying pressure, slowly rotate your body so that your back is flush with the wall; this is going to help you apply more pressure to the QL vs. the erectors.
Now once you get into the position, you're simply going to hang out here while applying pressure for 3-6 minutes and applying deep breaths.
To get even more of a release, you can add a nice stretch to it as you apply some pressure.
Everything I mentioned previously is going to be the same, but before you apply the pressure to the muscle, I want you to shorten the QL by tilting your body to the same side as the ball.
Now that the muscle is shortened go ahead and pin it down like I showed you earlier and rotate to your back, keeping the muscle shortened the entire time. Now from here, apply a gentle stretch to the muscle by laterally tilting your body in the other direction. Make sure to hold pressure on the muscle while it's being stretched out for 3-6 minutes.
This now brings us to the little brother of the psoas, the Iliacus, which is the muscle located on the inside of the pelvis.
To begin self-massaging this muscle, start off by laying on your back with your knees bent and feet planted. From here, use your hands to begin gently pressing into the inside of the hip bones.
The idea here is that you're first pressing into this area to get some depth, and then you press into the pelvis to work on the iliacus.
This will most likely be tender to a lot of you if you have never performed a self-massage technique here, but understand that it is normal and will get easier.
Once you're in this area, simply hold static pressure here for 3-6 minutes while taking in big deep breaths to help the nervous system relax.
Now besides a basic static pressure technique, you can also perform a pin and stretch. Simply hold the muscle down while your knees are up because it's going to help put the muscle in a shortened position. From here, slowly slide that same leg all the way down until your hamstring is touching the floor. Make sure to hold pressure on the muscle as you do this. Once your leg is on the ground, simply raise it back up and repeat for the correct amount of time.
This now brings us to the psoas muscle. Staying in that same exact position, what you're going to do is move from the hip bones to the lower stomach, right next to the belly button.
The spot you're aiming for here is going to be below the belly button and right next to the edge of the abs. By starting here, you will be able to gently bypass the abs instead of trying to go through it.
Once you're in the right area, and again, it doesn't need to be perfect; all your going to do is simply press into this area gently, going as far as you're comfortable going.
Don't stress about pressing into your guts because if you're moving slowly and not tensing, then your intestines will shift and move out of the way.
If pressing into your stomach with your hands is a little difficult because of the angle, then I suggest using a small ball + a yoga block to help release the psoas.
Now one cool thing about the psoas is that we can actually check to see if you're on the muscle or not by lifting the leg up when you think you're on the muscle.
If you can feel the muscle contract and pop up under your fingers or tool as you move your leg up, then that's a positive sign you're on the right spot. If you're not feeling it, then you might be missing it or not pressing deep enough. This is ok, esp if you're just starting.
Now just like the iliacus, we can also perform a pin and stretch here by pinning down the muscle and then slowly sliding the leg all the way down until your hamstring is touching the table. From here, lift your leg back up and repeat for 3-6 minutes.
Another way to release your psoas, which I consider a little more advanced, is to lay on your stomach while also hanging out on a bench.
What you want to do is put a yoga block on the edge of a bench with a ball on top. Now from here, get as close to the edge as you can and lay on top of the ball, aiming for your psoas.
Make sure your hips are bent so that the stomach area is able to remain relaxed so you can get into the psoas easier. Once you're in position, you can either hold static pressure or perform a pin and stretch by extending and flexing the leg that's pinned.
Now another way to help release the psoas is to stretch it out, which I'm sure you have seen before. But to make sure this is effective, I'll be giving you some basic rules to follow, and I'll be showing you how to stretch out those other muscles we worked on as well.
Rules for Stretching
Let's first go over the rules of stretching.
- The first rule is very simple, make sure you're focused on breathing while you are stretching. Just like how you need to relax the nervous system to release the muscles, you also need to relax the nervous system to help it stretch out.
- The 2nd rule is to hold each stretch for much longer than you normally would. Just like releasing the fascia, trying to stretch it can take some time, which is why there are 2 options for stretching.
- If you're a beginner, then start by performing 3 sets of 30-second stretches. This means you will stretch your psoas on one side for 30 seconds, then switch and stretch the other side for 30 seconds. Once you're done with that, you can then repeat for 2 more sets.
- If you have been stretching your whole life, then you can simply perform a static stretch for 2-3 minutes.
- Now the 3rd rule for stretching is to find the tightness. The idea here is that just because you're in the right position for a stretch doesn't always mean you're going to get a good stretch. This is why every time you're stretching, you should make small adjustments to the area you're stretching until you find something that feels tight.
- For example, if im stretching my chest, then I can move my arm up or down to find a different angle that produces a different stretch.
Hip Flexors (Psoas/Iliacus and Pectineus)
Now this next stretch is for stretching your hip flexors, and not only does that include the psoas and iliacus, but also the pectineus.
- To perform this stretch in a standing position, start off by going into a staggered stance with one leg forward and one leg back. The back leg is going to be the side you're stretching. Now from this position, lean forward by pushing your hips down and forward while bending into the front knee for stability. By doing this, you should be able to feel the stretch in the hip and stomach area.
- You can also do this on your knees as well if that makes it easier for you.
- Now another lazier way that I like to perform a psoas stretch is by letting gravity do the work for you. To do this, you will need this ankle strap that hooks onto your weight and your ankle. And all you're going to do here is attach a weight to one end and the other to your ankle. From here, simply lay back with your leg off a table to begin stretching your psoas. You can also grab the opposite knee and pull it in to get an even bigger stretch.
Training the Glutes
With the first muscle you want to fire up is the glutes. Since your psoas is mainly a hip flexor, you will want to fire up the opposite muscles to hip flexion, which is the glutes or your hip extensors.
And my one favorite exercise for this is going to be glute extensions with a band.
What you want to do is wrap a band around the top of your knees before you lay on your stomach on a bench with your hip pressed right up against the edge of the bench. Your legs should be off the table while your upper body is on it. From here, rotate your legs out, and also widen your legs to put a stretch on the band.
Now from here, contract squeeze your glutes to lift the legs up in the air, hold it for 1-2 seconds before you return to your starting position, and repeat.
One thing I want to mention here is to make sure you're keeping your core engaged because otherwise, a lot of us will tend to use our lower backs during these exercises vs. our glutes, and by keeping your core tight, you will be able to help prevent the lower back from engaging.
Training the Core
Now if you remember earlier how I mentioned the psoas could create an anterior pelvic tilt? Well, that's because the psoas can be tight and pull on the spine. And if that is the case, then you also want to fire up the muscles that can help pull the pelvis into more of a posterior pelvic tilt.
Now you have already trained the glutes, which can help you create that posterior pelvic tilt, but another muscle that can also do that is the core muscles, which you can train by performing dead bugs.
To perform dead bugs, lay on your back with your knees and hands in the air. Now from here, all you need to do is keep your core tight and back flat against the ground as you reach one arm back to touch the floor behind you and return to the starting position. Now reach one leg to the ground in front of it and return back to your starting position. Repeat this one on the other side if you're a beginner.
If you're more advanced, you can perform opposite arms and legs at the same time; you can add some bands to strengthen the posterior chain as you do this, and you can also grab your foam roller and create tension as you perform your movements. All of these will help engage the core; just make sure you're focusing more on keeping your core tight rather than performing these different exercises.
Training the Hip Flexors
Now one of the final muscles you want to train is the psoas itself. One of the biggest reasons why your lower back can become tight and painful is because all of the muscles around the psoas have to pick up the slack for supporting the spine because the psoas is weak.
So by strengthening the psoas, you can help support the spine, especially when you're in a seated position.
To train the psoas, lay on your back with a band attached to a low anchor and the other side wrapped around your foot. You can use the same ankle strap here to hold the band as well.
From here, lay back on the floor with the band around one of your feet and some tension in the band. Now simply pull your knees into your chest, trying to keep your knee as close to your body as you can. Also, make sure to keep your knee straight, which means avoid moving in or out as you're bringing your knee in. Once you can reach as high as you can, hold it there for 1-2 seconds before you return back to your starting position and repeat.
Now with all of these different exercises, your goal is to perform each one for 2-3 sets for 12-20 reps and don't forget to do this at the end of releasing and stretching it.
Releasing a tight psoas muscle can be a challenging and uncomfortable process, but it is necessary for improving overall posture and mobility. By understanding the anatomy of the muscle and the fascia system surrounding it, you can properly assess the tightness of your psoas and begin to release it using myofascial release techniques and stretching. Remember to follow the rules of myofascial release, including using gentle pressure, spending 3-6 minutes on each spot, and focusing on the pain. Additionally, stretching can also help release the psoas and the surrounding muscles, while strengthening it can help support the spine.