Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Enter the Psoas: Fixing Low Back Pain

The stats don’t lie; low back pain is a problem. Eighty percent will have some severe low back pain in their life, with the majority experiencing repeat episodes. Not coincidentally, more and more people work at a desk for a living. Does this scenario sound familiar? One drives to work, sits all day, drives home, watches T.V. and hits the repeat cycle. Over the years, gain a little weight, so one hits the gym, warm up on the bike, sit at machine after machine, and wonder why ones low back is always sore. Enter the psoas muscle.
The what? The psoas, it’s the bodies major hip flexor. It originates on the last thoracic vertebrae and the first four lumbar vertebrae where it courses down and inserts into the hip. The ability to raise your bent leg past ninety degrees towards your chest is its major action. Lately, research is pointing that its major role is actually that of a lumbar stabilizer. Put plainly, when healthy, it keeps your low back stable. The problem is, all this sitting has shortened the muscle. Tightness equals weakness.
Run these examples. Ever get uncomfortable back pain after standing still for a few minutes, like you have pressure building right around the belt line? How about a little bit of sharp jabbing pain after getting up from a sitting position? How many have been out for the count after stooping to pick up something as small as a pencil? If any of these scenarios sound familiar, the psoas is tight!

Even if none of these scenarios sound like you, you’re not off the hook yet. Athletically, it is a huge component to performance. When tight, even without low back pain, they act as brakes. It will keep you from jumping your highest, running your fastest, and lifting your heaviest. They shut down the most powerful muscle you have, the glute maximus. It inhibits their force production. That simply stated means you’re not as powerful as you could be.

So lets fix this. The first is a combo exercise. With the right knee down on the floor, the left leg in front in a lunge position, lean forward through the hips so that the back leg is now at an angle, the upper body is still upright. Raise up your right arm toward the ceiling and bring it across your body. The stretch should run from the front of the right hip into the right abdominal area. Hold for a count of fifteen and switch sides. Immediately stand up, feet shoulder width apart, stand tall, squeeze your fists and then squeeze your glutes together and hold for a count of five. You should feel your pelvis tip up as you first squeeze the glutes together. This isometric contraction activates the glutes. This is a simple combo exercise to restore the length. It also has a magical effect of boosting your vertical leap!

After being tight for so long the psoas may need to be strengthened. To find out, stand tall with your right leg bent parallel to the floor resting on a box or bench, left leg held straight. Raise the right leg so that it is now above ninety degrees. Hold for thirty seconds. The right leg should remain above ninety degrees, if it drops, you feel a cramping sensation or you find yourself bending forward at the waist, you have a weakness. This drill will also strengthen them. Test both legs. Add this to your strength routine. Don’t let low back pain decrease your quality of life. So release the psoas and reap the rewards of new athletic movement and a pain free back to boot.


Sifter said...

Excellent stuff. Does a McKenzie style or Egoscue-type Cobra (passive) do anything to relax or stretch the psoas as well, or is that mostly for relaxing lower back vertbrae, or...?

Jason Ross said...

I would say it's mostly for relaxing the lower back. Without any lateral bend, the psoas won't be able to really be able to put under a great stretch. You will never get as much upper body hyper extension to stretch the hip flexor like you would if you were to use lower body hip extention.

ash said...

i know this was posted nearly two years ago but i came across it trying to figure out the root of my back pain and complete lack of performance while running and biking. i am an acupuncturist specializing in sports acupuncture and last week another practitioner did a manual release of my psoas and the following day i had significant right hip pain into my quad. the day after that i tried to run and it was literally like i could barely pick up my legs. i just did your test here and could barely hold my legs up for more than 30 seconds. so thanks, for the tip. unfortunately it is extremely difficult to needle the psoas! i am stuck with stretching and strengthening. :)

Sifter said...

I was wondering if you could comment on this psoas stretch, practitioner claims it may be superior due to your 'traditional' DeFranco-style lunge and reach for getting at the psoas...

Jason Ross said...

I think you are getting more of the rectus femoris with this. Not a bad thing, but I don't think you hit the psoas as much.

tarique hasan said...
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