The Psoas Muscle And Lower Back Pain


The psoas muscle has long been a thorn on the side of anybody with lower back pain.  Whenever most people feel a sharp pain in their lower back region, the psoas muscle may be the culprit.  Some people have given up hope.  They have just passively accepted their back pain as a new reality of their life.  I am here to tell you in this post to fear not.  It is in fact possible that something can be done about your lower back pain.  However, before anything can be done, we must first drag the waters and learn all we can about the psoas muscle. 

This article is not a “quick fix” article with a few exercises to get you on your way.  This article is about understanding the general concepts and knowledge about the psoas muscle.  This knowledge combined with hours in the gym will lead to an increase in understanding.   Let’s begin.

What Is The Psoas Muscle?

The psoas muscle is a long, thick and slender muscle than originates up in the lower thoracic/upper lumbar vertebrae and inserts on the femur.  It is primarily responsible for a movement we call hip flexion.  This is when we move our thigh up to our chest.  The psoas muscle also performs many other functions as well.

These other functions include:

  • Lateral Flexion
  • Lumbar Extention
  • Anterior Pelvic Tilt
  • Posterior Pelvic Tilt
  • Maintaining Good Posture
  • Spinal Stabilization
  • Overall Health And Wellbeing Of Internal Organs

The psoas muscle has quite a demanding role.  Many lifters don’t actually realize the demand that is placed on this muscle during many of the core lifts (i.e. Squats/Deadlifts).  In fact, the psoas could be considered part of the “core” of the body.  It connects the upper body and lower body together.  It acts as a medium between the two.  Without it we would not be able to perform many of the functions that we take advantage of each and every day.    

How The Psoas Muscle Causes Problems

What causes this muscle to malfunction?  The answer is the same for the psoas muscle as it is for any other muscle.  Poor movement.  The human body is built on a system of tension and balance.  If there is too much tension in one area, the body is not in balance.  Tension needs to be balanced throughout the joints, limbs and movement.  Unfortunately, the psoas is where plenty of people build up this tension.

As mentioned earlier, the primary function of the psoas muscle is to flex the hip.  Therefore, it’s polar opposite is the hip extensor muscle, which are the glutes.  These powerful muscles fight constantly in a tug of war contest over who gets control of the hip.  For most people the psoas muscle is in control of their hip and their glutes are suffering from amnesia.  The reason for this is poor posture from too much sitting. 

Sitting forces the spinal erectors to work much harder to keep your spine straight.  This is why eventually if you are sitting for long periods of time you will eventually slouch over.  As a result, the psoas muscle will get short and tight.  This tightness will cause the glutes to have a much harder time activating.  Thus resulting in lower back pain in any exercise that requires optimal posture.     

Signs That Your Psoas Muscle Is Causing You Problems

Luckily, there are some warning signs that this muscle may eventually cause you problems.  One telltale sign is a big concave curve in the lower back when standing “straight” up.  This is referred to as hyper-lordosis.  This is usually accompanied by anterior pelvic tilt.  Groin pain may also be present as well as pelvic and hip joint pain. 

Despite all the signs above, these are all usually just symptoms of the actual problem.  The real reason why the psoas muscle keeps getting tight and dysfunctional in the first place has to do with poor motor patterns.  Poor posture is usually the culprit.  Sitting down for too long isn’t doing our culture any good.  Prolonged sitting places the body’s fascial system into a fixed hardened cocoon.  The cocoon takes on the shape of whatever position it is in.  But there is also more to this picture.  One suggestion is to convert to a standing desk.  There is also something much more subtle going on.  Stress. 

If people become too stressed too often then certain muscles in the body will develop unnecessary tension.  One common example are the muscles of the neck.  Unfortunately, the psoas muscle is also one of these muscles.  Poor stress management will cause the emotional/mental tension to build up in other areas of the body.  This is why people who are constantly stressed have the forward head posture and a constant forward fold at the hips.  This is a big indicator of a tight psoas.    

Strategies To Fix A Tight/Weak Psoas Muscle

Ok, great, we now know how to spot a dysfunctional psoas muscle.  Now how do we “fix” it?  The answer, believe it or not, might surprise you.  The most commonly believed “end all be all”  remedy for any muscular dysfunction is to stretch the affected muscle and to strengthen it’s antagonists.  The antagonists for the psoas muscles are the glutes and the abs.  Unfortunately, nothing is ever this simple. 

You can strengthen and stretch as many muscles as you wish but it probably will not make a difference in the long term.  Training muscle motor patterns however, will make all the difference.  Cuing the psoas, abs and glutes to work together as one unit instead of separate entities will correct most problems.  Earlier in this post, I mentioned how the body is a system of tension and balance.  Antagonists aren’t fighting against their counterparts.  They are fighting with them.  A body in balance is a body that is centered.  A centered body is a body that is operating in it’s highest physical capacity. 

This may prove to be difficult for some people.  An effective solution may come from the bodybuilding community.  This principle is called loadless training.  This is when you see bodybuilders posing and flexing there muscles in front of mirrors.  Appearing shallow on the outside, on the inside this is forging serious neurological adaptations.  The mind-muscle connections are strengthened and reinforced.  This method is used by many elite coaches to train novice and youth athletes to learn new movement patterns.  By using a broomstick to learn the olympic lifts, technique and coordination improve.  I suggest you start practicing the contraction/coordination of these muscle groups.  After all, the proof is in the practice.            

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