The psoas muscles — not a muscle group you typically hear being trained in the gym. Despite the lack of attention it may get among gymgoers, the psoas muscles are among the most important muscles in the entire body as they are the primary hip flexors.
Better psoas health relies on proper care and training, which include both dynamic stretches and bodyweight exercises. Showing attention to these submerged muscles can result in larger gains for your more exposed ones.
What Are the Psoas Muscles?
Psoas is a muscle group comprised of three individual muscles: the psoas major, psoas minor, and iliacus. The muscle group lies deep within your core muscles and acts as the connector of your torso and lower body. This tapered muscle is small in size but responsible for huge roles.
Known as a flexor muscle, the psoas muscles allow for contraction which results in movement or bending in the hips and lower body. Anytime you bend over, walk, or sit, your psoas muscles are being used. It also stabilizes your lower back.
The psoas muscles originate from your spine and insert into your femurs. These muscles are the only muscles in the body that connect the legs and the spine.
Not only do the psoas muscles support many main movements of the body, but they also allow for internal processes to occur, such as the circulation of blood. These muscles also help in the breathing function of your lungs.
The psoas muscles, also known as the iliopsoas muscles, can become tight and shortened after contracted for lengthy periods of time, which can be caused by stress, poor posture, or excessive exercise of certain types.
This shortening can cause anterior pelvic tilt or lordosis of the lumbar vertebrae. If you often have low back pain, or pain in the hamstrings, knees, or hip joints, your psoas may be responsible.
How to Know if Your Psoas Needs Work
Since the psoas group is deep within your core muscles, it can be difficult to tell if your psoas is lacking. Here are some common ways in which your body is signaling psoas distress:
- Poor posture: It is no surprise that having weakness in any part of your core will lead to postural problems. When the psoas is shortened due to tightness, this causes hyperextension of the lumbar spine which we have already defined to be lordosis. However, in some cases, the opposite can occur. If you suffer from loose or weak psoas, the lower back may appear tucked in too much, causing a lot of lower back pain. Posture can also be affected by psoas muscles that are both tight and loose, which can be characterized by a craning neck.
- Lower body pain: In addition to extreme back pain, issues with the psoas can cause pain to occur in the legs. This makes sense considering the insertion of the muscle is at the femurs. When the psoas muscles are too tight, this causes the range of motion in the legs to diminish, leading to leg pain. The knee joints tend to be the most affected.
- Different leg lengths: Since the psoas muscles run down either side of your lower spine and into your femurs, there is a possibility that only one side of the muscles can be tight or weak. This can lead to complex issues with walking, rotations, and tight joints which result in a contorted or shorter leg. Sometimes this discrepancy is so minuscule that it is entirely unnoticeable, however, those with this issue will likely experience leg and hip pain.
- Difficulty breathing and fatigue: Because the psoas muscles aid in several organ functions, unhealthy psoas muscles can cause these functions to become inefficient. The psoas muscles act as a small pump for certain organs and promote healthy blood flow. Without this help, your organs fail to do their jobs properly and in turn, cause you serious fatigue. Difficulty breathing can also occur because of poor posture that causes your lungs to have difficulty expanding.
- Digestive issues: It may be surprising, but the hunched posture that can result from tight psoas muscles can contribute to digestive issues, such as constipation. Furthermore, a lack of blood flow that is promoted by impaired psoas can cause issues with the digestive tract.
10 Best Psoas Strengthening Exercises
Since the psoas muscles are responsible for several crucial bodily functions, putting some time into keeping these muscles healthy will only improve all other aspects of your fitness and health. Luckily, there are many ways you can strengthen and stretch your psoas for a better range of motion and potentially gain pain relief.
For those who experience psoas pain, getting relief is imperative. While severe cases of psoas injury may require physical therapy, there are many exercises that can be done on your own to improve psoas health. The majority of these exercises can easily be done at home, between meetings, before bed, or even be an addition to your current gym routine.
Lunges are great for engaging those quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings. However, they are also an effective psoas exercise when done correctly. You can use them as more of a stretch rather than a repeated strength exercise if you want to focus on the psoas muscles. Here is how to use a lunge to work the psoas:
- Start by standing upright with good posture.
- Next, place one foot behind you so that you are in a staggered stance.
- Bend at the knees and slowly lower yourself down into a lunge.
- You can hold the position with your back knee touching the floor or hovering just above the floor. Your body should feel balance and your core nice and tight.
- For an extra stretch, you can reach the arm opposite of the leg in front of you up over your head and lean slightly to the other side. So, if you initially stepped back with your right leg, you’ll raise your right arm and lean slightly to your left.
2. Floor Bridges
Bridges are among the top exercises for building the gluteal muscles. You can tailor this popular movement to work the psoas by tweaking the steps just a bit:
- First, lay on the ground like you would for a normal bridge. This means lying on your back with your legs bent and your arms comfortably beside you. A mat may be best for comfort.
- In a normal bridge, you would bring the pelvis up much higher than your head. However, for a ground bridge, you only lift your pelvis slightly off the ground, tucking in your buttocks. The top of the movement should be held for a few seconds.
- Next, slowly lower the pelvis to a normal height and angle.
The psoas muscles are part of the core, after all, and sit-ups are great for gaining overall core strength. They are simple to do, but in case your form needs checking, here is how to do a sit-up:
- Lie on the ground facing up with your legs bent. A mat may be best.
- Place your hands behind your head and maintain good neck and back posture throughout. It may help to think about squeezing your shoulder blades together.
- Next, use your core to slowly lift your upper body up off the mat while your lower body remains in contact with the mat. This movement should be slow and controlled, not fast and explosive.
- Once you’ve reached the top of the movement and are sitting nearly upright, you can begin lowering yourself back down.
4. Boat pose
The boat pose, known as navasana in yoga practice, may seem simple since it requires no explosive movements. However, it requires extreme balance and core strength, so you’ll be surprised at the difficulty. Stretching exercises such as the boat pose can be great for pain relief. Here is how to do the boat pose:
- Sit on the floor or yoga mat with knees bent and both of your feet planted on the floor. Maintain a neutral back and a forward gaze.
- Next, begin lifting your feet off the floor so that only your bottom is in contact with the mat. It is okay if your weight shifts back slightly as you raise your feet.
- Lift your legs as high as possible while maintaining a straight back. Your body should form a “V” shape with your buttocks forming the bottom of the “V”.
- Use your upper body as balance by placing your hands beside you and slightly off the floor. Your palms should be facing up. You can also choose to hold the back of your thighs for better stability.
If you can’t do this pose with perfectly straightened legs, opt for a more comfortable bend in the knees. The importance of the pose is the posture of your back, not the perfection of the “V” shape.
5. Leg Lifts
Leg lifts come in several variations, all of which have varying difficulties. For now, here is how to do the simplest version of a leg lift:
- Lay on your back facing up. Even though you are laying down, be sure to maintain good posture. Keep your chest up.
- Engage your core and raise your legs straight up. Flex your feet so that your soles are facing the ceiling.
- Begin the movement by lowering one of your legs in a slow and controlled fashion. Let it hover just above the floor before bringing it back up again.
- Do the same with the alternative leg.
Eventually, you can do both legs at the same time when you find that one leg is no longer challenging. Variations of this movement include hanging leg lifts or leg lifts on a knee raise station.
6. Frankenstein Walk
The Frankenstein walk is actually a popular part of many cardio warmups. It is simple to do and effective for working the psoas muscles.
- Choose an area with a lot of free space. Stand up straight with good posture, your hands hanging at your sides.
- Begin the movement by kicking one leg straight out in front of you and touching the tips of your toes with the opposite hand. You should meet your hand with your foot midair.
- Switch sides for the next rep by stepping forward and swinging the alternative leg. Maintain a neutral back throughout.
Repeat this exercise in a seamless “walking” fashion for several reps.
7. Stability Ball Passes
This exercise somewhat mimics the boat pose in that the formation of your body is very similar. However, much more movement is involved and you’ll need a stability ball. Not only will this movement aid in strengthening the psoas, but you’ll also feel a serious burn in the abdominal muscles.
- Lie on a yoga mat or the floor face up.
- Hold the stability ball in your hands above your head.
- Next, bring the ball up towards your feet. At the same time, bring your feet towards the ball. They should meet in the middle.
- Pass the ball from your hands to your feet. Your body will form a “U” shape that is reminiscent of the “V” shape required for the boat pose.
- Extend the ball out again before repeating the movement to transfer the ball from your feet back to your hands.
8. Kettlebell Swing
Kettlebell workouts can be a great option for those working with limited equipment. The kettlebell swing is an explosive movement that really involves your entire body. When done correctly, this exercise can build incredible core and leg strength, thus improving the psoas muscles.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Be sure your posture is good by puffing out your chest slightly and squeezing your shoulder blades together.
- Bend down to grab the kettlebell by bending your knees.
- To begin the movement, swing the kettlebell slightly under the open area created by your squat. Then, propel the kettlebell upward and out while also coming to the upright position. Swing the kettlebell until your arms are parallel to the floor.
- Once at the top, swing the kettlebell back down while also squatting again. Loop these movements to create a seamless swinging/squatting rhythm.
9. Leg Swing
Leg swings are a good workout for your inner thighs and make a great psoas stretch. Like Frankenstein walking, this exercise requires no equipment and can easily be done at home. Here is how to do leg swings:
- Choose an area that has a good amount of space. Stand with good posture and your feet together. Stretch your arms out like an airplane for balance.
- Next, begin the movement by swinging one leg in front of the other, then out to the side. So if you’re starting with your left leg, swing it out in front of your right then back out to the left side.
- Repeat this movement with good posture and balance. Then switch to the other leg.
You can also vary this movement slightly by swinging the leg out behind you and then in front. So rather than a side-to-side motion, you’ll be doing front to back. Try both for an all-around stretch.
10. Bulgarian Split Squat
Bulgarian split squats are becoming an increasingly popular glute workout. In total, this compound movement works your quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and core. They can be done weighted or simply with bodyweight and are easy to do at home. Here is how to perform the Bulgarian split squat:
- For this, you’ll need a bench or something of similar height.
- Stand in front of the bench or chair about two steps away with your back facing the bench. Keep a neutral back and a forward gaze.
- Place one foot on the bench behind you so that the top of your foot is touching the bench.
- Before beginning the movement, check that you are well-balanced. Your feet should be about shoulder-width apart so that there is a good amount of distance between your front and back legs.
- After establishing a comfortable form, check-in with your posture and engage the core.
- Begin descending by bending your knee, placing the majority of your weight on the leg planted on the ground. Hinge slightly at the hips as you travel down.
- Descend until your front thigh is roughly parallel to the ground. If your comfort ends before parallel, this is fine until you can work up to a deeper squat.
- Use your front leg and glutes to lift yourself back up to the starting position.
Healthy Hips: Keeping Your Psoas in Check
Your psoas muscles are one of the most important muscle groups in your body. Not only do they support strong muscular function overall but they also help several internal organ functions take place efficiently, resulting in an overall much healthier body.
Anything that requires hip flexion and hip extension, which is almost any movement, will benefit from a healthy psoas group. While some cases of impaired psoas muscles may require a physical therapist, there is a lot you can do in your current routine for both improvement and prevention.
Training these muscles will up your game in the gym drastically and, more importantly, contribute to good health and wellness.