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Stretching This Small Muscle Can Make Knee And Back Pain Vanish

these are the 5 best psoas stretches
What Is The Psoas? Here's 5 Ways To Stretch ItSrdjanPav - Getty Images

After battling lower back pain, I learned the importance of stretching and good form. You probably need a bit more stretch time too if a little hip or knee pain is holding you back. Focusing on key areas, like stretching the psoas, can get you back in your groove.

The psoas is a deep hip flexor that connects to the spine and extends down to our femur, says Kristen Lettenberger, DPT, CSCS, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments. Its main function is to bring your knee up to your chest.

The hip flexors, psoas included, get a lot of wear and tear in and out of the gym. “When we’re sitting, this muscle becomes placed into a shortened position and can become tight if we spend a prolonged period of time in this position,” adds Winnie Yu, DPT, CPT, sports and orthopedic physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments.

Meet the experts: Kristen Lettenberger, DPT, CSCS, is a physical therapist and Winnie Yu, DPT, CPT, is a sports and orthopedic physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City.

TBH, it's hard to find a downside to spending a few minutes stretching the psoas. Not only can a psoas stretch reduce lower back pain, but it can also improve knee pain, daily movements, posture, walking and running, sports performance in soccer and football, and potentially, stability, and function of the pelvic floor muscles.

Sound too good to be true? Well, it’s not—here’s everything to know about the psoas and the most effective ways to stretch it from physical therapists.

What is the psoas—and what causes pain?

The psoas is a hip flexor that connects the spine to the femur, Lettenberger says. It essentially runs from the vertebrae of your lower back to the front of your hip, attaching onto your femur. It's largely out of sight, out of mind unless it gets tight.

Your psoas kicks in any time you bring your knee up to the chest. (Think of high knees, mountain climbers, deep squats, jumping, sprinting, and running. It tightens up in seated positions and shortens after extending sitting. So, whether you’ve been sitting in your office chair for eight hours today, or you’ve just returned from a run, it’s probably a good idea to make time for some psoas stretches.

Best Stretches For Psoas Pain

It only takes a little bit of time to make a big impact. The following five stretches are the most effective for releasing the psoas, according to Lettenberger.

Instructions: For a cooldown after a workout, complete 2-3 dynamic reps, continually moving in and out of the position, then switch sides. For a warm-up before a workout, complete 5-10 static hold reps, then switch sides.

1. Bridge

How to:

  1. Lay on back with feet hip-width apart and flat on the ground with knees bent and pointing toward the ceiling. Let arms rest on the floor at sides.

  2. Engage glutes to bring hips up towards the ceiling so the front of body is lengthening and stretching.

  3. Lower the hips back to the ground with control. That's 1 rep. Complete two to three sets of 10-12 reps.

Pro tip: Exhale as you push your hips up to the ceiling. “The exhale is really powerful to regulate that nervous system and push into a further stretch,” Lettenberger says.

2. Half Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch

How to:

  1. Start standing with feet close together.

  2. Step the right foot back, bending both knees to 90 degrees into a lunge, and tuck right toes under. Left foot, right knee, and right foot are touching the ground.

  3. Squeeze right glute and drive hip forward. (You should feel a good stretch in the front of the right leg and right into the hip flexor, Lettenberger says.) That's 1 rep.

Pro tip: Take in a deep breath and as you exhale, sink deeper into the stretch to release tension in front of the hip.

3. Standing Hip Flexor Stretch

How to:

  1. Start standing with feet hip-width apart.

  2. Tuck your pelvis underneath you, engaging glutes so you feel like you're thrusting hips forward a bit.

  3. Step right leg back to feel the stretch in the front of hip. Hold the position for 30 seconds. That's 1 rep.

Pro tip: You’re doing it right if you feel most of the stretch in the front of the hip near the hip joint and slightly below as that’s the psoas attachment site, Lettenberger says. You might also feel a stretch through the obliques.

4. Low Lunge Twist

How to:

  1. Start standing with feet together.

  2. Step left leg back and bend right knee into a low lunge with hands touching the floor.

  3. Lift right arm up toward the ceiling and rotate chest open. Hold for 15-20 seconds.

  4. Reverse the arm motion. That's 1 rep.

5. Half Kneeling Stretch With Foot Elevated

How to:

  1. Start standing with feet close together.

  2. Step left foot back, bending both knees to 90 degrees into a lunge, and tuck left toes under. Right foot, left knee, and left foot are touching the ground.

  3. Squeeze left glute and drive the hip forward.

  4. Raise left arm up to the ceiling then over to the right side. That's 1 rep.

Psoas Stretch Benefits

  • Prevent lower back pain. Because of its attachment to the lower back, opening up the psoas through stretches will help reduce pain, Lettenberger says.

  • Help daily mobility. By stretching the psoas frequently, you’ll become more comfortable sitting in your chair to work every day, or standing and moving around.

  • Reduce hip pain. Stretching the psoas is helpful “if you're having pain in the front of your hip, especially when you're sitting for a long period of time,” Lettenberger says.

  • Improve performance in sports. The psoas is especially beneficial in sports that require hip extension or powerful kicking positions as staple movements like soccer, football, and running, Yu explains.

  • Increase power. When you stretch your psoas, you’ll likely gain more range of motion in the hips, Lettenberger says. You'll be able to jump higher, squat deeper, and possibly sprint faster because you have more of a hip extension, Lettenberger adds. Okay, I’m in!

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