Psoas and Strength Training

December 3rd, 2014 by Laura

ANATOMY AND FUNCTION

The Psoas is the Most Important Muscle in the Body
The psoas is the only muscle that connects the spine to the legs. It crosses many joints in the body and has a very far-reaching effect (not limited to the hips). It is its own antagonist between lumbar flexion and extension. It helps to position spine, pelvis and femur relative to each other. It is important in the transfer of weight from trunk to legs and feet while moving and standing. It is a synergist to many other muscles and extremely hard to isolate.

In sports-specific terms, the psoas is usually thought of as a hip flexor and stabilizer. But ‘hip flexor’ is only a tiny part of what the psoas is. It is a messenger. It influences alignment, joint rotation and circulation. It is your deepest connection to the earth and the compass that tells you where you are in time and space.

Skeletal Alignment Fosters a Happy Psoas
A balanced, healthy pelvis transfers weight through the hips, legs and feet. If the bones aren’t aligned, the psoas steps in to provide support. When the iliopsoas is used as a structural support, it becomes a stabilizer rather than a mover. A shortened psoas tips the pelvis forward, compressing the hip socket and preventing the leg from moving separately from the trunk. It eventually loses its range of motion, flexibility and strength. Problems stemming from that include rotation in the spine, pelvis and legs, twisting pelvis, and leg length discrepancy. It also limits movement in the hip socket, resulting in faulty walking patterns, compensation by other muscles and torque on the joints.

The psoas can only function as it should when it is not performing the role of a ligament.

Proprioception is Critical for Maximum Power
Proprioception is the awareness of where your body is in space and time and the relative position of neighboring parts. It allows for joint angle control and is much more important than what individual muscles are doing.

Supple Muscles Transmit Clear Signals. Stiff Muscles Do Not.
A supple psoas is proprioceptive and responsive. A crisp signal requires supple muscles. Surface muscles glide over deeper muscles and the psoas gets feedback during these movements. A clear signal is transmitted to the psoas from these muscles.

By contrast, stiff muscles that are in a state of permanent contraction do not transmit a clear signal. The deep muscles get entrapped in the surface muscles around them, move arbitrarily instead of glide, and don’t give good feedback due to adhesions around the spine.

Fuzzy signals and poor proprioception can make basic movements like sitting down and getting up become complicated. Releasing tissue tension, tone, and lengthening will enhance body awareness.

Somatic Memory and Gut Feelings
Somatic memory refers to the body’s intelligence. Somatic healing is about connecting with the sixth sense to smooth the way for a health and wellness breakthrough.

Somatic memory relates to the psoas’s effects on the central and peripheral nervous systems. The psoas has a main role in behavior patterns and as an organ of perception, can hold the memory of traumatic stress. The involvement of the psoas causes pain, tightness and unresponsiveness.

Impulses from the central nervous system (emotional responses/ feelings) can create tension in muscles, which affect the psoas due to its deep, central location. When the psoas is released, emotions like anxiety and fear might surface. Allowing these feelings to surface and release allows the body to work in harmony.

Manual Psoas Release and Stretching
Opinions on manual psoas work and stretching range from ‘necessary’ (sports oriented sources) to ‘ineffective’, ‘barbaric’ and ‘disrespectful’ (Somatics practitioners).

The psoas itself is rarely the problem, and release through manual manipulation only shuts down the messages that the psoas is trying to communicate for a brief period.

Invasive techniques trigger its innate response. The psoas is part of the fear reflex. It tightens when there is dysfunction in the skeletal and nervous system.

The common approach of strengthening the abdominals and stretching the psoas doesn’t change the movement pattern or muscle memory. Additionally, stretching exercises target the superficial muscles moreso than the psoas. Changing the movement pattern and muscle memory will provide a lasting effect.

The psoas could be any pairing of weak/tight, weak/lengthened, overused/tight, inhibited/lengthened, etc., In the case of a lengthened and overused psoas, attempting to stretching it isn’t of any benefit and can lead to more pain.

Effects on the body
The psoas has an endless list of possible far-reaching effects. A few examples:

If the SI joint is out, it is guaranteed that the psoas is not happy. And the psoas technically isn’t going to be functioning exactly as it should until the SI joint pain and instability is resolved.

When the psoas is overly tight, the hamstring tightens up to overcome the Psoas’s pull, and vise versa.

The psoas is connected to the diaphragm, and psoas tension can originate from improper breathing.

There jaw and pelvis mirror each other. When one is tense, the other will be, too. Releasing tension in one will release the other.

 
WORKING WITH THE PSOAS

Muscles to Release
Through ‘psoas stretching’ is considered incomplete, there are other muscles that should be freed to more effectively reach the psoas. Theses muscles include the hamstrings, gluteus minimus, rectus femoris, and rotators.

Constructive Rest
Constructive Rest Position (CRP) is recommended by somatics practitioners and is appropriate for everyone from the elite athlete to the sedentary. It can be done daily. Some experts believe that CRP is the only pose that truly allows the psoas to release.

  • Begin by lying on the back with arms either by your sides, folded over your chest or placed on hips. Bend your knees and put your feet flat on the floor, feet hip distance apart.
  • Quiet your mind and tune into your pelvis. Notice which areas have weight, what feels light or lifted off the floor, and tune into your torque patterns.
  • As you lay, the spine will get heavy and lengthen. Do not force it, let gravity do the work.
  • As the psoas releases, there will be more openness and awareness in the hip sockets, and the weight will pass through legs and feet. Keep the awareness in hip sockets and do not stress the lower back. Keeping the trunk together allows the psoas to work as a unit instead of in segments.

    Ideal length of time to stay in this pose is 15-20 minutes. Changes in postural alignment are usually evident within a couple of weeks.

    Cues for Improving Movements

    • Pelvis is part of the core, legs move separately.
    • Articulate at hip socket.
    • Flexion point is not at the lumbar, it’s at the hip. The back remains neutral when the pelvis stays part of the core.
    • Sit on your sit bones.

     
     


     

     

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    Laxity and Lifting

    April 10th, 2014 by Laura

    I had Symphis Pubic Dysfunction in 3 pregnancies. During the second and third pregnancies, my hip started slipping out on me with no warning and I was prescribed a walker. By the third pregnancy, my hips were grinding and clicking constantly, my SI joint was always inflamed, and I had sensations like I was cracking in half.

    When I got back to lifting weights postpartum, there were days when I felt very loose and unstable under the bar. I had snapping hips. I seemed to suffer at least one tweak each month. I started tracking my disasters and they typically came around the same time each month. My doctor confirmed that I was still dealing with laxity from SPD.

    This is a list of the things that I have either had some success with or am currently working on:

    Trigger Point Therapy
    Trigger point work is my primary method of self-care. I only stretch briefly to introduce a muscle to its new length following a trigger point release. If the muscle doesn’t lengthen, I opt for activation over more stretching. My body isn’t gong to release a tight area if it feels there isn’t enough stability. Trigger point work is much safer lengthening option for me than stretching and yanking structures out of place.

    You’d think that a lax person’s muscles would be supple and stretchable but it is actually the complete opposite. My muscles get ridiculously tight and uncomfortable. Stubborn, restrictive trigger points form for stability. It is a temptation to indulge in a good stretch. I stay much healthier if I resist that urge.

    Stability Instead of Mobility Before Lifting
    Most of the popular warmup drills have proven to be disasterous for me. Every SI joint explosion I suffered was preceded by some type of mobility work or stretching. My muscles felt extremely tight and uncomfortable, yet somehow I was able to contort myself into these exaggerated positions. A lax person needs to create stability rather than mobilize the joint. My warmups now consist of:

    A. Something to get the blood moving
    B. Manual Soft Tissue Work (LAX ball, Self Massage, Rolling, etc.)
    C. Activation (Side Planks, Dead Bugs, Light Pause Squats, Hip Thrusts, etc.)

    When I do stretch, it is only for a few seconds to introduce a muscle to its new length (following trigger point release).

    In training, I seem to stay healthier (and my lifts do well) when I put speed on the back burner in favor of long pauses and slow eccentrics.

    Slow Down and Pause
    My squat does well when I incorporate a lot of 5-count eccentrics and pauses. The MAT specialist I saw also suggested pausing in multiple locations during both the eccentric on concentric of the squat, focusing hard on the muscle contraction at each stop.

    Stop Short of Full ROM
    This one is probably pretty obvious but still a hard habit to break. I don’t need to be doing pause squats where I have dropped so low to the ground that my butt is on the floor and I am sitting there with zero tension. Overcoming the dead weight to stand up is difficult, but sitting on the floor does nothing to teach me to stay tight and stable.

    Movement Specialist
    A movement specialist can help to form better patterns and create a balanced posture. The therapist I saw also prescribed a mineral regime which could help ease the effects of SPD. Unfortunately I could not keep up with the appointments due to my children’s schedules and the distance I had to travel. But this was the first professional that I saw who actually had a clue what I was going through rather than prescribe the standard ‘rest, anti-inflammatories, and stretch’ (stretch?!).

    MAT (Muscle Activation Technique) Specialist
    The premise of MAT is that muscle tightness is secondary to muscle weakness. A muscle becomes tight because it is lacking stability, but instead of trying to loosen a tight muscle, MAT improves the stability of your joints by reactivating muscles and their ability to contract on demand. This technique will get you strong in your end range of motion (and make you aware of your end ranges) if you are lax.

    MAT is exercise-oriented and stretching is used only to expose weaknesses. The muscle is tested, activated, and retested over again. It is a complete solution instead of a temporary band-aid fix as it retrains the brain.

    My specialist said that the people who see the quickest results are elite athletes, and people who are really messed up. I fit both categories and my results were fantastic. My monthly disaster time was noticeably less intense after only 6 sessions, and my body feels stable in ways it has not since having kids.

    Altering my Training Schedule
    Relaxin is elevated at certain times and if you have SPD, problems might be more severe then. The options above help mitigate the symptoms but if I am having a rough day, shifting around the training schedule isn’t a big deal. As far as competing, it isn’t totally ideal to have to check my calendar to make sure my competition won’t fall on a day that I might. I am hopeful that over time and continued treatment, that this won’t be an issue. But for now, holding back on the days I know I am most likely to injure myself helps me stay healthy for the long run.

    Diastasis and Lifting

    April 10th, 2014 by Laura

    I had surgery and this is no longer an issue. I will keep this page here anyway incase anyone else is googling how others handled training with a diastasis.

    After my second baby, I had to have my belly button surgically removed and mesh lodged in its place with a big midline side to side slash. Then I got pregnant with my third baby and was left with old surgical materials poking me through the skin, more hernias and a host of other things along with the diastasis. I had the ab separation for years. It was surgically repaired in January 2016 (along with some other abdominal procedures that take a while to heal, which is why I haven’t been competing or posting much lately).

    I was told by my doctor and surgeons that in my case, the connective tissue there was destroyed and the only way to suture it back would be surgically. Given the futile efforts that were put into closing it and the extent of the trauma to that area, this did prove to be true for me. However, some people are able to close the gap on their own.

    Transverse Abdominal Work and Splinting
    If anyone is reading and looking for a starting point on healing their diastasis, ‘Lose Your Mummy Tummy’ by Julie Tupler helps many people.

    And her site:

    DiastasisRehab.com

    The book title is a little misleading… It sounds like it would be about how to lose fat or get rid of love handles but it is actually all about how to heal split abdominals.

    I loved this book and passed on my paper copy to another mom with this problem. She was able to totally fix her diastasis with the exercises in the book. One note on this book is that it is a little outdated (2004) and the author no longer recommends a few of the exercises it. That said, seated/ standing transverse abdominal movements and stomach vacuums seem to work out very well for many, and it encourages constant awareness on how to move in daily life.

    Training with Diastasis
    As I mentioned, I had many other things going on alongside the diastasis, so I can’t really pinpoint which sort of discomfort came from what. These were some of the adjustments I made that allowed me to continue training.

    I had to avoid:

    • Rows where I was facing the ground
    • Planks (front)
    • Push-ups
    • Burpees
    • Anything where gravity pulls my upper abs open (my diastasis was only in the upper portion, my lower abs are intact).

    If I did want to perform any of those movements, I could still do some of them while wearing a brace. And of course if you are researching how to work out with a diastasis, you probably already know not to do any crunches or twists.

    Binders
    Tupler recommends using something to splint the abdominals together during the core moves suggested in the book, and that is something I was been to apply to my training for my sport. It holds my abs in place so they can work together. All surrounding muscles can work more efficiently as a result. When I lifted weights and used a belt, I couldn’t push out against my belt. I’d just brace my abs the best I can while the belt splices them together.

    You can splint your abs together with just a sheet or towel. I opted for binders if I knew I would have to lean over for anything. The difference between a binder and a splint is that the binder will compress the abs toward the spine, where the splint pulls them together horizontally. I find that binders also help pull my abs together, keeping everything in the right place so I am less prone to shifting and injury. When using a binder, I never just put it on and then forget about it or rely on it to do all the work. I pay careful attention to my pelvic alignment and practice using my core as a unit when it is all being held together.

    image Some binders have wires in them that stab you when you squat. The medical grade binders are gentle to wear but can be cumbersome. I loved the Ann Chery Workout Cincher (to the right). It is workout-specific and comfortable to move in.

    Pilates
    Pilates movements encourage tightening your ‘inner corset’ and engaging the TVA. Not all pilates moves are ok to do with a diastasis. A qualified pilates instructor can help, but if course if you have diastasis, it probably means you have young kids and getting out for private pilates classes is a pipe dream. A Google search for ‘diastasis pilates’ will turn up plenty of safe options. Any movement where you feel your abs separating more, or protruding, is not ok.

    Stomach Vacuum
    This was my go-to ab exercise. It can immediately dim the discomfort and pain that spread from the abs to the back. (As I mentioned, I had other things with the diastasis that caused pain. I’ve read that a diastasis on its own is painless, but some affected women have said otherwise.)

    After Surgery
    After surgery and completing therapy, my abdomen is back to 100%. I am very grateful to be able to get back to training with no restrictions.

    I didn’t mention much about pelvic floor here. From what I understand, problems there can be related to diastasis, but the pelvic floor stuff even affects women who have not given birth. My experience was that I had issues while I was pregnant and nursing (I nursed each baby for a year) and after that, things were pretty much back to normal. I’m surprised I didn’t have more problems with that given the state of my abdomen. I still think it is wise to always pee before deadlifts though 🙂