The Most Important Muscle You’ve Never Heard Of
Activating the psoas is the first step to total body function and alignment. Here are three exercises to fire this foundational muscle.
At Elev8d, we talk a lot about the importance of being hip-driven. That’s because you need to recruit power from your hips is order to execute every move you make, from walking and running to squatting and lifting. But your hips have something driving them, and it’s the most important muscle in your body that you’ve never heard of. It’s called the psoas. (pronounced SO-az).
“The psoas is the root of all of your other muscles, and it’s the only muscle that connects the lower and upper body,” describes Brian Bradley, Fitness Director of Elev8d. The largest and strongest of a muscle group called hip flexors, it originates on the right and left sides of the lower spine and travels diagonally across the front of the pelvis, snaking through the groin on each side and finally attaching inside the top of the thighbones. The psoas fosters movement and flow throughout the body, constantly contracting and releasing. As Jo Ann Staugaard-Jones, an advanced Pilates and Hatha yoga instructor and author of The Vital Psoas Muscle: Connecting Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Well-Being, puts it, “It’s our most important skeletal muscle, partnering with other muscles to stabilize and girdle the lower spine, and promoting proper body alignment.”
Activating the Psoas will Help Align Your Body
Ahh, there’s that word, though: Alignment. We have four sets of load-bearing joints—the shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles—and they all need to be properly stacked, with full range of motion, to function optimally. But between computer and screen use, driving, flying, reading, watching TV, and sitting at a table to eat or write, we are constantly rounding our shoulders forward, causing our back to hunch, our head to jut out and our pelvis to tilt under. “Our backs look like a C-curve, when they should look like an S,” Bradley says. This relaxed hip flexion position, with the full weight of the torso hovering on top and the lower extremities inactive, not only inhibits lymph circulation, muscle conditioning, and nerve response, it shortens, tightens and weakens the psoas. (Bradley has dubbed this short-tight-weak combo “The unhappy triad.”)
“If you sit for a good portion of the day,” Staugaard-Jones warns, “chances are your psoas is tight.” Pain isn’t always a symptom, but it can be. “If a patient complains of chronic, dull, bilateral pain in their lower back and groin, that’s a big clue that their psoas needs relaxing and stretching.” They may also feel discomfort in their hip sockets, glutes, or sacroiliac joints in the back of the pelvis.
Another, more surprising, cause of psoas pain may be emotional trauma, Staugaard-Jones adds. The psoas is known as “the fight or flight muscle” because when the body or mind become stressed, the psoas tightens and contracts in a primal response designed to protect us from harm. Thousands of years ago, an approaching predator would cause our psoas to instinctively shrink and contract, reducing us to as small a target as possible. Today, the trigger could be a divorce, job loss, losing a friend or family member, or just the general stress of life. (According to a post-election American Psychological Association study, Americans’ stress levels are the highest they’ve been in a 10 years.)
3 Exercises to Get “Hip Driven”
Elev8d’s 8-minute workouts are ideal for getting you out of your shoulders and upper back and prompting you to be more hip-driven, therefore activating the psoas. “You don’t have to do all sorts of crazy core training or weight lifting,” Bradley promises. These moves functionally work the body’s deep, foundational muscles, like the psoas, “and once your body finds the psoas, it will start to engage it on its own. You can then take that newly hip-driven body to your next activity,” whether it’s sitting, running, or anything in between.”
Try these three Elev8d moves for breathing life back into your psoas:
Standing Arm Circles
- 1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, toes pointed straight ahead. (Do not allow the toes to extend outward, which shuts off the psoas.)
- 2. Extend your arms directly sideways and point your thumbs forward, hands down. Pinch your shoulder blades back.
- 3. Move your arms up and forward in a circular motion 40 times, then flip your hands palms up, thumbs pointed backward, and move your arms up and backwards in a circle 40 times.
Finish Line Abs
- 1. Start with your feet in a staggered stance (one foot forward, one back, knees bent slightly, almost as if you were at the starting line of a race.)
- 2. Bend your elbows at a 90 degree angle and, keeping arms tight to the sides, pump them back and forth for 30 seconds, as if sprinting, focusing on both speed and control.
- 1. Sitting on the ground, knees tucked to chest, wrap your arms around your legs.
- 2. Roll onto your back and then up to start position, using as little momentum as possible.
- 3. Repeat 10 times.