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To Contract Or Not To Contract – What To Do With a Shortened Psoas

in YogaDork Ed

Psoas-Contract-RelaxBy Alexa Kim

During a recent Level 1 Yoga Tune Up Teacher Training in L.A., an excellent question was posed by one of the trainees: “I have fabulously tight psoas. Wouldn’t warming up by marching make my [bad] psoas worse, given the additional hip flexion?”

This got me thinking as this same question bothered me when I was first told that squatting is one of the best things a person can do for his/her health. Wouldn’t this extreme hip flexion shorten my dysfunctional psoas more? Wouldn’t it tighten my already tight calves and hamstrings? (We’ll put aside the fact that I was doing the squat in a less than optimal fashion.)

What I soon discovered was missing was that an active contraction of a muscle has a profoundly different effect on the tissue than when the muscle is passively shortened. This active contraction during the pose is what makes all the difference.

To clarify, a “tight muscle” may not mean the same thing to all people. A muscle can become passively shortened due to habits like sitting (for the psoas) and/or walking around in high heels (for the soleus). This is not the same thing as a muscle that has been through so much “exercising” it’s become hypertonic. Neither condition is good for skeletal muscles, but they are very different conditions from one another.

As referenced by the YTU Trainee above, the psoas of people who live in cultures with rampant usage of chairs, sofas and cars, are very likely to be have been passively shortened (i.e., shorter than optimal length). For people who also incorporate a fair amount of running and cycling, the psoas is also going to be hypertonic – unless its owner spends an equal amount of time in hip extension.

So what causes a muscle to passively shorten?
While this can happen to other muscles, the one that has the international spotlight lately, and this blog, is the psoas. If you have chronic lower back pain, if you have trouble standing or walking upright, or can’t sleep on your back without a bolster under your knees, you can thank your poor psoas. You have two of these skeletal muscles, one on each side of your pelvis and their geometry is determined by the angle of your thighs relative to your lumbar spine and how many hours each day you spend sitting or curled up in a fetal position because your back hurts. Go ahead; count the number of hours your hips are flexed at a ninety-degree (or smaller) angle each day. If it’s a lot, and for too many people it’s probably close to eight hours of at least their waking hours, the psoas will adaptively shorten.

The human body tries to be efficient. It will stop supporting tissues and structures that its owner does not use. Why waste the energy and resources of keeping a muscle at its optimal length if a person almost never keeps it or uses it at that length? Having excess length in a muscle is not efficient – consider how sloppy a yacht’s sail looks (and how ineffective it becomes) when the ropes holding it up are too loose. The body does not want sloppy muscles. So it will shorten muscles by removing muscle proteins at the end of muscle fibers. Slack in a muscle triggers the muscle fibers to shorten while a pull or stretch on a muscle stimulates the addition of muscle proteins to the ends of the muscle fibers. [1]

Why make a passively shortened muscle shorter by actively contracting it?
I’m so glad you asked. First of all, how much a muscle contracts is a major determinant of its size and rate of cellular regeneration. Decrease muscle activity and the rate of protein degradation will accelerate, resulting in muscle atrophy. Increase muscle activity and boost the production of new proteins.

Second, you never want to stretch a muscle when it’s cold. Concentric muscle contractions before static stretching minimize stretch-induced force deficits. In plain-speak, marching in place prior to stretching prevents the muscle from weakening after a static stretch. [2]

Lastly, to keep a muscle healthy, its nerve must supply both impulses (contraction instructions) and certain chemical factors. A muscle that is deprived of electrical or nervous stimulation will degenerate. On the other hand, an active muscle can increase short-term blood supply by telling its capillaries to open and implement longer term changes by causing the proliferation of capillaries. [3] This is why muscles also need to warm up prior to an extensive workout, and particularly before “cardiovascular” work. If the heart rate goes from resting to aerobic, the heart pumps a much larger quantity of blood – that needs to go somewhere. If the capillaries in the muscles are not open to receive the additional blood flow, it’s like turning on a fire hose that’s connected to a cocktail straw. This is not kind to blood vessels. And guess what happens to blood pressure if the muscles are cold and heart rate goes up?

If you’ve been guilty of inflicting long passive stretches or hundred-yard dashes on cold muscles, relax. Muscles can heal themselves and grow stronger with a sensible and healthy practice that incorporates a balanced systematic approach to stretching, strengthening, and cardiovascular exercise (which is why I’ve been so attracted to studying YTU). Active muscles that are kept at their optimal lengths move more blood, oxygen and nutrients – and increase one’s basal (resting) metabolic rate. This leads to better cellular regeneration and burning more calories while you sleep. The body is pretty spectacular.

[1] P. E. Williams & G. Goldspink, Changes In Sarcomere Length And Physiological Properties In Immobilized Muscle, Journal of Anatomy, 127 (Pt 3), 459–468 (1978).
[2] Whaaaaaaat?!?! Stretching weakens muscles? Yes, under certain conditions. Static stretching of cold muscles has been shown to damage muscle fibers. Eccentric stretching under heavy load conditions has also been shown to damage muscle fibers. And overstretching the muscle-tendon complex can increase joint instability and increase the risk of injury. Anthony D. Kay & Anthony J. Blazevich, Concentric Muscle Contractions Before Static Stretching Minimize, But Do Not Remove, Stretch-Induced Force Deficits, Journal of Applied Physiology, 108: 637–645 (2010).
[3] Steven Vogel, Prime Mover, A Natural History of Muscle (2001)

Alexa Kim teaches because she loves thinking about the complex and simple ways of the human body. The body’s needs for optimal health are incredibly simple; how the body compensates for damaging habits is extraordinarily complex. She loves assisting students distill functional movement to its most simple – so that students can restore, strengthen and protect their own bodies in any situation. She is certified to teach Yoga Tune Up, is a certified Restorative Exercise Specialist, and a Healthy Foot Practitioner.

19 comments… add one

  • Karen

    I am so grateful for this explanation! I am in physical therapy right now and we’ve determined my ilial psoas are involved with my leg pain. I have some great strengthening exercises and stretches to do–such a coincidence to read this! Thank you!

  • Rob

    So what poses/exercises can be done to contract the psoas effectively to improve its function?

    Thanks!!

  • Alexa Kim

    A fun and often eye-opening exercise is rolling on the floor, curled up like a ball while arms hug shins or thighs. Roll up and down your spine without using leg movements to promote momentum (i.e., the distance between knees and nose remains constant and lower legs remain still). Test how going slower makes it harder and whether the rectus abdominus can work less. Remember to release and stretch the psoai as well.

  • Rainbow Patchouli Bracelet

    Rob, isn’t that the million dollar question?

    I definitely have shortened muscles do to 90 degree postures for too long. And for the past year, have been actively attempting to reverse it. How difficult that’s been! From this bodies perspective, it’s all about separate leg stretching pose– folding over with a flat back that creates the forward fold movement at the pelvic. With that done, the hamstrings at the back of the legs stretch, the bones at the back of the pelvis, above the buttocks rise, and the quadriceps tighten and contract the abdominals.

    I really appreciated this anatomical explanation given in the article, which describes the process I have been under-going: “The body does not want sloppy muscles. So it will shorten muscles by removing muscle proteins at the end of muscle fibers. Slack in a muscle triggers the muscle fibers to shorten while a pull or stretch on a muscle stimulates the addition of muscle proteins to the ends of the muscle fibers… an active muscle can increase short-term blood supply by telling its capillaries to open and implement longer term changes by causing the proliferation of capillaries. “

  • Rainbow Patchouli Bracelet

    Oh, I don’t think links work here, but I wanted to pass on that there is a ton of info on the psoas, and how to get it working right at “Bandha Yoga Psoas”. A search should bring you to the page.

  • Seth Floyd

    Would one of those chairs where you are basically on your knees be a benefit to not shortening these muscles if you do have to sit in a chair all day? Or is just standing at your desk just the much better option?

  • Even better, Seth: a walking (treadmill) desk.

  • Actually a treadmill has the unfortunate effect of creating more hip flexion (and psoas tension among other things) because the movement of the belt reverses our natural gait pattern. You can search for “Junk Food Walking” over on KatySays for more info on this.

  • Rainbow Patchouli Bracelet

    The standing one seems to do the trick. I have one that can be raised or lowered. I tend to do things like pigeon, with one foot folded onto the desk, and have a sand ball to roll the feet around on too…. 1st world problems.

  • Nature's Cure

    Of course, nature’s cure for a tight iliopsoas is to stand up and walk around.

  • when we did a kinesiology course recently we found that tightness in the psoas often indicates that the person is operating in the context of ‘shock’ perhaps they have been triggered into an old trauma or maybe never recovered from some physical or emotional shock to the system. Other indicators are less than optimal digestion, stress, hungering for coffee or sugar… A competent kinesiologist can help you out of this shock, help you integrate the experience and usually within the session your psoas will chill out again and you may even feel like a million bucks. if going to see someone isn’t an option, meditating or just asking yourself to tune into the cause of the shock will be the start of the healing. namaste chaitanya

  • Elle Varga

    I am so impressed with this article and illustration. Coming from a young girl with an early natural yogic ability, and a later on in life strict classical dance structured training, it’s sometimes difficult to translate to student that sometimes our flexibility is predetermined and can be gradually improved via proper alignment and patience, patience, PATIENCE, and ALIGNMENT!! I <3 you YD and I plan to reshare this paper with my students. TY!!

  • Awesome article! I’m definitely guilty of a life on chairs and couches and am paying the price. I never knew that the muscle tissue actually degenerates at the ENDS – that’s a vivid image – and now I get it. Your article explains the problem so beautifully, I was left wanting more. What’s a shortened-psoas girl to do? Or in normal language, what are the best ways to restore these shortened muscles to their optimal length. To activate and stretch, I would imagine, but how to do so gently, without causing injury. What works? Please do write more!

  • Ed T.

    Try hanging from a sling on an Iyengar rope wall. This stretches the psoas, but down from the torso. It is basically supta baddha konasana on the wall. Ed T.

  • Thank you for posting this! I was starting to feel like there aren’t many yoga teachers out there who recommend to contract before stretching! Here is my post on the subject, if you are interested: https://sequencewiz.wordpress.com/2013/07/04/a-smart-way-to-relieve-muscle-tension/

  • VQ2

    I looked at your website, and at the risk of sounding oh-so-sacrilegious … well, there goes hundreds of years of gurus’ teachings out the window … somehow, with my body (and my mostly self-authored practice), I already intuitively take that more “scientific and rational” approach …

    Have been, by turns, sick and tired of aches and pains in my body and making them worse with my practice. So, I take matters in my own hands …

  • Ed T.

    Thank you for posting your article.

  • I tried your sequence out and saw a real difference! I have a hip flexor contraction sequence that I do daily (religiously) but it’s a little different. You move into each pose and hold for six seconds, three times each. The thinking is that if the muscle is held contracted for six seconds thrice this restarts nervous system communication and activates muscles that have gone inactive. This morning I added in your moves AND your practice of beginning each pose with short warm-up contractions before the longer stay. My body just loved it and it really put me in touch – almost pschydelic awareness of each muscle group contracting and relaxing. Very nice! Thank you Olga and Alexia!

  • Lyle Walsh

    Watch those of us with a history of back fusions try to straighten up, it’s very very painful. I’m pretty sure, for me, it’s a tight iliopsoas.
    I have found that extended low lunge with active cat cow (and side to side) pelvis tilting helps warm it up.
    In my experience, high lunge, ironicly, makes it much worse.

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