"What is the purpose of learning how to properly use the iliopsoas muscle, and how does this affect exercise technique from a Pilates perspective?"
In Part 1 the anatomy, benefits, and function of the iliopsoas muscle were reviewed for a greater understanding of the importance it plays in movement and health. Fine for the brain to understand the concepts, how does one practically apply this information to Pilates? In this article I will review a few of the tricks I use to help my clients find the illiopsoas and release the rectus femoris, as well as several of my favorite exercises to facilitate a client's understanding of how to find the psoas with out "gripping" the front of the thighs.
Creating Conscious Awareness
I love teaching mat classes! There are so many exercises that can cause one to "grab" in the front of the thighs. Clients can provide you with instant feedback that their legs are cramping, or they feel more work in their thighs than in their mid-section. This is just the information needed for me to point out that they are using the wrong muscles to do (or support) the movement - and helps open the door for me to show them how to improve their technique and find the strength and support of the Iliopsoas.
My two favorite Mat "test" exercises for client awareness that their might be a better way - One Leg Circle, and Spine Stretch Forward. If clients are grabbing in the front of the thighs to pull the leg around on One Leg Circle - they are restricting free movement of the leg at the hip which will cause the pelvis and lower spine to wiggle, and they are lifting the leg to return to center with the Rectus Femoris rather than the illiopsoas. If when clients sit tall for Spine Stretch Forward, and the front of the thighs/hip flexors are tight, they are pulling the pelvis forward to lift with the Rec. Fem. Rather than supporting the lift from behind with the illiopsoas. These now serve as my "test" exercises to help measure improvements. One is with the legs moving and a stable spine, the other with the spine moving and stable legs. It's important that the body learns how to work properly regardless of which end is moving!
Partnering In Search of the Iliopsoas
Finding and using the illiopsoas in my opinion is a process! Personally, I spent months focused on this when I started Pilates. Once I understood what I needed to do to "get out of my thighs" almost every exercise gave me an opportunity to practice. Old habits don't always disappear quickly, which is why low repetitions and reinforcement are so important. Bless my first Pilates teacher, David Mooney for his patience and persistence in helping me learn new habits and not letting me cheat while I struggled to find a better way to move with my Psoas!
For instant feedback, I think one of the easiest places to start working on this is with a partner. Teach your class participants to assist each other and the learning curve is faster. As a spotter they will have access to a different perspective about the body and develop awareness that they can't find while their doing the exercise. This will add to their understanding and conscious body awareness when it's their turn to practice.
Partner Exercise - 2 Leg Lift:
One partner lays down on their back, Spotter hold the legs at the ankles - legs straight and extended out at about a 45 degree angle. (Think position to spot for Teaser.) Once in position, with a supported pelvic floor and low scoop to keep the spine stabilized and on the mat - RELAX the legs and let the spotter hold them. To start - just learning how to maintain abdominal support and un-grip the quadriceps for "heavy legs" might be its own exercise. *P.S. The pelvic floor has to be engaged to cue the hip flexors to relax. Ideally the work to hold the legs up comes from the hamstrings and glutes - underneath the legs instead of on top...while maintaining core support!
Now for the exercise. Keeping the quadriceps soft - Inhale, Exhale to engage the middle and float/hinge - lifting the legs up to the ceiling or over the belly button. Spotter should keep holding the weight of heavy legs as they lift. Done well with the iliopsoas to move the legs, the stomach will flatten and the front of the thighs will not "grab" as the legs move. The legs should actually lengthen away from the body for free range of motion to hinge from the hip. Also, the legs remain somewhat "heavy" into the spotter's hands while they lift. If the spotter sees or feels the leg muscles fire before the mid-section engages it's incorrect - the Rectus Femoris did the work to lift the legs. Done incorrectly the legs will pull away from the spotter's support. Done well, the legs will remain heavy in the spotter's hands, but feel light and move freely.
Use a good breath pattern to assist the movement. Cue, Inhale Lower the legs, Exhale, Stomach zips flat, Reach the legs away & Lift...Inhale Lower the legs. Exhale Stomach zips flat, Reach the legs away & Lift...Inhale Lower. If clients are new to finding this - take an extra breath or two at the 45 degree position to be sure they have correct support & released quadriceps before cueing to lift the legs.
Start with the head down and a short range of motion. Legs closer to the ceiling will make the exercise easier. Work into a curled up 100's position with the hands supported behind the head eyes focused to the low stomach & hips to watch the right action happen. Ideally, clients should get to the point that they can lower & lift their legs from the floor (i.e. Roll Over, 2 - Leg Lift (stomach series) full Corkscrew, Teaser 2 & 3, Boomerang...and the list goes on.)
Iliopsoas Homework for the 2 Leg Lift
Once clients understand the concept - I encourage them to go home and practice by propping their legs on a wall or chair so that they can actively find the release of the quads with support underneath the legs (hamstrings & glutes), safe & stable spine to the mat (pelvic floor & core,) and new initiator (the psoas) to lift or float the legs up. They can apply this process to the Hundred, Series of 5, Teaser...any exercise where the legs are extended and either held, or moving through space. To start, exercises may need to be broken down into small pieces and, when you know the psoas is supporting the movement and Rectus Femoris is more released build back up to the "real" exercise at a normal tempo.
Finding the Psoas Seated
For some clients it's easier to activate the pelvic floor in a seated position. If the hamstrings are tight however, getting the psoas to support lifting the back will be a challenge due to the relationship of the pelvis to the legs. (An active Psoas is a healthy hinge - tight hamstrings will keep the pelvis in a posterior tilt or tuck.) Here are a few things you can do:
- Add additional hamstring stretches to the workout program.
- Start training the Psoas to support when sitting in a chair. At this angle, the hamstrings won't limit the lift of the spine with the psoas.
- For Matwork - and Spine Stretch Forward, begin propped up on a box with the back against the wall, so that as they arrive at the tall position they can focus on a moment of relaxed thighs and support from the pelvic floor, back, belly, and underneath the legs.
Good Psoas support in a seated position is like sitting in a stadium seat with one of those little seat cushions that slips onto the bleachers. You've got support from the back and underneath the legs to sit tall. This support along with use of the core muscles, abdominals, and spine erectors keeps the body in a well-balanced, tall posture position.
The Frustration of Retraining the Psoas with Matwork
Pilates Matwork is not the "ideal" place to retrain this very important muscle group to do its job correctly. Without some sort of trusted support, chances are the body will rely on old habits of "gripping the thighs." That's why Pilates is a system and an ideal workout utilizes both equipment and Matwork. By focusing on the proper use of the psoas with Reformer, Cadillac Chairs, and Barrel exercises - the correct muscle action can be transferred to Matwork over time.
Pilates Exercises to Train the Iliopsoas
Here is a brief list of Pilates Equipment exercises that can be utilized to strengthen the illiopsoas for movement. Hopefully you're brain is inspired to think of all the other exercises, modifications, and tools you can use to cue proper action of the psoas when developing workout programs for your clients.
Reformer: Footwork, Frog, Leg Circles, Hamstring stretch (prep for Short Spine), Stomach Massage Hands Back (Done with proper Psoas support - clients will maintain their spine position and not loose their shorts!), Flat back Elephant, Arabesques, Long Back Stretch, Short Box -Hinge Flat, Long Spine Stretch.
Cadillac: Leg Springs (This is a great place to work on the 2 Leg Lift that I explained with a partner.), Knees over the Roll Down Bar (prep for PMA-Short Spine/Semi-Circles & a short lever version of the 2 Leg Lift), Tower, Teaser w/ Push Through
Chair: Foot work/pumping, Standing - 1 leg demi point press, Torso Press Sit, Pull -Up/Hamstring 3 (hinge up/scoop down)
Spine Corrector/Small Barrel: Leg Series, Shoulder Bridge w/Kick, Hip Circles, Teaser.
I Got It!
Remember well executed use of the Iliopsoas during exercise should lengthen the torso and lumbar spine, lengthen the legs away from the torso, provide space in the hip socked for free movement of the leg on a stable pelvis, or free movement of the pelvis on a stable leg with no "gripping" in the front of the hip. This action is a valuable component of many of the exercises in the Pilates repertoire and helps to develop both support and free motion for whole-body health. While technically it sounds complicated - It's really not, keep it easy! Use the exhale to assist the movement. Exhale, Stomach, Lengthen Away & Lift will cue the brain and body to find functional support of the Iliopsoas in movement. If the front of the thigh is "gripping" bend the knee a bit to start. If the front of the hip is "gripping" closer to the joint - engage more pelvic floor if possible and know that the sense of "gripping" or not "gripping" is instant feedback for a well-executed exercise.
Taking the time to train your clients to better utilize the Psoas muscle for movement and support may initially take a bit of time and energy. In the long run, it can be one of the most valuable benefits to a stronger more supported Pilates exercise program. It can make it easier for you to progress them into intermediate and advanced level skills safely, and will help to provide functional support for everyday life.