The most important muscle you never heard of

The psoas muscle is deep within your body and is one of the most important muscles to exercise. It is imperative for a tight midsection and core, and yet, most people focus on the six pack muscles — the rectus abdominus because that is visible and looks good when developed.

The psoas works to stabilize the lower spine in order to promote proper body alignment and although you will never see the psoas, it is one of the most important muscles to develop because it allows for movement which flows throughout the body. The psoas allows for complex moves such as straightening through the lower spine, pulling the upper leg up toward your chest, or your trunk down toward your thighs, or doing side bends.

The psoas connects the spine to the legs directly on the femur (the thigh bone). It is used when you walk, run, climb stairs or do anything that requires you to pull your legs up.

Just like any other skeletal muscle, it needs to be strengthened for you to be in top shape, and when the psoas gets weak, your posture suffers, as well, pain results in the low back. Sitting for extended periods of time causes the psoas to weaken.

In our sedentary society when computer work, driving, watching TV and/or using devices for extended periods of time is the norm, we place our bodies in positions that cut off circulation to the lower extremities, as well as cause muscle atrophy.

If you sit for extended periods of time throughout the day, most likely your psoas muscle is tight and weak. This can cause spasms in the low back, or a dull chronic pain on both sides of the back or in the groin. There may be pain in the hip sockets and the glutes as well. If the psoas muscle is hyper-tonic and inflamed, there may be a feeling of water or heat running down the front of the thighs.

Good posture is essential in keeping the psoas engaged properly, as is properly executed exercises. When sitting, sit on your “sit” bones — right under you. To strengthen the psoas, standing lunges do a good job as long as your alignment is correct. Feet must be parallel to each other and the knee moves straight forward.

Another good psoas strengthener is the Boat Pose as done in yoga. This looks like you are sitting in a V. However, because so often the psoas is tight and painful or causing pain elsewhere, it needs to be stretched before it can be strengthened. If you are unsure of how these moves are properly done, consult a fitness professional.

To stretch tight psoas muscles, the half bridge pose can be used. Simply lay on the floor with your hands alongside your body and press your palms into the floor to lift your pelvis up toward the ceiling. It is important to keep your body in alignment while doing this move.

If you are unsure, consult a fitness professional to ensure that you know how to move into and move out of a half bridge pose. If the move is too difficult, you may begin with simply lying on the floor or another firm flat surface and have your knees bent up and touching each other, with your feet flat on the surface spaced about hip width apart. Stay in that position for at least 30 seconds and let the psoas relax and stretch out.

The psoas muscle is also impacted by stress and this can be a source of discomfort in the muscle and the joints that it controls.

The psoas muscle has been termed the “fight or flight” muscle because when we are under stress, the psoas muscle contracts up. It is believed that this is a primal response to make us appear smaller and to reduce us to as small a target as possible in days gone by.

However, in more recent times the stressors can be anything from job difficulties, or home-life worries or simply commuting to and from work.

Most people are aware that stress can affect one’s posture and lead to all manner of aches and pains.

Exercising the psoas may not overtly translate into the body beautiful look that developing other muscles may, but it is vital for a well-conditioned and well-functioning body that moves with ease and grace.

I want to correct an error that appeared in my column from a few weeks ago. It appears that breadfruit is not high in gluten as reported, and that there are several sources that offer breadfruit flour as a gluten-free alternative. I personally love breadfruit because it is so versatile and delicious. I apologize for the error.

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Dr. Jane Riley, EdD., M.S., B.A., is a certified personal fitness trainer, nutritional adviser and behavior change specialist. She can be reached at janerileyfitness@gmail.com, (808) 212-8119 cell/text.

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