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The Invisible Assassins: Iliopsoas

There is a hidden menace that any one of us could have to deal with as martial athletes.  A pair of "invisible assassins" if you will, who can put you out of action and yet you'll never see them!

Why?  Because they are hidden deep within your body!

I speak of a very important set of muscles that are essential to your everyday life yet are normally ignored; the iliopsosas!

The iliopsoas are actually 2 different muscles (Illiacus & Psoas), but they are often referred to together, because they work together.  (Like the Quadriceps which are actually 4 separate muscles). These muscles attach at the low back, hip and upper leg bone.  Their main function is to flex the hip.  In addition to this, the psoas is one of the main reasons we are able to maintain an upright posture . 

The problem comes in if the iliopsoas becomes overly contracted.  This can be caused several ways.  These include over training, improper technique in training, lack of stretching, and prolonged periods of sitting especially sitting with the knees higher than the hips like when in a car.  With the emphasis on core strength training and dynamic motion from the dan-tien (harra in Japanese) that is inherent to the martial arts you see how these muscles can get over worked between conditioning and training!

This over-contraction of the iliopsoas will cause pain and limit your range of motion.  Bending forward will be difficult and sitting will become near impossible, particularly anytime your knees are higher than your hips as mentioned.

What makes this particularly deceptive is the fact that the pain will NOT be felt in the iliopsoas but instead will be felt as referred pain elsewhere in the body!  Typically the pain referral is in the lower back, hip, kidney region and even into the front of the thighs!

While massage work in those areas will feel nice temporarily, it will NOT deal with the root problem in the iliopsoas.  Your relief if any will be temporary and the pain will return in time.  This cycle will continue until the iliopsoas muscles get treatment to release them.  This is not usually something that just goes away by itself.

Here's an easy test you can do to see if your iliopsoas is overly contracted.  While standing, see if you can extend your back.  You do this by leaning backwards, as if you were going to go back into a bridge.  If the muscle is locked in contraction, extension will be limited.

To release the iliopsoas muscles, deep constant pressure is used along the length of the muscle from hips upward. The steady pressure must be maintained until it causes the golgi tendon apparatus in the muscle to relax.  (As covered in a past Training Tip on the medical aspects of atemi / dim mak / vital point strikes the golgi tendon apparatus is what regulates muscular tension and knowledge of how to find and activate them explains many things in the arts.)

The best thing to do is to go to a professional massage therapist who specializes in deep tissue or better yet trigger-point work.  Some applied kinesiologists incorporate this work as well.  A session of about 20 minutes is needed to release the iliopsoas.  The area is usually very sensitive and the work may be uncomfortable.  Your therapist should be able to go slow enough to minimize the discomfort but let's just say that it's not the kind of massage where you're going to drift off to sleep.

To work this muscle yourself, lay on your back and work the area in the abdomen between the ribs and the hips about an inch or so out from the belly button.  To locate this muscle do the following: with your hand at the top of your hip bone, turn your foot out and lift your leg straight up and you will feel the muscle move.  Work slowly from hip to ribs, applying steady firm pressure and waiting for the release.

A great stretch for the iliopsoas is the cobra or 'upward dog' posture from Yoga.  If you are unfamiliar with this, simply lay on your belly, put your hands on the floor by your shoulders, and press your upper body off the floor leaving your hips and legs flat.  The gymnastic style back bridge (on the hands, not on the head) is another good stretch to try.  Just do it over one of those large exercise balls if you're hurting.

The defense against this invisible assassin is keeping these muscles flexible and happy!  You'll be amazed at the difference in your back comfort and increased range of motion.

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