Musicians as Athletes: The Psoas Major

The Psoas Major is my favorite muscle. Hopefully, after reading this, you’ll also appreciate how cool it is!

First, its location! The Psoas Major connects your lumbar spine to your femur, back to front, top to bottom. Fun fact, it’s actually the ONLY muscle in your body that connects the upper body to the lower body.

Here’s a picture of it!

This is taken from  The Key Muscles of Yoga  by Ray Long and Chris MacIvor. It’s one of my favorite books! If you want to geek out on anatomy, I can’t recommend it enough!

This is taken from The Key Muscles of Yoga by Ray Long and Chris MacIvor. It’s one of my favorite books! If you want to geek out on anatomy, I can’t recommend it enough!

Second, its function! The main job of the Psoas Major is hip flexion. If you stand and raise one knee, you’ve engaged in hip flexion. It is also involved in balancing and controlling all the big movements of the body. One of its deeper functions is as the main muscle of your startle response. Think about the first reflexive motion your body makes upon hearing a sudden, loud noise. It contracts, crouches, pulls in on itself. That is your psoas major, pulling your upper and lower body together to protect all of your internal organs, and getting ready to spring into action. Sound familiar? It’s your flight or fight instinct. We’ll come back to that!

I promised in the last post that we’d be talking about posture. Well, the psoas major is a HUGE part of your posture, as you will see!

First, some words of wisdom from Kelly Starrett, author of How to Become a Supple Leopard:

“Sitting is the new smoking.”

It’s that bad for you. Now, we can’t quit sitting…it’s a part of life. But, there are things we can do to alleviate the damage we do to ourselves when we sit!

What damage? WHY is sitting the new smoking?

Let’s look at it from the point of view of the psoas. When you sit a lot, your hip flexors (psoas included) get tight. One of the most common resulting postural deviations is anterior pelvic tilt, which means the top of the pelvis tips forward (I like to call this “bimbo butt” in my yoga classes). This puts the lumbar spine into extension (picture a deeper curve). This causes the transverse abdominal muscles to weaken (this is another really cool set of muscles that we’ll talk about more deeply in another post). Their main job is core stabilization, which is taken over by the middle and upper abdominal muscles, which depresses the rib cage. As the rib cage depresses, the thoracic spine rounds into kyphosis, which causes the cervical spine to protract in order to balance it out (that’s the head-forward, chin jutting position). Because the back of the neck is shorter in this position, the upper traps shorten and tighten. The shoulders round forward and internally rotate, and the pecs shorten as well, weakening the rhomboids (between your shoulder blades). MEANWHILE, because the hip flexors are so tight, the gluteus maximus can’t do their main job, which is hip extension (picture lifting your straight leg directly behind you with your knee pointed forward), so they work in their secondary function, which is external rotation (picture rotating your knee to the side). Your adductors (inner thighs) get weak and your lateral stabilizers (gluteus medius, minimus, and the piriformis) overwork and dominate.

All of that from tight hip flexors!

So what does this look like?


Now, what does this posture do to your body? The most common issue is lower back pain; first because the tight psoas is pulling on the lumbar spine, but also because the overactive piriformis becomes inflamed and can put pressure on the sciatic nerve, which manifests as lower back pain. The internally rotated and rounded shoulders are in a compromised position, making them more susceptible to injury (not good if you need your shoulders to play your instrument…and if you need your arms, you also need your shoulders). Finally, all the tightness in the upper traps causes tension headaches.

But your body is not the only thing affected by this posture! It has an effect on your brain as well! Did you watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk from the post about performance anxiety? Then you know that the forward-contracted position is one of protection, defense, stress, and fear. That posture is telling your brain there is cause for anxiety, which activates the sympathetic nervous system, firing up the flight or fight response. Very similar to the looping effect of anxiety from my posts about deep breathing AND performance anxiety. Did you watch my TEDx talk all about the psoas? Try out the experiment in the middle! That will tell you all you need to know about what your posture is telling your brain!

The last thing we need as performers is to have our bodies telling our brains that there is cause for fear and anxiety when we are trying to communicate with our audience!

So, now what?!

Number one…MOVE! Take breaks from sitting as often as possible!

Number two…keep checking back because the remaining posts in the series will focus on specific muscle groups and how you can undo the damage you do to them when you sit!

Until then, try to stay conscious of your posture. Where is your head? Is it balanced on top of your spine, or is it reaching forward toward the computer screen? When you drive, is the back of your head against the headrest, or is your chin jutting forward toward the windshield? Try lifting the crown of your head up and lengthening the back of your neck, tucking your chin in a little more. Check in with your shoulders: are they rounded forward? Feel your shoulder blades go back and down so your collarbones are soft and open and your sternum has room to float up a little. Take deep breaths and feel your rib cage expand…it’s tough to take a deep breath when you’re in a compromised posture! For something a little more specific, here is a short yoga-based flow designed to help open up those tight hip flexors. Since they are at the start of this chain reaction of bad posture, that’s where we’ll begin!

Follow the link for Farm Lady Yoga: Hip Opener Flow. There are other videos in the same series that will show you the Sun Salutation (Part 1 and Part 2) and go into a little more detail on the hip openers as well!

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions, feel free to drop me a line!

Cathie Apple