It is my particular pleasure to introduce to you, the iliopsoas, a thrilling group of three muscles which are exquisitely fundamental to the function of the hip joint. As an indispensable stabilizer of the lumbar spine and pelvis, and the one and only muscle group that has within it a sufficient power to flex the hip joint and lift the leg above, with appropriate amazement, 90 degrees, it seems a gloriously gigantic understatement to call this muscle merely important. It is clear this wondrously complex muscle group not only deserves but demands your supremely scrupulous attention. I am outstandingly overjoyed to dazzle your eminently esteemed self with the following…
Okay, sorry to get all Barnum & Bailey on you. I promise the rest of this article won’t be nearly as dramatic.
Some of you, I would bet, have never even heard the term iliopsoas ( ill-ee-oh-so-az ) before. Meanwhile others of you have teachers who are devoted advocates for these miracle muscles but perhaps you still have questions. I’m going to try to answer some of the basic ones.
Why is the iliopsoas important?
The iliopsoas has a profound influence on alignment of the pelvis. Because of this it has a great affect on posture and coordination in dance. A dancer that moves smoothly and efficiently is utilizing the strength and stability of their center or core, of which the iliopsoas is an essential component.
The iliopsoas is the primary hip flexor for the leg when it is above 90 degrees. The coveted “extension” of professional dancers is powered (in part) by these mighty muscles.
The iliopsoas can be a source of injury in dancers who repeatedly perform movements which flex (crease) the hip joint. Strains in the lower back, snapping hips, and leg pain are known outcomes to an imbalance of movement patterns which can be caused when a dancer compensates for a tight or weak iliopsoas.
Let’s get something straight, through. The muscles which make up the iliopsoas play an important role in a few crucial components of dance. While increasing your awareness, understanding, and proper use of these muscles can have enormous benefits, please note that the muscles of the hip, pelvis, spine and upper leg are complex. No single muscle group could possibly be the root of or solution to all of the issues that arise in these areas. With guidance from a teacher who has a firm grasp on the power and function of this muscle group, however, your increased awareness has the potential to lead to those wonderful “ah-ha” moments which can change your dancing.
What and Where is the Iliopsoas?
tilted pelvis in need of correction
The iliopsoas is the only muscle (well, technically group of muscles) that attaches to the spine, pelvis, and femur (or, thigh). There are three muscles which make up the iliopsoas. The iliacus, the psoas major, and the psoas minor.
Though it has some involvement in the “lifting” of the pubic bone to correct alignment, the psoas minor has been found to be absent in a large percentage of people (a bi-product it seems of our more sedentary lifestyles). The major players are the psoas major and iliacus. Psoas major is attached to multiple points along the lower spine. It then meets up with the iliacus, which is attached to the illiac fossa (For reference, when you put your hands on your
“hips” you are placing them on the crest or upper rim of the ilium. The iliacus attaches to the inner, concave surface of this large, bony structure). The muscles then cross the front rim of the pelvis and the hip joint to attach to the lesser trochanter of the femur (thigh bone).
Lengthening and Strengtening
When standing, a person with a chronically short, tight iliopsoas will stand with hollowed or swayed arch to the back (which in turn limits turnout and causes other inbalances). Therefore a lenthened iliopsoas in important to alignment of the pelvis and health of the lower back.
Sometimes dancers are trained to engage muscles which are not necessary to hip flexion (lifting the leg) and this leads to a weak ilopsoas. Sometimes the iliopsoas is weak and stronger muscles take over to compensate for this weakness. Either way, practicing techniques that simultaneously strengthen and lengthen the iliopsoas are of benefit to dancers. In addition, making the most of the iliopsoas in your dancing will require visualization and awarenss of how this muscle functions.
How Can I Build Awareness?
The iliopsoas is a deep muscle, running very near the spine and beneath other major muscle groups. Therefore, awareness of the iliopsoas must come through visualization. You will not necessarily “feel” the muscles working and no single image will spark understanding in every dancer. Therefore it is extremely helpful to have a knowledgeable instructor that can guide you through this exploration.
First steps include locating the attachment points of the iliopsoas, visualizing the muscle that runs between these points, and analyzing how the muscle affects the bones and structures to which they are attached. Picture the muscle contracting from the center, moving the attachment points toward each other along the path of the muscle. How would this affect the leg? the spine? the pelvis? Now picture the muscle lengthening with the attachment points moving away. What are the affects?
As you move (in a deep plié, or as you lift or swing your leg), use your mind’s eye to transfer your knowledge to the moving body. Again, a teacher can help you discover and experience images that will help you to use the muscle with ease, fluidity, and power. These visual images may involve water, sand, strings, mechanics – anything that will help you engage the appropriate muscles and release the unnecessary ones.
I won’t pretend to be an expert on anatomy or kinesiology. College classes, books, resources, and experiences have shaped my knowledge of the subject. I welcome and encourage the sharing of your own experiences and ideas below in the comments.