To complement “The Psoas: To Stretch or Not to Stretch?” in the March 2016 issue of MASSAGE Magazine.
Exercising the psoas has two kinds of benefit: strengthening when the psoas is weak, and chi movement, which is like burning off tension.
Exercise Resolves Weakness, Resolves Tension
How do you know if the psoas is weak? You can easily test yourself by slow-marching in place. Lift each knee slowly, hold it a second and slowly let your leg down. Land on your toes to reduce impact. Watch in a mirror to make sure both femurs become horizontal while you do this exercise. If one knee does not rise to the same height, or fatigues sooner than the other, that psoas is weaker. The test can take just two minutes.
How do you strengthen the psoas? The same way, slow-marching in place. I suggest doing it outdoors, where you also get the benefits of fresh air and nature. People who lose their balance while slow-marching may hold onto two chair backs.
Walking is a more natural type of exercise to strengthen the psoas, because walking does both actions: hip flexion and trunk rotation. Jogging is even better. For those already in great shape, try chasing a dog around on the grass, or trail running.
Exercise with Caution
Use caution when exercising. Rich Phaigh, creator of Onsen Muscle Therapy and Onsen Techniques, said to stop any exercise that causes pain or increases your baseline pain level. However, he also suggested trying the exercise again at half-speed or slower, doing fewer repetitions or decreasing the range. If you can perform the exercise pain-free, or at least without increasing your existing pain, you can continue strengthening at this reduced intensity.
Some people say next-day soreness is a good sign. I agree it is a sign that muscles will become stronger—but at what cost? When your goal is to reduce muscle tension, next-day soreness increases your tension. I avoid soreness by increasing duration and intensity gradually. You don’t need soreness to get stronger.
A second approach to exercise is chi movement. Kum nye is a method from Tibet that uses isometric contraction to move chi.
During kum nye, you contract the tense muscle and hold the contraction for two minutes. Then slowly release the contraction and enjoy the sensation of chi movement for a few minutes.
Tai chi is another excellent way to resolve muscle tension. According to the article “Tai chi: A gentle way to fight stress,” published by the Mayo Clinic, “Tai chi is an ancient Chinese tradition that, today, is practiced as a graceful form of exercise. It involves a series of movements performed in a slow, focused manner and accompanied by deep breathing.
“Tai chi, also called tai chi chuan, is a noncompetitive, self-paced system of gentle physical exercise and stretching,” the article continued. “Each posture flows into the next without pause, ensuring that your body is in constant motion.”
Exercise Burns Off Tension
How does exercise resolve tension? This is my view: Tension is the brain continuously sending motor signals down to the muscle. During exercise, the muscle sends a particular signal back up the sensory nerve to the brain. This signal says firmly, “I have completed the action!” The brain is convinced: There is no more reason to hold that muscle tense. So, the brain reduces the motor signal.
Cardio machines appear to strengthen your legs, hips and core; however, two machines allow the psoas to weaken. The elliptical machine and cycling machines will lift your knee for you. As you push down with your left leg, a lever lifts your right leg for you. Your down-pushing muscles, heart and breathing muscles get stronger and stronger, while the psoas rests and atrophies. To work your psoas while cycling you must attach your feet to the pedals with straps or special shoes. Simply wearing the straps or shoes is not enough: you need to deliberately lift your foot so you feel pressure against the strap or shoe.
Exercise is the Secret Cure for Muscle Tension
I will tell a secret. While I love to receive massage, I believe exercise works even better to reduce muscle tension. When I have muscle tension my first thought is trail running, tai chi and kum nye. I book a massage for myself if a few days of increased exercise doesn’t work.
I also believe humans require 30 minutes of walking or jogging a day, just to maintain natural circulation. If you miss a day you need 60 minutes the next day.
About the Author
For 15 years before graduating from the Brian Utting School of Massage in 1994, Patrick Moore, L.M.T., intermittently taught algebra while working construction in Seattle, Washington. He has now taught his Melting Muscles continuing education workshops in 13 states, and practices massage in Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona. He also volunteers as a docent at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Moore wrote “The Psoas: To Stretch or Not to Stretch?” for the March 2016 issue of MASSAGE Magazine.