The Muscle That Separates The Good From The Great…The Iliopsoas!

Hey Dancers!

Today I’m going to talk about one of my absolute favorite muscles: the iliopsoas!!! I know, it sounds weird to be filled with enthusiasm about an odd sounding muscle but hear me out.  Why do I love this muscle so much??! Well, a strong, flexible, and properly utilized iliopsoas separates excellent Irish Dancers from the mediocre. Google any ballet or gymnastics conditioning program and you will tons of information on the importance of engaging the iliopsoas because it is the MAIN muscle that is involved in hip flexion above 90 degrees (a.k.a: lifting your leg above parallel)!  In addition to helping get your kicks and clicks high, the iliopsoas:
-Works as a stabilizer in maintaining proper alignment (aka: good posture).
-Enables your body through proper posture to utilize muscles in your glutes and deep outward rotators (butt muscles and turnout muscles) to perform with more power and precision.

Improved power, turnout, posture, and higher kicks all with improving the strength and flexibility of one muscle?! Where can I sign-up?! And why isn’t this muscle talked about more in the Irish Dance world?! Truth is, this muscle is often forgotten because it is not visible. It’s easy to see if someone has crazy toned calves or quads but the illiopsoas is located deep deep deep in your midsection. The iliopsoas is actually a combination of three muscles: the iliacus, the psoas major, and the psoas minor, but all of these work together as the main hip flexor (leg lifter) so they are regularly referred to as one name, the iliopsoas. The muscle starts at the lower back and continues down to the top of your thigh bone. It is one of the only muscles that connects your upper body to your lower limbs hence why it is of the utmost importance to learn how to use!

Psoas picture for blog

Have you ever felt like you have hit a kick or click height plateau? No matter how long you have been working on your splits or stretching out after class, you just can’t seem to get your kicks ANY HIGHER? I was at a Feis this weekend and noticed low kicks/clicks to be a very common trend in the Open Championship competition. There were girls who were barely getting their kicks/clicks over parallel while appearing to be putting in maximal effort, meanwhile the girls who were able to get more height appeared to be doing it very naturally. So how is that some dancers can appear to effortlessly kick their legs up with great sharpness while others seem to get “stuck” with a leg at shoulder height? Common sense tells us that the dancer with lower kicks just needs to “stretch more,” but the truth is that it doesn’t matter how flexible you are, if you do not have a strong ilipsoas to bring your knee closer to your chest. If you do not learn how to strengthen and stretch your ilipsoas, you will never be able to get your kicks/clicks up while maintaining good posture. Why? As I mentioned before, the iliopsoas is the MAIN MUSCLE that works to bring the leg up after it passes parallel. Dancers will often try to use the quads and hamstrings to pull the leg up by tightening them. This can lead to that “stuck” leg feeling because squeezing the muscles close to the hip-joint will do exactly that: tighten the muscles around the hip socket, making the body work against itself in allowing the bone in the hip joint to move freely upwards above shoulder height. Thus the dancer is putting in tons of effort into having the body work AGAINST itself. The dancers who are appearing to kick effortlessly sky-high are able to keep their quads and hamstrings more relaxed (obviously not totally relaxed because the leg still needs to be straight) because they are using their iliopsoas in their core to “lift” rather than the quad to “pull.”

Since the psoas muscle cannot be seen or really even felt it is often neglected. Through lot’s of sitting (think school, watching television, or long drives to dance class) the iliopsoas shortens and if it not strengthened and lengthened it can not get stronger, so you are left with a tight and weak iliopsoas. A tight and weak illiopsoas can create an anterior pelvic tilt—>sticking your booty out. If the body is in anterior pelvic tilted position while dancing, it is NOT the optimal position to engage the abdominal muscles and glute muscles, or turnout muscles, so all aspects of your dancing suffer. Plus, since your body doesn’t have the iliopsoas doing its job correctly, other muscles will try to help out, which takes power away from them doing their own jobs correctly.

This is why dancers must STRENGTHEN AND STRETCH the iliopsoas muscle then learn to apply it to dance drills. Today I’m going to give you some strengthening and stretching exercises, and I will dive deeper into visualization of the iliopsoas through movement and applying these strength principles to dance drills later on!

Here are the iliopsoas exercises to get you started! With all of these exercises, visualize the placement of the muscle contracting while bringing your thigh closer to your chest. One visualization that has helped me is thinking of  a pulley from my lower back, where the iliopsoas starts, to my knee, using the top part of the pulley to bring the knee up closer and closer to my chest. Sometimes placing one hand by part of the iliopsoas…a few inches below the belly button and a few inches to either side, can help bring an awareness to activating the muscle as well.

  1. Standing Hip Hold: Use hands to pull thigh as close as you can to your chest. Release the hands and hold the leg in place for 5-10 seconds. Repeat 4-5 times.  [wpvideo do3I5bqr]
  2. Hip Pulses: Sit on floor and bring one leg into your chest. Pulse the knee into your chest for 5-10 pulses, release and extend leg, then repeat 2-3X. [wpvideo FHd9fn8s]
  3. Standing Box Lift: Place one foot on a box tall enough that when lifting the knee it will come past parallel. Engage the iliopsoas and lift the thigh to the chest with control. Tap the foot down on the box and repeat 5-10X on each side. [wpvideo n6UZTES9]
  4. Illiopsoas Stretch: Place the back foot on an elevated surface behind you (if doing this at home a couch works perfectly and a wall works fine if you are at dance class), relax into the stretch while pulling the back hip forward into a deep stretch. Hold for 1-2 minutes on each side. IMG_7239


Have any questions on how to engage your iliopsoas or how you can become more Feis Fit?! Feel free to send me a message on Facebook or through the “Contact Us” section.  Happy Feis-ing!