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Instep Dance Magazine Articles

Reprints of monthly column as first appearing in Instep Dance Magazine.

April 1999

The Psoas - Stretching Revisited

By Rick Allen, DC

"Better health leads to better dancing."

Last December we examined the anatomy and function of the psoas muscle. We saw how it is a hidden influence on posture and low back pain. My January/February article suggested stretches for the psoas. Last month I asked for suggestions from my readers for the April column. Thank you, Dan Roberts, Certified Muscle Therapist from Reading, Pennsylvania for alerting me to a better way to stretch your muscles, including the psoas. It's called Active Isolated Stretching (AIS). While I had heard of the concept, it took Dan's rave review by e-mail for me to research it further. Dan had taken extensive training with the developer of AIS, Aaron Mattes, a kinesiologist and massage therapist from Sarasota, Florida. Aaron is a consultant on stretching to the US Olympic Team. Likewise, Jim and Phil Wharton from Gainesville, Florida have worked with many top-level athletes, using the AIS technique to greatly improve their flexibility. The Whartons have popularized this technique in their 1996 book, The Wharton's Stretch Book, and the associated video, Breakthrough Stretching. I contacted their company, Maximum Performance International (1-800-240-9805 or and obtained permission from Ron Boyle to reproduce the figures shown below which illustrate the AIS technique.

As I pointed out in the January/February article, a key part of the answer to eliminating common mechanical low back pain is to keep the muscles of the low back in balance. This will improve your posture and dancing as well. Since the psoas often becomes tight and shortened from sitting, the answer must include daily stretches and exercises to counterbalance the tightening. I suggest you check out and incorporate AIS into your daily routine. (For further information, I suggest you also check out the good review of stretching techniques that appeared in Outside magazine's Bodywork Column for March 1999.)

Active Isolated Stretching Technique

Psoas stretch 1

Active Isolated Stretching is similar to part of the Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching method used by chiropractors, physical therapists, massage therapists and other muscle specialist. It uses the body's natural counter-balancing neurological "wiring" to control muscles: when you contract a muscle (the agonist) your body automatically relaxes the opposing muscle (the antagonist). For example, when you tighten your biceps, your body automatically relaxes the triceps. The full PNF pattern is done with the assistance of the doctor or therapist telling you to "contract for about 6 seconds, relax, opposite contract, relax." It is abbreviated Contract-Relax-Antagonist Contract-Relax or CRACR.

Psoas stretch 1 range chart

For example, to stretch the hamstring using the AIS technique, lie on your back with one leg bent and the other pointing straight up with a towel or soft rope looped around the arch of the foot (figure 1 above). (The Whartons recommend a 9-foot section of 5/8-inch braided polypropylene or dacron rope. I found some at Home Depot for about $.40/foot.) Next, draw that leg toward your chest by tightening the quadriceps muscles on the front of the leg. Go just a bit farther than your natural end point by pulling gently on the towel or rope while continuing to contract the quadriceps. Hold for 2 seconds. Release the stretch before the muscle reacts to being stretched - before it goes into a reactive protective contraction. The safe range is shown in figure 2. Repeat this 10 times for each leg. The Wharton's video gives you an excellent sense of the extent and timing of the movement.

Active Isolated Stretching of the Psoas

Psoas stretch 2a As explained in the Wharton's book, to stretch the right psoas, "Position yourself on your hands and knees (figure 3). Reach back with you right hand and grasp your right ankle. Reaching it will require that you lift your right foot to meet your hand. Hang on tightly.

Psoas stretch 2b

Using the hamstrings and the gluteus maximus [buttocks], lift the exercising leg up until the thigh is parallel to the ground - or aligned horizontally with your body (figure 4). Be careful not to arch your back (hyperextension). [The safe range is shown in figure 5.] You may use your hand for gentle assistance at the end of the stretch."

Psoas stretch 2 range chart

Wrapping up

The Wharton's video and book give full sequences that warm up and stretch practically the whole body, so I suggest you look at them rather than just stretching one muscle. They show both stretching by yourself and with an assistant. Take care in doing the assisted stretches. An inexperienced assistant could use too much force and strain the muscle.

The AIS technique is one I suggest you add to your arsenal. It is not the only technique, so I suggest you work with it and compare the results with your current stretching routine. [You do stretch daily, don't you?]

Once again, take care of your psoas, improve you posture and improve your life and, especially, your dancing!

Next article: I've received a few more ideas from readers. I'll keep you in suspense until next month.

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