Still Rolling Your IT Band? Don’t Neglect the Tensor Fascia Latae
While most of us can locate our IT Band, the smaller and trickier Tensor Fascia Latae is much more difficult to pinpoint, but arguably more important to release. Lucky for you, we have some easy tips to find it, work with it and enjoy it’s benefits on the knee and hips!
Firstly, some anatomy. The Tensor Fascia Latae (TFL) is a small muscle encased within the strong connective tissue of the IT Band. As such, it doesn’t have the bony origins and attachments that we associate with most muscles. The TFL and IT band originate together at our two frontal hip bones. Then, they travel together down the front of the hip slightly to the side of the leg. By the time the muscle reaches the side of the hip, it finishes it’s journey while the IT Band continues down the side of the leg to the knee.
To find this little muscle, simply put your hands in your jean’s front pockets (or pretend to). There it is.
Like its name implies, the TFL tenses the fascia of the thigh. In other words, when this muscle contracts, it pulls up the IT Band to create movement in the leg. The TFL mainly flexes the hip, pulling the knee towards the chest. It can also abduct the hip, pulling the leg horizontally out to the side, and rotate the thigh inwards or outwards. As such, a tight TFL can wreak havoc on both the knee and the hip. Most commonly a tight TFL will create tension in the IT Band, leading to pain in the knee. However, tension in the TFL can also create dysfunction in the hip rotators and low back.
TFL Pain Referral includes the lateral thigh into calf, low back, and glutes.
Because of its intimate connection to the IT Band, a tight TFL will pull up on the side of the knee creating pain and tenderness. Focus your foam rolling on the front and side of the knee to release any compensation there. Then, to deal with the TFL directly, position the foam roller up near the front of the hip where you would find the front jean’s pocket.
As a hip flexor, a tight tensor fascia latae will pull the hip forward from neutral. This tension may cause pain either in the front or back of the hips. To target the TFL, spend some time rolling that front jean’s pocket first. Then, make sure to release and strengthen the glutes to help pull the hip back into neutral position. Squats, hip extensions and dead-lifts all contribute to glute strength.
The Hip Rotators:
The TFL assists in rotating the hip both in and outwards (think knock kneed and duck feet). When dysfunctional, the TFL can pull the hips into either scenario. So, focus on that front jean’s pocket for your foam roller first. Then, start to re-train the muscles that should be stabilizing the hips, mainly the gluteus medius or side butt muscle. Try any single legged balancing work, like a single legged dead-lift. As with any weighted exercise, be sure to start light and work your way heavier!
The Low Back:
When the TFL pulls the hip forward, the neutral position of the low back gets thrown out of alignment too. We can see dysfunction manifest in many different ways: pain into the sacrum and tailbone, towards the side of the low back, pain with leaning forward or back. Our first defense is targeting the tightness of the TFL directly with the foam roller. Then, work with the deepest layer of core to strengthen our ability to stabilize the low back. Try practicing dead bugs, holding plank, bird-dogs, feeling the abdomen draw in especially on the exhales.
Lastly, TFL dysfunction normally hits one side much worse than the other. We all carry asymmetries in our pelvis, whether one leg is anatomically longer than the other, or maybe you’ve suffered an old hip injury, or maybe a pregnancy where the weight of the baby presses more on one side than the other.
No matter the cause, we should treat asymmetries in the pelvis with an intention for balance in the hips. If you’re rolling your TFL on both sides, then repeat the side that feels tighter. If there is a weakness, repeat one more rep of your exercise on the weaker side. When the hips are balanced, we increase the benefits we get from any exercise.
Stretches for the TFL
My favorite stretches for the Tensor fascia latae. To get a more effective stretch, raise your arms and lean to the knee up side. You’ll likely feel a nice stretch along the obliques and lats as well. Push the hips forward and hold the stretch for at least 45-60 seconds!
Foam Rolling the TFL
This will probably be pretty tender for most of you, which means it’s necessary! Make sure to include the IT Band as you’re foam rolling. As always, hold on and spot that sends referred pain until the pain subsides! Lacrosse balls work wonders as well.