Keeping the Psoas on the QL
My lifetime experience and knowledge of physical fitness
I’ve been exercising ever since I was a young child, and I’m not talking regular old school gym class.
My mom — who was probably in her 40s at the time as I am now — went to aerobics classes and exercised along to videos as home such as the Jane Fonda series, using the TV in our carpeted basement. Sometimes she took me to her exercise classes at the community centre, and I’d sit in the corner and play. Sometimes I moved alongside her, modelling my behaviour, I now realize.
It recently occurred to me that, to my recollection, not once did she tell me why she was exercising. I never asked. She never mentioned “weight loss” or projected an unhealthy body image. As an adult, I'm grateful for this. I know that when mothers focus on weight, it can damage their children's body image. It can lead to eating disorders, body dysmorphia, body shaming and more. I had low self-esteem but it had nothing to do with my body (not even my glasses or freckles) and everything to do with being bullied by my peers.
I also went to gymnastics classes and attended summer “gymnastics camp”, which I loved, although I never mastered the cartwheel. It seems that every little girl does, but I’m not sure that my body was meant to move that way, or maybe it was my innate fear of falling that I have had my entire life, despite no significant fall prompting this fear. I took jazz dance classes.
As I got older, I did those workout videos on my own as well as some of the classes that used to be on TV. I remember two videotape series that I rotated through at different times during my high school years in the mid-1990s: The Buns of Steel 2000 Platinum Series and the Sports Illustrated Super Shape-up Program.
Getting Buns, Abs AND Thighs of Steel!
The Buns series included videos called “Abs of Steel”, “Thighs of Steel” and, yes, “Buns of Steel”. They starred Tamilee Webb, Donna Richardson and Tracy York. Donna taught me that weak abdominals could exacerbate back pain, and she taught me the word “exacerbate”. I liked that they used big words.
What I liked a lot less was when, with each viewing, I heard Tamilee tell me that I can “lose inches!” Even at the time, I was well aware that exercise isn’t only for weight loss, but also overall fitness.
It annoyed me that workout leaders were perpetuating the idea that all women want to lose weight. I did not relate to that statement at all! I still rant about the idea that exercise is only for weight loss/fat loss. It’s called “fitness” because it’s supposed to get you “fit”. “Fitness” includes mental wellness too.
Super Shape-up Program With Swimsuit Models
The Sports Illustrated Super Shape-up Program had three videos co-lead by one supermodel each:
1. Stretch and Strengthen starred Elle Macpherson. Let’s all be grateful for the person who uploaded the entire video to YouTube and be glad that copyright infringement didn’t result in the video’s removal. You’re welcome.
2. Rachel Hunter co-hosted a session called Body Sculpting, which, in the commercial (again, you’re welcome), she claimed would “really help you shape your body.”
The male voiceover in the commercial then promised that Rachel’s video tightens up those frustrating areas that won’t go away, even when you lose weight.
3. “Now you’re ready for MY video, Aerobic Interval Training.” announces Cheryl Tiegs, “It’s the advanced way to make your body burn calories more efficiently.”
Promises the male voiceover, “It helps you slim down, even those stubborn places where the weight goes on first.”
I couldn’t find the latter two in the series online for viewing.
“Tightening up those frustrating areas” and helping your body burn calories more efficiently. Sounds great, even if most of the women using the videos likely didn’t know what a “calorie” is. A calorie is a unit of energy. High-calorie, nutrient-dense foods are more healthy than “empty” calories in foods that lack nutritional value. It’s not the number beside “cal” that matters as much as the nutrients and what they do for us.
Also, in my early teens, I had Alyssa Milano’s Teen Steam workout video. It’s on YouTube for Alyssa to watch again and again.
As a member of the Jewish Community Centre, I took exercise classes and used the weight room. In University, I took step aerobics classes. I lifted weights at the campus athletic centre, cringing when I saw men lift weights with incorrect form. It pained me to see a male friend swing weights during bicep curls instead of using slow, controlled motion.
Swinging uses momentum, not muscle, which can lead to injury. Swinging a weight is also an indication that the dumbbell is too heavy for the lifter.
I considered getting certified as a personal trainer, but it was one of many times in my life that I decided that I didn’t want to teach groups of people. That, and my focus was on school, fun and the many extracurricular activities I was involved with on campus.
Being a fitness enthusiast
I read fitness magazines. I belonged to gyms. I ran on treadmills. I used elliptical trainers and recumbent bikes. I took group fitness classes of all types, including Bodybar barbell classes. I used weight machines, free weights, dumbbells, barbells. I wasn’t afraid to lift heavy. I scoffed at women who were afraid to push themselves hard and wanted to correct anyone who spouted the myth that lifting heavy weights would make a woman “bulk up”. (Most women won’t, and those bodybuilders and fitness models work HARD.) For a while, I worked out several times a week. Work-gym-home. I had leg days and arm days, strength training and cardio. I did compound exercises. It was perfectly scheduled and calibrated.
I have this memory from the mid-00s stuck:
A woman passively lying on an exercise mat in the middle of the gym talking on her cell phone while her male trainer stretched her hamstrings.
I mean, really?? Put your phone down and do the work. Having a partner assist your stretches can be beneficial — especially a pro who can guide your body to its safe limit, but at least be fully present in the moment. Do the work for yourself, and no one else. I believe that cell phones have no place in gyms, yoga studios or other workout spaces.
I did lose the workout habit for about a decade, but I’ve always been a walker and every few years, and as recently as one year ago, I try to be a runner. I’ve never enjoyed running enough to do it through rain, snow or extreme heat, though I have read running books and magazines, I completed the “Couch to 5k” program via phone app twice, and I’ve run a couple of 5k events.
Friends who run marathons have seemed surprised that I’d be running without training for a race. I thought it strange that people would only hit the pavement if training for a race. I mean, if you’re not having fun and/or getting fit, what’s the point? I feel that a marathon should be a fun form of recreation. I think that people who do triathlons, Iron Man competitions and Tough Mudder races are amazing, impressive and a bit insane.
Do whatever form of exercise makes you feel good. Don’t do what you hate when you’ve got options, whether it’s step aerobics, pilates or a Tough Mudder.
So, as a lifetime student…
A lifetime of exercising, an understanding of anatomy, and to my recollection, I only recently heard of the “psoas muscles” and the “quadratus lumborum”, aka the “QL”.
Tammy advised me to position myself in front of the TV so that I could see her and reduce strain on my body and Donna had told me about the importance of weak abdominals. Elle taught me “happy baby” pose long before I’d done my first yoga class. Jane Fonda taught me — stuff. Proper warmups and cooldown? Scissoring my legs during abdominal work? I don’t remember.
As a yoga instructor who specializes in alignment and anatomy, Sadie — my most recent teacher — taught me about the psoas and the QL.
The first recollection I have of the word “psoas” is in the last three months when I did one of Adriene’s videos called, Yoga For Psoas. In that video, she didn’t describe the psoas but worked it with lunges, gate pose, side angle pose, pigeon and more. When I searched YouTube for her name and “psoas,” several videos came up, which indicates that she perhaps mentioned these muscles at least once in each video.
I might have read about the psoas before and forgot, but the fact that it sounded new to me indicates that it’s not mentioned often. I tend to learn through repetition of concepts.
The Psoas & the QL
Sadie Nardini recently taught me about the psoas and the QL. I’m still a fitness nerd (enthusiast) even if I don’t always practice it, so I was intrigued.
More specifically, it stunned me that this set of muscles hadn’t been on my radar before, and their existence seemed to explain some of my body’s quirks.
Earlier this week, I wrote this on Instagram as part of a more extensive caption:
I did an awesome yoga session today, revisiting a psoas flow that I first did last month as part of @sadienardiniofficial’s 21-day Core Strength Transformer series. A lifetime of exercising, an understanding of anatomy, & only recently had I heard of the “psoas”, from a different yoga instructor (or, if I heard the word before, it didn’t stick in my mind). I still didn’t know what it was until Sadie explained it.
(I’d completely forgotten about the QL until I started writing this piece.)
Here’s what Sadie taught me about the psoas:
You have two psoas muscles, one on each side of your body. Each psoas goes from the upper inner thigh, up over your pelvis, and back behind your organs, then spins up the back of your lower spine.
The psoas is the only muscle that bridges the legs to the spine. It’s used to lift you up from your centre and for more effortless balance and strength.
“The side of the spine, that’s where we’re getting the psoas action.” When you do side bends, you activate the psoas.
I’ve learned that the psoas is part of the hip flexor. It affects posture, helps stabilize the spine, and, if it’s out of balance, can be a significant contributor to low back and pelvic pain.
It is part of the core. This is important.
Why did I not know this before??
The following information was learned from a Google search:
The QL is the deepest abdominal muscle. It’s located in your lower back on either side of the lumbar spine. It starts at your lowest rib and ends at the top of your pelvis. It’s common to have pain here because you use this muscle for sitting, standing, and walking.
The QL is one of the prime sources of lower back pain.
I honestly don’t remember what Sadie told me about these muscles other than, “The quadratus lumborum, or ‘QL’ as the cool kids call them.” She did discuss them at the beginning of a video in her Core Strength Transformer series.
I think that I tend to absorb the information I need when I need it and leave the rest, so if I encounter that video with the QL explained again, it will likely register with me.
All of this information is new to me, and it’s significant.
I knew about the abdominals, and that weak abdominals can exacerbate back issues. I’d worked my oblique muscles by doing all sorts of twists and bicycles. I’ve done Pilates. I was educated about the back muscles — the traps and scapulae up top, the rhomboids, the latissimus dorsi, aka the “lats”. If you’ve used a “lat pulldown” machine at the gym or a pullup bar, you know the lats.
On an episode of Blossom that was to change the trajectory of Joey’s life, dad Nick is experiencing back pain. Joey diagnoses Nick’s ache as stemming from the “latissimus dorsi.” Nick makes a joke, “Latissimus Dorsi; I played a gig with him once.” and then, upon expressing amazement that Joey knows anatomy, Joey dismisses this knowledge as, “stuff that jocks know.” If I recall correctly, that sent him towards a career in kinesiology, sports medicine or something like that. This is all from memory. If I could find that clip, I’d refer to it.
My knowledge, my body
Knowing what I know now is significant and explains what all the bodywork practitioners I’ve seen over my lifetime never told me. This knowledge empowers me.
One Chinese chiropractor that adjusted me when I was in high school mostly did massage, then adjusted me. He told me that one leg was longer than the other, which I took literally and found interesting. Really, the observation indicated an imbalance in my hips. This chiropractor insisted that patients don’t need regular adjustments unless they feel they need.
When I hurt my IT band while running in my early-20s or so, my dad took me to a Chinese practitioner at his gym who helped heal it using a TENS machine. Meanwhile, my job at the time required that I walk a lot of stairs, an activity that left me in agony.
A couple of years later, I had regular visits with a physical therapist at a sports clinic to deal with a knee issue. Around that time, I learned that my bones were weak, likely the result of the Depo Provera hormonal birth control that I was on at the time. I went through a year or two when I got birth control shots, and during that time, medical research revealed that one of the potential side effects of the shots was osteoporosis. I didn’t have osteoporosis but something milder and similar that I don’t recall the name of. The knee issue might have been related to the Depo shots.
I also had appointments with a couple of other specialists in the sports medicine clinic where my physical therapist was to try to fix various body issues. I remember the pain of Active Release Techniques, which uses motion to locate and to break up scar tissue and adhesions that can form due to direct injury or repetitive movement over time. The male chiropractor was mesmerizingly gorgeous, though, so I focused on him.
I've seen several massage therapists.
For about a decade, until late 2017, I had regular visits with a chiropractor. I first met her and the other chiropractor she worked with at a wellness expo that I’d been supervising a booth at. Having been on my feet all day and feeling achy, I craved some sort of bodywork. She had a table at this event to recruit clients. I started seeing her first a few times a week, then eventually once every three weeks. She did x-rays and other tests every couple of years to check the progress of my posture. Every three weeks, in the days before our regularly scheduled appointment, I felt my tailbone shift as if it was aware of the timing.
My chiropractor worked on postural issues. I went even when I felt I didn’t need it because to me it was like a car tuneup but for my body.
She used to observe with amusement that I rarely had the same adjustment needs more than once in a row, especially when I was going through different fitness phases. For example, when I was doing regular krav maga classes, my body felt different to her than when I was running regularly. Of course, various activities have different effects on the body.
In fall 2017, after considering it for years, I had a consultation with an osteopath. I was still achy when I bent over, after years of doing yoga on and off I still couldn’t touch my toes when I bent over, and I’d had TMJ for several years. The only way my chiropractor was willing to address my TMJ — based on the scope of her practice and profession — was to adjust my neck. I needed something more direct.
The osteopath did directly help my TMJ. He put a gloved finger in my mouth to manipulate my jaw from the inside. He showed me how to adjust it myself and directed me to instructional YouTube videos. His colleague, with whom I had a few subsequent appointments, gave me further advice.
I was also told that I had a weak core, which confused me. My stomach always looked strong. I had always included my abs and obliques in my exercise routines.
The first osteopath yelled at me (military-style) when I did the exercises incorrectly and made me do them again. They became part of my life when I remembered to do them.
A weak core: The missing piece of the puzzle?
A weak core. Neither osteopath mentioned the psoas or the QL by name, but I think that Sadie handed me the missing piece of the puzzle.
The 21-day Core Strength Transformer series helped me a lot. For the first time in years, I was able to transition from a downward dog into a lunge without using my hand to pick up my right foot to plant it forward.
[I paid for the series during my free month of Sadie’s premium membership because of the program discount for members, but Sadie’s got a ton of free videos on YouTube.]
It might be the consistency of over one hundred days of yoga in a row (I broke that streak last week due to injury), or it might have been the instructor. I’ve consistently and successively followed along to three yoga teachers online in the last few years — plus other instructors’ videos sporadically — and they’ve all offered valuable lessons. Even when I’m primarily following one, I occasionally follow others. Sometimes I learn new information, sometimes I get one more piece of advice about a pose, other times it’s a metaphor that resonates with me.
Still sweating to the oldies
No, I never exercised along to Richard Simmons. It’s a metaphor here.
Being instructed via online channels is like Jane Fonda, Tamilee, Tracy, Donna, Elle, Rachel and Cheryl all over again.
Instead of videos or DVDs, it’s YouTube and VHX.
Roku = life changer
Having TVs with Roku (streaming player) is a life-changer. Previously, if I’d wanted to follow along to a workout video on YouTube, I had to do it with my laptop or desktop. For a while, I only had a desktop, so this was a barrier. The world went from workouts on TV channels, VHS/Betamax video/DVD displayed on TV, to laptop/computer displays. Now the accessibility is on big-screen TVs or on your stationary bike or via other technology that I haven’t seen.
Making exercise accessible makes it happen.
Proper form, etc.
With proper alignment, joint safety and specific instruction about how to work my core — which contains more muscles than I’d previously been aware of — my body’s ailments are gradually improving. At the age of 43, I’m closer to touching my toes. My posture feels better.
One day soon, I will do Elle’s 47-minute workout.
I miss doing yoga at a studio because of the adjustments to my body that an instructor can provide, but classes aren’t in my budget right now. I’m aware that teacher’s don’t always adjust their students correctly.
I’ll return to osteopathy when my budget allows it, but for now, the fact that I’m a life student in fitness makes a world of difference.
Always keep a beginner’s mindset. Never stop learning. Work hard, unless you’re working out on a “rest” day, and even then, always be mindful. Live up to your potential and do it safely.
That’s all I got.