Hyperlordosis

Mondays are dedicated to female training. Today’s post also applies to males. 

Hyperlordosis is a condition in which normal lordosis, or curvature in the lumbar spine, is over exaggerated and severe to the point that there is damage to the spine or it is limiting to properly executing a given movement.

This can be an over extension in the lumbar spine itself, an over extension in the lumbar/sacral junction, or possibly even an over extension of the thoracic/lumbar junction. If you are unfamiliar with these terms, edumicate yourself with this picture. Women are stereotypically hyperlordotic, yet this issue effects a lot of guys as well.

Hyperlordosis is a problem in athletic movement, including lifting, because it alters mechanics and excessively loads the spine to increase the chance of injury. If the injury doesn’t occur in an acute instance, then poor mechanics will weaken the structure(s)  over time to the point that a sub-maximal or meaningless act causes the structure to fail (more on this concept). This is how people get injured by tying their shoes, picking up their dog, or sneezing.

The cause of hyperlordosis is having short hip flexors. It should be no surprise that this is the case since most people in Western society spend at least several hours sitting down with their hip flexed every day (don’t know “hip flexion”? Review anatomical movements here). There are many muscles involved in hip flexion, including the glutes and adductors, yet primarily include the rectus femoris, sartorius, TFL, and, most importantly, the iliopsoas.

The “iliopsoas” is a conglomerate of the psoas major and iliacus, and it’s important to know where they attach to understand why they cause hyperlordosis when they are chronically shortened. Note that we typically just say “the psoas” because only about 40% of the population has a psoas minor — it’s a muscle that still lingers, evolutionary speaking, from our quadruped counterparts (i.e. your dog or cat has one).

The psoas attaches on the transverse processes (bony protrusions on the site) of the lumbar vertebrae and the lesser trochanter (small bump) on the inside, and sort of in towards the rear, of the femur. The iliacus attaches on the iliac fossa (large, smooth area on the inside of the ilium, which is part of the pelvis) down to the same lesser trochanter. 
 
Now that you know where the muscles are, imagine what happens when they shorten. The distance between the top and bottom attachments will decrease. This happens during leg raises or sit-ups with the feet supported. It also happens when you sit. Now imagine that you sit so much that this shortened distance adapts to being shortened and remains shortened. When you stand back up, the distance will remain the same, and this pulls the top attachments down towards the femur. Since the top attachments are either the pelvis or the lumbar vertebrae, it hyper-extends these two areas. Read this again: the top attachments of the psoas are pulled down to the femur when they are chronically shortened. 
 
This is why you’ll never fully integrate your hips into any jumping movement. This is why you’ll hurt your back in pulling exercises. This is why your erectors won’t increase to be big pork loins (bread loaves aren’t meaty enough). This is why you don’t have a straight trunk on the press. This is one reason why your overhead position sucks. This is why your back hurts anywhere from the bottom of your scapula to your glutes. This is also a contributing factor to you walking with your feet pointed out (i.e. like a lazy bastard). 
Treating The Muscles
Knowing where the muslces are is necessary because we’ll need to massage them in order to help “un-shorten” them by reducing their tension. Simply doing something like the couch stretch will help open some of the other hip flexors, but overall is inadequate to reducing tension on the psoas. You may have seen this type of treatment, but if you’re going in blind you may not actually hit the intended area. And you could occlude the abdominal aorta if you’re a belligerent goober — if you feel a pulse when trying to massage your left psoas, then move a bit laterally to avoid it. 
To begin, lie on your back, pull your knees up, and let them fall to the side opposite to the posas you want to work on. This will let your intestines move away from the target area. Start about two inches from your belly button — you’ll be between the button and your hip bone. You are feeling around for a muscle that runs longitudinally with your spine. If you are incredibly tight, it can feel like a hard sausage. To confirm that you are touching your psoas, flex your hip (pull your knee up) slightly; the psoas should contract. Another way is to lift your head to contract your rectus abdominis; the psoas will be off to the side of the area that contracts. It may take a few minutes to become acquainted with the psoas your first time; be patient, virgin. 
Use all four of your fingers together to massage the psoas. You can move laterally across the fibers and then along the muscle belly (vertically with your spine) when you are familiar with the psoas’ location. If you are particularly tight, even light pressure will be near unbearable (and probably make you feel sick). Stroke the fibers and continue moving down the psoas towards the hip itself. The more you can massage, the more tension you’ll release. Use short deliberate strokes, preferably in one way. Accumulate about 10 to 15 strokes on one spot and then move on down the muscle belly. Check from below your lowest ribs all the way to the groin/hip area. 
The iliacus can also be massaged from this position. Just stick your thumb inside of your hip bone (the anterior superior iliac spine, ASIS) and work the inside wall of the iliac fossa. Most of your attention will be on the psoas, but a few seconds on the iliacus will only help. 
What Else Should You Do
If you have a problem with hyperlordosis, then it probably has developed over a long period of time. Sitting down a lot, bad mechanics, trying to over correct posture, trying to do lower ab work with hyperlordosis, trying to stick your ass out (girls), or trying to puff your chest up (guys) will cause tightness in the hip flexors. Stop sitting. Stop sleeping with your hips flexed. Open your hip flexors with couch stretching, anterior band distraction on the proximal hip, and lunge stretching (Mark Verstegen’s “perfect stretch” works). The lunge stretch is effective if you push your groin to the ground and laterally flex and slightly rotate the trunk away from the back leg’s side (it can stretch the psoas a bit). Keep the lower abs tight on any hip flexor stretch. This is imperative. Otherwise you’re just going to go into hyperlordosis and not stretch anything. 
Use the stretches after manually working on the psoas. Soft tissue work should always precede positional stretching since it will help relieve tension on the muscle before actually stretching it. Soft tissue work can be done multiple times a day — and it should be if you have a bad case of hyperlordosis. Spending a minute on each psoas up to ten times a day if you are crusty. 
Note that abdominal work, especially on the lower abs, while in hyperlordosis will only make the problem worse. Many people will say, “Well, I’m doing leg lifts and GHD sit-ups to strengthen my abs,” but they are just training their hip flexors by contracting them, which will only help shorten them even more. Use abdominal exercises that don’t anchor the feet. People tell me the “hollow rock” is effective for people with hyperlordosis. 
The Doorway Method

I read a communication book that it helps to re-position your posture when going through a doorway. It gave the example that you’re reaching up slightly with your mouth to bite a piece of leather. The idea is that it would raise your chin and shoulders, and pull the lips slightly lateral, like a smile, before entering a room. A confident, happy person gives a much better impression than an internally rotated, deflated pussy. If a person did this when they passed through every door, then they get up to 30 reps a day of not looking like a loser. I like to use this same method for postural corrections in mobility.

If you know you have bad posture, whether it’s hyperlordosis or slouched, internally rotated (i.e. pussy) shoulders, then start realigning yourself every time you pass through a doorway. Not only will it be a constant reminder for good posture, but you’ll get consistent reps every day.

“Good posture” has the lower abs tight with the shoulders back. Don’t over-exaggerate the “chest up” and “shoulders back” thing; be natural, not a Tommy Tough Guy.

Consistency

It’s important to note that any mobility issue most likely has developed by doing something wrong for a very long time. I always tell people, “The longer it takes for something to develop, the longer it’ll take to eradicate it.” Be consistent in working on your hyperlordosis. That means work on it daily, multiple times a day. If you only have a limited amount of time to train, be sure to put an emphasis on your mobility. If you ignore it and a) get injured or b) perform crappy because of it, then all of that bad training was an inefficient use of your time. 

Leave a Reply

  1. I’m going to have to take this to my boss.

    “Justin said to stop sitting. Time to upgrade me to a standing desk.”

    There is a woman in RINK on the other side of the building that has a standing desk. Every time I pass I’m jealous of her workspace.

  2. Thanks. I’ve had this for a long, long time and printed this out so I can try to finally find my psoas and work on it. It’d be cool if you made a video showing how to find it too. I think there was a Mobility WOD video on this actually. I think my lordosis also contributes to sciatic pain.

  3. Thank you! I’ve been holding my breath for this for a long time.
    I hope this time I’ll manage to find where the psoas is.
    Thank you again Justin.

  4. I’ve needed this post for so long. I always see suggestions for the couch stretch, but that never does enough for me. I still can’t find the spot you’re talking about to massage though.

    Also, what are good cues to avoid hyperextension on the press? I’ve been told to squeeze my glutes, and tense my abs, but that does absolutely nothing to my pelvic angle or the hyperextension in my back.

    • “Tense the abs” is too vague. I’d teach you what a “columned trunk” feels like. I’d teach you how to contract your lower abs. Then I’d have you do these things as you press. You wouldn’t be able to lift as much, but you would be efficient. You’d probably have to do a mini-progression with this subtle new technique.

      “Contract the low abs” or keeping the low abs on are the concepts that I’d whittle into a cue for you.

  5. I’ve been using lunges and couch stretch for approximately the last month in order to help reverse some of the hyperlordosis I suffer from. I deliver pizzas at a busy restaurant and attend college and am sitting for a majority of my day, whether voluntarily or due to obligations (work, classroom). Needless to say I just found my psoas and massaged it. It was fucked.

  6. To everyone needing help finding their psoas, lying on your back and then lifting your head to contract your abs and feeling to either side near your hips really help me find where I needed to be, rather than flexing my hip.

    • To elaborate, you’ll be lateral to the abdominals (specifically the rectus abdominis) that contract when you lift your head. If you’re confused, it may be more lateral than you think.

  7. I had hip surgery in April, so I am constantly stretching my piriformis, psoas, and hip flexors. Its amazing how much better I feel now that I have to work on this area. Thanks for the tip on keeping the abs tight while stretching the HFs

  8. Since the psoas and illiacus attach to the inside rear of the femur, how common is it that a shortened or tight psoas/illiacus contribute to a tight groin?

    • It’s a typical skeptic being a skeptic for the sake of skepticism. He definitely doesn’t coach or treat people, and I’d be willing to bet he doesn’t even lift.

      He asks for research in a shitty field to support something. When you aren’t in a hard science, you can’t wait for research to “prove” something to you, otherwise you’ll never experiment with the practitioner side of things.

      He also points out how “getting up and moving around” can help prevent this from happening. No fucking shit. However, people a) do not do that and b) the sitting exposure most people undergo far outweighs any potential “getting up and moving around”. It’s all about the chronic effect of doing something. If you sit for 5 hours a day broken up with 30 minutes of moving around total, that ratio is still fucked.

      Then he cites animals as a reason why this wouldn’t be the case? If you own an animal, you know that they recover very differently than a human does. Also, if you own an animal, you know that they stretch constantly (at least every time they get up from a nap). Do you, as a human, stretch every time you stand up? Or get out of bed?

      Lastly, he doesn’t propose any other “mechanism” for causing it. He ignores all of the evidence staring him in the face for the sake of wanting to be different, to be skeptical. Fucking yawn.

      • He’s also a moron because a lot of our sitting is done in chairs, with the load on our butt and our legs 90º at the hip and then 90º at the knees. You know how long we’ve been doing this? maybe a thousand years. It’s not a historically natural thing, you’ll notice in old paintings most things we’ve done were either stools low to the ground, our lounges where we pick our legs off the ground entirely. This office chair thing is new, and coincides, inconveniently, with all this back pain people never used to get.

    • Kind of ironic given that Arnold’s legs weren’t amazing. However, I know that he worked on them very hard, especially his calves. Also, his femurs were very long, so it was harder to pack on dense muscle compared to other tall bodybuilders with shorter femurs.

      I’d actually be very surprised if he is blogging regularly like this. If it’s actually him, that’s pretty cool.

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  10. Great post Justin! Very timely for me… Hip flexor care should be included in fitness 101.

    I’ve always had a bit of anterior pelvic tilt however it wasn’t until I started lifting seriously that it became exasperated. I think I got strong around the lordosis and started waking up with back pains. The coach stretch is now a daily routine which has helped tremendously. We hyperlordosis dudes also need to avoid sleeping on our stomachs..the day I transitioned to sleeping on my side or back is the day I got rid of most of my lumbar pain.

    All that said, I recently received a Rolfing session as a gift and actually learned that my pelvic tilt is getting pretty close to neutral, I still have some anterior tilt but it isn’t as bad as it used to be, but, BUT, my tight Psoas are still pulling my lumbar spine forward and causing sheering. The Rolfer pointed out that my spine looked pretty good while seated but when standing, when the psoas get tight, the lumbar are pulled really far forward. Does this sound like maybe a strong posterior is helping to keep the pelvis in alignment but a still tight psoas is still pulling at the spine?

    My paraspinals can sometimes get ultra tight after high volume squats and I hope correcting the lumbar issue also corrects this issue. I’ll continue to stretch and add in the physical manipulation…My insurance covers physical therapy and massage but I first need a referral, however they do cover chiropractic and I can just walk in, is this something they can assist me with?

    Thanks

    • You’re on par with everything, but you’re missing one little bit. The psoas pulls the spine weird when you are standing (see the pictures in the post). The hip would need to be in extension (or aligned with the spine in normal, anatomical position) for the psoas to have a chance to pull the spine. If you’re in flexion, then the psoas is contracted, remember? So it doesn’t have a chance to tug on anything until it is elongated, and this happens in hip extension AKA anatomical position.

      I’d look for a chiro that does soft tissue work. I’d continue massaging your psoas daily, because it’s still a clear contributor (according to the info from the Rolfer). I’d see if the rolfer can work on your psoas, if your insurance covers those visits.

      Remember that your spine is being pulled as a result of the tight psoas. Also note that the psoas doesn’t attach on the pelvis, hence why it doesn’t effect the anterior pelvic tilt. The post was titled “hyperlordosis” for a reason, man!

  11. Great posts. Between this and the post about foot drills linked on Friday, I’ve got my mobility work cut out for me.

    I’ve been suffering from shin splits recently, and it’s fucking horrible. I have no doubt in my mind constant care is essential not only for maintenance but also to counteract decades of sitting on my ass.

    Lifting is not enough.

    • I’ll do a post on shin splints, but the treatment is pretty much “do the foot drills”. The “why shin splints occur” is interesting though.

  12. I’ve had this question for a while. If you have a particularly bad case of lordosis, one that you’ve had since you were a toddler, should you keep squatting while trying to correct it? If not, what should one do instead of squats and deadlifts?

    • I don’t know what “bad” means. If your skeletal structure is permanent, you need to do do the mobility work all the time. However, if you don’t load anything, how will it strengthen?

      I’d probably have you squat and deadlift and teach you to keep your trunk in proper alignment. It’ll probably feel like you are posteriorily tilting your pelvis or rounding your spine (since you’ve been hyperlordotic so long). It’s just something you’ll have to learn. Turn your lower abs on when you walk through doorways. Let me know how it all goes.

      If you feel that you have a potential for injury from lifting, then either lighten the load or don’t do it. I don’t think not lifting will be a good thing though.

      • I haven’t had any lower back problems or anything, although I’m relatively young (knock on wood.)

        I’m at the point where I’m able to walk around with correct posture, but only by puling in my abdomen really hard, to the point where my voice is noticeable weaker.

        Thanks a lot for your advice. I will review some diagrams and try to align myself accordingly.

    • Umm, I’d have to think about it. If your feet are NOT anchored, then it should primarily be an abdominal thing anyway. I’m not really fan of putting the back in hyperlordosis in general, so as of now I’m against them. You’re better off learning how to properly do the “hollow rock” from gymnastics.

  13. Awesome post. A video of the massage would be sweet, not that I want to see you rub yourself…I like a Psoas stretch from mcgills lowback disorders book. Pretty sure if you Google mcgill Psoas stretch it will come up

  14. I have hyperlordosis and have been working on it for about a year now. With a help of a very skilled ART/PT guy and a lot of work on my own, I’ve lessened my hyperlordosis. The progress was clearly seen in before and after x-rays. (after about 7 months)

    For the longest time (10+ years) I thought my lower back pain was due to my spine or back muscles, little did I know about the psoas. Great article and information on an extremely important and little known muscle.

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  30. Justin, great write up! I was wondering if you could demonstrate your psoas massage technique in a video. I must be dumb, dense, and stupid, but i can’t seem to get it. Maybe mine just isn’t tight, but it sure the hell feels like it as I am a sufferer of hyperlordosis. Anyway, thanks again for another solid article! I’m adding this to my collection of how to be awesome.