What are you doing to your IT band with that foam roller?
A fellow Philadelphia dancer posted this article to Facebook a few days ago: Your IT Band is Not the Enemy (But Maybe Your Foam Roller Is). The author, Robert Camacho, recommends that instead of wailing away on our IT bands with a foam roller all the time, we should assess and, if necessary, strengthen weak gluteus medius muscles. I’m with Camacho that the wailing away can be momentarily relieving but often serves as a band-aid that stops us from investigating the root causes of discomfort (and sometimes even damages the tissue). Many of my clients do have a weak gluteus medius and would benefit from strengthening it. But I think it’s good for us all to remember that the IT band can’t really be stretched in the way a muscle can – it’s a giant, fibrous band meant to be strong, hard, and stabilizing – but there are muscles right underneath it that can be worked instead. I also think both IT band pain and possible glute medius weakness should really be addressed through looking at the whole body as an interconnected system.
Let’s take a gander at the hip muscles in question first. Here you’re looking at a butt from the back. Glute medius is “cut” so you can see what’s underneath it: gluteus minimus and the other five deep rotators beautifully arrayed as a fan out from the greater trochanter (the top of the upper leg bone). Gluteus maximus is also cut. You can see the tensor fasciae latae (TFL) and iliotibial tract (ITB or IT band) all the way over there on the right. The TFL, IT band, and gluteus maximus fascia all merge as they make their way down to the knee.
Glute medius stabilizes the pelvis as you move. (Camacho says it stabilizes the knee, but that’s a pretty indirect action.) It needs to fire / contract / function properly for even, healthy walking, and the whole host of motions that come after that. So yeah, go ahead and check out how well yours are functioning.
But I’d recommend two additional courses of action. First, investigate whether pain “in your IT band” is actually from trigger points in the muscles underneath it, especially vastus lateralis in the quadriceps group. Stand up and poke around gently with your fingers; investigate how you can feel that hard band and slide just in front of or behind it and be on muscle. Ensoma Bodyworks has some pointers on treating vastus lateralis with your roller if you’re really attached to that device.
Second, look at how your whole body is aligned and notice your own patterns of standing and walking. Maybe you do this with your massage therapist or PT (highly recommended, though if your massage therapist looks at you like you’re crazy when you bring this up or isn’t used to postural reading then they’re not going to be a good partner). Maybe you do this by yourself, in your underwear in front of a mirror.
When you look, look first at how awesome you are. That’s especially important if you’re looking by yourself! Give yourself a compliment you mean. Give yourself kudos for having the curiosity and courage to learn more about your own body – that’s no small thing. Then check out all these different ways of looking at it that have nothing to do with how we usually think of ourselves (so you can just ditch all that baggage right now, thank you). This looking not an easy skill to learn, but I’ve found it both revealing and empowering; it gives you so much fresh knowledge and new ways to consider helping yourself feel good:
- What’s going on in your feet and ankles?
- Are you heavily rolling your weight towards the inside or outside of your foot?
- Is your arch really flat or really high?
- How is your patella (kneecap) tracking when you bend your knee?
- Is your pelvis out of alignment: tilted forward or back, and/or to the left or right?
- Are your legs turned out all the time?
- Are you a little bowlegged or a little knock-kneed?
- Do you thrust your whole pelvis forward while you stand?
- Does each of your hips drop about the same amount when you take a step? (Right hip drops when you step on your left foot, and vice versa.)
The answers to all of these questions will affect how your IT band (and those other muscles you were poking around in) feels, even if the differences from side to side are small. That’s the glory and the frustration of the body’s interconnectedness.
If you’re a little bowlegged, for example, all the muscles on the outsides of your legs (and the IT band) are stressed because they’re constantly living in an overly long state. The solution is more about lengthening what’s short, though – all the muscles on the insides of your legs – and massaging or rolling across the fibers of the overly long ones on the outside to broaden the tissue and remind the muscle cells of a shorter contracted length. Rolling up and down your IT band from hip to knee does exactly the opposite, so might actually be the right course of action if you’re a little knock-kneed. (Then we’d get back into how working with smaller tools than a roller and targeting specific muscles like the vastus lateralis more than the IT band could serve you better.)
I should say that I haven’t yet met or worked with someone who doesn’t have some asymmetries in their body; one doesn’t need to eliminate all of them, just find the adjustments, releases, and strengthening exercises that enable efficient movement and maximally comfortable functioning in your own body.
Do you have IT band pain? Have you talked to a PT or massage therapist about it? Have you found solutions that you feel are addressing whatever the root cause is in your own body? Did you discover some new information to consider when you did a little targeted massage or looked in the mirror?