Oh, the beloved TFL.
No, there are no bad words in this acronym. It means Tensor Fasciae Latae, and this beauty is where your Iliotibial Band (IT) band grows from. The Iliotibial Band is considered DEEP fascia, meaning that it ties into the deeper layer of fascia all over your body all. Interestingly enough, your earlobe is also deep fascia. Feel your ear lobe, now feel the outside of your thigh, where your IT band is. Press somewhat firmly on your IT band and you will surely feel sensation! Press firmly on your ear, and you may think you could even take a little more pressure. This has to do with the simple mechanics of loading.
Our IT band works hard to keep our knee tracking straight and distribute the efforts of the TFL down the leg. The efforts of the TFL are to flex the hip and pass power from the hips into your gait.
Now here is a big secret….our TFLs get pretty jacked. Whether we are sitting on a bike or in a car or in an office, the act of sitting is to FLEX the TFL and increase the tension (read: LOAD) on the IT band and knee. This can result in a lot of things:
1) Anteriorly tipped pelvis (aka strong lordosis, or the curve in your lower back). As TFL and IT band hold tension, something has to give. Depending on the integrity of our low backs, pelvic floors, and hamstrings it can show up as pain in the low back. I also see this contributing to diastasis recti (abdominal muscle separation) and low core engagement in people.
2) Pain in the knee When TFL and IT band hold tension and there is not enough strength in the supporting muscles of the adductors, ones knee can easily start to track incorrectly. In people I have worked with who have a knocked-knee position, their IT bands are holding tension and load even while standing and tend to be VERY tight. Sometimes this creates pain in the knees, and sometimes in the feet depending on how ones body is compensating.
3) Psoas disconnect My favorite part of the body- the psoas. Worthy of many more articles. This is a very deep muscle in our belly that connects the lumbar vertebrae, and even the diaphragm, to the inside of the thigh bone and helps to lift, or flex the leg up – just like TFL. Psoas is a primary muscle for this movement, whereas TFL is a secondary muscle as a hip flexor. HOWEVER, TFL is reinforced by the slow changing fascia of the IT band and when it starts to grip, our beloved Psoas says, “ok buddy, if you insist, you can do the work.” Then all sorts of other interesting things can happen, from a lax sacroiliac joint to digestive upsets (yes…it’s all connected!)
What the TFL? What to do?
Stick a ball in it! Roll it! Hang out for several minutes with that ball in it….either between your TFL and the wall or maybe use the floor. Crossing your legs and folding forward can help, so can revolved triangle pose in yoga. Also, try a quad stretch against a wall, with your shin up the wall and your other leg in a lunge, then take a twist toward your front leg. And give it some time to RELAX! Heat is your friend, unless you are swollen or inflamed.
You can spend all day working on the tightness in your low back. Save yourself some effort and start with your TFL.
So when you feel that random knee ache, or low back pain and you want to say WTF, remember TFL and start there first!
You’re welcome 🙂