Muscle Spotlight: Tensor Fascia Latae & IT Band

Muscle spotlight: tensor fascia latae (TFL) & iliotibial (IT) band

Location: put your hands on your hips and feel the muscle that is right below the bony part of your hips. This is where the TFL attaches. The muscle is only inches long and it attaches to the IT band which continues down the side of your leg and attaches below the knee (the gluteus maximus also attaches to the IT band).

Function: helps you lift your leg to the side (hip abduction) and turn your leg inward (internal rotation). It also works to stabilize your hip, pelvis and knee as you move.

Why is this muscle important?

Most of the spotlight is usually on the IT band, which is not a muscle. It’s a really really thick, dense type of connective tissue (aka fascia) that connects the TFL to the knee.

Side note: while taking anatomy in undergrad and grad school, I did not get the privilege to actually dissect a human body. Although I worked a lot with the cadavers, I was not really upset that I didn’t get to do the actual cutting (gross). I have a few friends who did experience this and they know first hand how thick the IT band is because of how hard it was to cut through. Sorry, didn’t mean to be morbid…..just wanted to make a point that you will not and should not try to stretch the IT band!

The IT band gets a lot of attention because it can be a big cause of injury and misalignment of the body if it becomes restricted. And by restricted, I mean stuck to the surrounding muscles, not the normal tightness that people refer to. It can even cause you to have slight scoliosis or a leg length difference when it’s really stuck to muscles like the quads or hamstrings. And since you can’t really stretch it (because it’s so darn thick) you have to spend some quality time on your lacrosse ball or foam roller to really break up any restrictions and keep it sliding separately from the surrounding tissues.

What kind of problems can a restricted IT band lead to?

It’s pretty common to see someone with a yucky IT band. Sometimes the TFL goes along with that too, although it is commonly overlooked because it’s hard to foam roll that close to your bone without really causing some intense pain. Because of the amount of sitting that we all do (causing tightness of the TFL and IT band) I believe that even if you don’t have an injury, you can still benefit from foam rolling this area of your body to prevent problems down the line. Knee pain is a common result of these being tight. Especially runners, who get what’s called the IT band friction syndrome. Basically what happens is the IT band is so tight that it rubs across a portion of the knee, leading to inflammation and all that fun stuff. Problems can also arise in the hip and low back because of the alignment issues that are caused when these become tight.

So how do you give love to your TFL and IT band?

Lacrosse ball or foam roll (or whatever cool tool you have) work is your best bet because it’s a form of self myofascial release. Myo(muscle) being the TFL and fascia (aka connective tissue) being the IT band. This is painful, but will feel better with time! Either that or you just learn to love the pain:) The lacrosse ball can be good to get into your TFL, but may be a little too aggressive for the IT band on the floor. You can try a double lacrosse ball or if you only have a lacrosse ball you can just lean against and wall and roll it along your IT band……remembering to work all directions between your hip bone and knee. Think slow movement with a purpose.

I also think that stretching the TFL is an important aspect of keeping the lateral side of your leg healthy and mobile, because unlike the ITband this muscle can get tight. When you do stretches like the ones shown below, you not only work the TFL, but also all of the connective tissue on that side of your body to improve full body movement. Which is what we all do, no one ever just uses one muscle! Here are a few things to try after your foam roll:

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