When it comes to the health and fitness industry, I have many pet peeves, some of which include: 1) women being told not to lift heavy weights or else they'll get ''bulky,'' 2) the countless harmful and/or ineffective detoxes/cleanses that are peddled to the masses, especially women, 3) 1200 calorie diets, 4) pretty much any exercise that involves a Bosu, 5) Tracey Anderson and many of the ''celebrity trainers,'' and finally, 6) the countless fitness magazines, trainers, and even physios who tell people to ''roll and stretch their IT band.'' I cringe when I think back to the time in my teens and very early 20's when I was naive and uneducated, and had many different ''physios'' tell me to roll and stretch my IT band. Most of these ''professionals'' did so while they were hooking me up to some machine, and then ditched me to rush off to treat some other patient as many of these ''physios'' were treating multiple people at the same time, and of course were only treating the symptoms. Don't even get me started on this...
Now let me get back on track. The ilitiotibial band (ITB) is a long, flat, and broad tendon that is located on the outer upper leg. It originates from the iliac crest, tensor fascia latae, and gluteus maximus muscle, and inserts at the knee. The IT band is often unjustly blamed for many injuries and issues, many of which involve the knee. Guess what, your IT band is not causing the problem, what is attached to the IT band, or other factors, are root of the problem.
Despite the fact that the IT band is a tendon, many people spend a ridiculous amount of time attempting to stretch and release this inflexible tissue. No matter what your ''physio,'' trainer, or running buddy might have told you, stop trying to stretch and release your IT band. It will not provide you with the relief that you are looking for. Let me put it this way, even if you tied a rope from your IT band to a truck, and attempted to lengthen the IT band by having someone drive away in the truck, it would not happen! And aggressively rolling this area can actually cause the IT band to become inflamed.
Now let me be very clear about something. In so many instances, your muscles are tight because you are weak, end of story. Because you are weak, your muscles will tighten up to provide your body with the stability that it is sorely lacking. Focusing purely on mobility, and neglecting strengthening, will not solve the problem. If anything, it will likely exacerbate it. While rolling and stretching might provide you with temporary relief, if you are serious about getting to the root of the problem and making it go away for good, you need to get strong and improve your movement. In many instances, rolling and stretching will be a temporary solution at best. While I will start out by providing you with two of these ''Band-Aids,'' the bulk of this article will be geared towards helping you improve your strength and stability.
Focus On Releasing Your TFL
The tensor fascia latae, otherwise known as the TFL, attaches to the IT band. It works synergistically with the glute medius and minimus to abduct and medially rotate the femur. If the TFL is tight, it will pull on the IT band. I like to release the TFL with a lacrosse ball but a tennis ball will also work. I will usually find 1-3 tight spots and will hold for 30-90 seconds per spot.
Newsflash, while you cannot release your IT band, you can occasionally benefit from releasing your lateral quad muscles. While you can use a roller, I prefer to use a lacrosse or tennis ball. Find the tight spots and hold until you feel the spot release. Usually 30-90 seconds will suffice. You can also incorporate some ART (active release technique) by bending and extending your knee while you are lying on the ball or roller.
When the glute medius is weak or not firing properly, the TFL will often tighten up to provide the pelvis and femur with the stability they are lacking. For strengthening the glute medius, I like to do side lying clamshells against the wall, banded toe taps (video), or banded lateral shuffles. For strengthening the glute max, glute bridges or hip thrusts, glute hamstring raises, deficit or rear foot elevated split squats, and lunges are just a few of many exercises that I recommend. With glute bridges and hip thrusts (I will do both single and double leg variations), the key is to really focus on each contraction.
Despite my heavy breathing, this exercise is not overly taxing. I did this exercise after my sprint intervals:). While it might not be taxing cardiovascularly, it takes a lot of focus as you want your body to remain in perfect alignment for the duration of the exercise, and you need to be very mentally in tune with your glutes as having a mind-muscle connection is vital to reaping the most benefits from this (and all activation) exercises. In the last part of the video, I show and explain some very common mistakes that people make when they perform this exercise.
If your pelvis and spine are unstable, and this is often the result of weak glutes and a weak anterior core, other muscles will kick into overdrive to provide your body with the stability that it is lacking. One of these muscles is the TFL. As I discussed above, the TFL attaches to the IT band. When the TFL is overactive, it will pull on the IT band and can cause a plethora of issues, including knee tracking issues and IT band syndrome. Three of my favourite exercises to address core stability include: ab wheel rollouts (anti-extension), half kneeling Pallof presses (anti-rotational), and loaded carries (anti-lateral flexion).
Do not underestimate the importance of having strong and stable feet, and maintaining a tripod foot. When people run, jump, stride, land, or perform any lower body exercise (or even upper body exercise) when they are in a standing or half kneeling position, if the big toe loses contact with the floor, quite often, the muscles in the lateral leg will kick in to prevent the femur and pelvis from shifting laterally, and this can cause them to tighten up. When you are in a standing position, or when your foot is planted on the ground, focus on keeping your heel, big and baby toe in contact with the ground at all times. When the big toe is down, the glutes and vastus medialis seem to fire much better. This will provide the body with much more stability, and will prevent the TFL and vastus lateralis from overworking to stabilize the pelvis and femur. Here is my favourite exercise for strengthening the feet.