Fitness Anatomy

You Can’t Stretch the IT Band

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What if I told you that you can’t stretch the IT Band?

That’s right. I said it. If you’re intrigued by this article, you likely had one of two reactions.

Either you already know this, and you’re totally excited we’re busting myths. Or, I’m going against everything you thought you knew.

Old fitness myths die hard. Either way, stick around and find out why you can’t stretch your IT band. 

There’s a new obsession with stretching and foam rolling the IT band. Over the past few years, I’ve heard the name kicked around more at gyms like it’s a new buzzword. I have to say, I’m concerned with what I’m hearing.

So let’s talk. Today we’re going to clear up the misconception surrounding the IT band.

Let’s start with an anatomy lesson.

PS – If you haven’t already read my article on anatomy for exercise featuring the lower body muscles, that’s a great place to start.

Anatomy (Why you can’t stretch the IT Band)

The Iliotibial Band is a longitudinal fibrous reinforcement of the fascia lata in a knee muscle. Part of anatomy human body. Illustration.
Artworkstudio BKK on Bigstockphoto.com

So for starters, IT band is short for iliotibial band. Also known as, ITB, and iliotibial tract.

The name literally describes the broad area of the body this important player covers.

It’s a thick layer of dense connective tissue that runs down the lateral (outside) aspect of the thigh. It’s not a muscle; therefore, it does not contract/relax like muscle tissue.

This is important!

The ITB covers a lot of ground and is a major stabilizing structure for the lower body. First hand from feeling the ITB in a cadaver lab, this puppy is like a strap that just won’t quit.

Chaudhry H. et al. concluded the amount of force required for a 1% stretch to the ITB was somewhere around 2000 lbs and therefore, “outside the normal physiological range.” The science version of you can’t get there from here.

It wasn’t meant to stretch; it was meant to stabilize. 

At the pelvis, the ITB attaches to a small muscle called the tensor fascia latae, or TFL. Not only does it sound like a foamy drink at a trendy coffee house, tensor fascia latae is also super fun to say. But maybe that’s just me.

The ITB also joins with fibers from the glut max (the large and powerful butt muscle.)

So to make sure we’re all on the same page, at the hip/pelvis we’ve got the TFL muscle and the glut max muscle fusing into the ITB fibers. The ITB then runs down the entire length of the lateral thigh and attaches to an area on the tibia (lower leg), just below the knee.

Based on anatomy, you can already see how this tissue can cause a lot of problems when things get out of whack.

Those who perform repetitive forward/back motions such as runners and cyclists may be familiar with ITB syndrome.

It causes pain at the outside of the knee as a result of repetitive movements and a breakdown in mechanics. There is also no shortage of people who think their ITB is tight.

It hurts when I foam roll, so it MUST be tight.

With all the buzz around the ITB, there’s not a general consensus on how to fix it when problems show up.

Here’s the monkey wrench: as humans, we live and move in 3D.

Just because there’s pain in one area, it doesn’t mean that’s the root cause of the problem. And the reality is, what caused one person’s ITB issue may not be the cause of another’s.

There are many ways the body likes to cheat to get the movement it needs.

Several different issues can cause problems that manifest as an ITB issue, so it’s crucial to get evaluated by a physical therapist to figure out why you’re having issues.

People can present differently, which is why the treatment for your brother/mother/friend/neighbor might not work for you.

Running Cycle Anatomical Illustration Isolated Over White Contains Clipping Path Running Cycle Anatomical Illustration Isolated Contains Clippi
© PixelRockstar.com

So when I hear things like “stretch your ITB” or foam roll your ITB as a blanket cure-all statement, it makes me cringe.

So what do I do?

This is where I do my plug for physical therapy and tell you that if you have pain, stop foam rolling your ITB and get to a PT for a proper biomechanical evaluation.

What you can do instead

Put the pieces of YOUR puzzle together.

While you can’t stretch the ITB, you can stretch/strengthen the muscles that attach to the ITB and have an effect on the overall alignment of the lower extremity.

Rebalance by strengthening the muscles in the area that are not pulling their fair share of the workload.

A whole host of alignment issues, weakness, or flexibility issues can be changing the forces acting on your ITB and voila. Pain.

This is what a physical therapist will help you with depending on what your particular issues are.

Remember the old song, the foot bone’s connected to the leg bone? And so on. This is that.

There might be weakness in the abductors causing TFL to pull extra weight.

There might be flat feet that need orthotics causing an adduction/internal rotation of the leg.

There could be a valgus or “knock-kneed” posture, just to name a few.

Or your mechanics fall apart when you fatigue.

I read it on the internet so it must be true.

If you search the internet for how to stretch your ITB, you’ll find what you’re looking for.

There are many stretches touted as “ITB stretches.”

Since we already covered it’s physiologically impossible to stretch, what are they actually doing?

They are stretching other hip/lower extremity muscles that attach to or are near the ITB.

So while you will likely forever hear stretch your ITB in a fitness class *sigh*, at least you understand what you’re doing and what you’re not.

When you “stretch” your ITB, you’re stretching muscles that are attached to it, but not the ITB itself.

But MY ITB is tight! Cool, it’s supposed to be.

Remember: stabilizer. If it were loose you’d have bigger problems.

No really, I feel the stretch all the way down my leg! Maybe mine stretches…

You may feel “pulling” down the length of the leg due to the continuous layer of fascia existing throughout the body as well as stretching the TFL muscle.

There is no “stretching” happening in the ITB itself. Since the ITB is not a muscle, that same physiology of stretching does not occur.

So should you still do the “IT band stretch”?

There’s nothing wrong with it, know what it’s doing and what it’s not. And enjoy the side body stretch.

Thanks science!

What about foam rolling?

This seems to be a very polarizing topic across the board even within physical therapists.

Make sure you read Foam Rolling 101 for a more in-depth look.

Bottom line, there’s not a ton of research on foam rolling.

What we do know is foam rolling seems to improve joint range of motion pre and post-exercise. Here’s an extensive systematic review.

It may be a component of rehab or a general exercise program, but foam rolling an ITB alone is not going to fix or prevent issues. It may be useful in releasing trigger points in muscles affecting the mechanics of the ITB.

So what can’t we do? Stretch the ITB itself. Because, science.

What can we do? Stretch, strengthen, and restore proper mechanics of the tissues that caused the “tight” ITB in the first place.

So spread the word.

Featured image credit: Jacob Lund / bigstockphoto.com

References and Resources

Chaundhry H, Schleip R, Ji Z, Bukiet B, Maney M, Findley T. (2008) Three-dimensional mathematical model for deformation of human fasciae in manual therapy. Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. 108(8),379-90.

Cheatham SW, Kobler MJ, Cain M, Lee M. (2015) The Effects of Self-Myofascial Release Using a Foam Roll or Roller Massager on Joint Range of Motion, Muscle Recovery, and Performance: A Systematic Review. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. 10(6), 827-838.

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