Your Personal PT, Rachel Tavel, is a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) at Shift Wellness in NYC, so she knows how to get your body back on track when it’s out of line. In this weekly series, she gives you tips on how to feel better, get stronger, and train smarter.
Chances are you’ve heard about the IT band. But… Is it a muscle? Is it a band? Is it a computer programming department in your body? What does IT stand for, anyway? Mystery surrounds this common instigator of knee pain—so it’s time you finally get some answers.
The IT band (iliotibial band) is a thick band of fibrous connective tissue called fascia that extends from the muscles of the hip—more specifically: the tensor fascia latae and gluteus maximus—down to the knee. It spans the length of the lateral thigh, initiating at the iliac crest of the pelvis and extending towards the tibia of the lower leg, hence the name. It crosses the knee joint along the way, overlapping with large muscles of the thigh.
Contrary to popular belief, the IT band itself is not a muscle and it does not actually “stretch,” at least not with human levels of strength. But that won’t stop you from hearing the terms “tight IT band” or “IT band stretches.”
So what’s really going on with when the IT band leads to pain? IT Band syndrome can develop from repeated flexion and extension of the knee during sports such as running or cycling. Due to its attachment point along the side of the knee (the lateral tibial plateau or “Gerdy’s Tubercle” if you want to get specific), this repeated bending and straightening with a possible valgus (inward) angle can lead to the band of fascia moving across this bony projection. Repetitive sliding of the band at the joint can cause friction, inflammation and pain at the outer knee. Glute tightness or weakness, single leg instability, poor body mechanics, and soft tissue restrictions may be to blame.
If you’re experiencing pain at the outer knee or along the lateral thigh that is worse with activity, you might have IT Band Syndrome. To treat it, temporarily modify your activity to avoid repeatedly irritating the attachment point and stick to these three moves.
Strengthen the glutes: Try hip hikes, resisted lateral walking, resisted side lying or standing hip abduction, monster walks, single-leg bridges, single-leg deadlifts, and squats. Add resistance when 3 sets of 10 reps at bodyweight resistance is easy.
Stretch everything but the IT band: The IT band itself might not stretch much, but the muscles from which it extends and overlaps do. Stretch the hamstrings by lying on your back and extending the leg straight up as close to 90 degrees as your body allows. Using a yoga strap or towel, gently draw your leg across your body to lengthen the outer portion of the thigh. Also stretch the glutes by performing a figure 4 stretch. Stretch the quadriceps by doing a kneeling lunge stretch with overhead reach. Hold all stretches for at least 30 seconds and make sure you take deep slow breaths to fully allow the stretch to take place.
Foam roll: Foam rolling, or self-myofascial release (SMR), can help reduce tone in the muscles, promote blood flow and help improve soft tissue extensibility. Roll out the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Need a how-to? Check out this video for a solid demo.