Your IT Band doesn’t stretch. So stop trying to.
The Iliotibial band is the name for the thickened band of connective tissue on the outside of your thigh, but it’s not technically a separate structure from the rest of the thigh. It is made of a tough, fibrous connective tissue called deep fascia and supports the structures on the outside of your thigh.
The only separation I was able to create in the cadaver lab was because I ran my scalpel through it’s anchoring into the vastus lateralis (the outermost quadriceps muscle).
But it’s not a muscle. It doesn’t contract. Which means it doesn’t need to stretch.
If the IT band feels tight, chances are, it’s coming from some irritation or stiffness in the surrounding muscles (tight quads, anyone?).
And just to keep things a little complicated, weakness of a muscle can also make it feel tight.
So, to sum it up — your IT band may be feeling “tight” because the surrounding muscles are weak, tight, too strong or all of the above.
ITB syndrome is the general name for an irritation of the ITB that often happens where the tissue crosses over the outside of your knee.
If there is too much tension in the ITB and it is constantly rubbing on your lateral knee (where it should be pliable enough to have some give), it can get red, hot and irritated and cause intense pain.
I suffered from ITB syndrome in high school and can tell you first hand its no fun at all. I very vividly remember my physical therapist running her forearm down the outside of my thigh with as much pressure as I could tolerate, which was basically nothing.
I really wish I had a better tool or solution then so I at least could have been in control of the intense pain!
The ITB is a continuation of the entire lateral thigh and hip. Its the name of a neighborhood like Silver Lake is the name of a neighborhood in Los Angeles, but is not its own separate city with a functioning city council — it really is just part of LA. The same goes for your IT band — while it has its own name, its dragged in to the same messes of the joints and tissues above and below it.
And since it’s such a famous fascia, the IT band ends up being blamed for almost all knee and hip pain.
Many people come to me for help with their “tight IT bands” and while I know that they are feeling tension in the IT band, the solution is not just to stretch the area until the cows come home.
Because the truth is that you can’t actually stretch the IT band.
In this study, they put cadavers into standard IT band stretching positions and measured how much length was created in the ITB. You’ve probably done a few of these yourself or had them done to you by a trainer or physiotherapist.
Researchers found that typical IT band and hip stretches made, on average, a 0.5% change in length of the ITB.
You physically can’t stretch your IT band — and pulling on it or foam rolling it is probably just irritating the neighboring and underlying tissues.
These findings also question if rolling a foam roller or any object from hip to knee is actually lengthening the IT band — and hate to be the bearer of bad news — it’s not.
Stretching is stretching is stretching — regardless if you’re moving the limb or using an external object (foam roller or therapy ball) to create stretch, your IT band is simply not a fabric that can stretch.
So what should we do instead?
We can improve the hydration and fluidity of the IT band over the outermost quadriceps muscle through friction and movement. If the IT band is freely able to glide and slide over the deeper structures it is connected to, then perhaps your perception of IT band tension won’t be quite as intense.
But again, the IT band just a neighborhood. It is not operating independently of anything in the area and its tension is very likely to be the result of weakness in surrounding tissues such as the glutes.
Did you know that part of the gluteus maximus (the big booty muscle) inserts into the ITB? If the glutes are tight or weak, they will have an effect on the ITB because they are physically connected.
In fact, many of my students who have weak glutes and buttock muscles also tend to have issues with their IT bands.
Don’t freak out now — I too used to roll up and down the outside of my thigh!
But as we continue to learn and discover new things, all we can do is reevaluate what we know in the moment. I know now that you cannot stretch your IT band.
So stop rolling from hip to knee, which is more of an irritant than a problem solver, and work instead on improving the elasticity and slide of the IT band over the vastus lateralis by using a soft and grippy self-massage tool like a plow on the outside of your thigh.
My favorite way to do this is with a grippy pair of therapy balls and a plow/pin and stretch technique. You can see how to do it in the video below.
Don’t overdo it!
Just like any anything, too much of a good thing is still not a good thing. Keep this in rotation once a week at the most, and instead, work on neighboring structures above and below that may be contributing to this over tension in your IT band.
I while what I understand about the body may be completely different tomorrow, today I do know that we all need to stop stretching and rolling the IT band!