Pain down the side of your leg or at the outside of your knee?
There’s a good chance it can be caused by your IT band which runs from the outside of your hip to the beneath the outside of your knee.
IT band pain is experienced by active and non-active people but it is most common within the running community and also within exercise involve heavy loads such as bodybuilding and CrossFit.
The easiest and most simple way to get rid of IT band pain is to perform specific exercises and movements to help reduce the tension within the IT band.
In the past it has been recommended that stretching and foam rollering should be used to combat this issue – these things may give short term results and can often be very uncomfortable to do.
There is now a greater understanding of the IT band and this article is going to show you the best exercises in order to treat and prevent IT band pain.
Build these exercises in to your exercise routine to help prevent against IT band pain.
But first, here’s some of the basics you should know so that you understand what you are doing and what you are dealing with.
What is the IT Band
The IT band is a strong band of fascia that runs from the outside of your hip to the outside of your knee.
It acts as a connective tissue that helps to generate force and stabilise the hip and knee during movement.
It’s anatomy involves the gluteal tendons which sit on the outside of the hip and then merge in to the IT band to then extend the full length of the leg and insert on to the outside of the shin on the lower leg.
The IT Band as previously mentioned is fascia. Fascia has the tensile strength of steel and is very hard to effect its length or tension by trying to manipulate it.
Hence – this is why we don’t stretch or even firmly massage it because it is very hard to effect the actual composition of the IT band.
But how do we effect the IT band? Simple – using the right exercises. See below.
Top 6 Best IT Band Exercises
Why do exercises work best for the IT band and not stretches?
Exercises targeting the muscles and tendons which make up the IT band such as the glute muscles where it originates – help to improve the strength and capability of the IT Band.
It is important to remember the IT band is used to generate force, aid balance and stabilise the lower limb.
Stretching these tendons and muscles – removes the function out of the IT band and does not help to support it properly.
Strengthening the tendons and muscles which lead ion to the IT band help to improve its capability and ultimately reduce or prevent pain.
Lie on to your back and bend your knees so your feet are flat on the floor.
Place your feet – hip width apart and press through the floor and lift your hips as high as they can go.
Hold for 5-10 seconds before lowering slowly and repeating. This exercise is great as it works the glutes which are part of the IT band and helps to improve their strength.
Banded Crab Walks – Side to Side
Using a glute band or looped resistance band. Place the band around the ankles in a standing position.
Place yourself in to a partial squat position and walk sideways – keep the tension on the band and do not let it go loose.
Repeat this until the lateral hips begin to burn and become tired. The lateral hip muscles are a huge component on the IT band and help to strengthen it.
High Step Ups
This is a great all round exercise for All of the glutes and IT band.
If you have access to a box in the gym use that, if not – use the 2nd stair at home. The higher the step up the better.
High step ups are great for developing glute strength and power. This exercise is really simple and is a great way to prevent IT band issues.
Simple starting from the floor, step up and drive right through. Things to focus on are the hips remaining level and the knee remaining in a straight line.
Single Leg Bridges
If you have IT band issues on one leg – then targeting it with unilateral exercises can be the most effective way to improve symptoms.
When performing bilateral exercises – our ‘good’ side can often takeover from the weaker side and we may not get the best out of the exercise.
The single leg bridge is exactly the same as exercise number 1. Remember to float the leg not being used in the air whilst pushing through the foot on the floor.
Lateral Step Ups
This is one of the most effective for the IT band and lateral hip region.
Stand on some stairs or a plyo box – and position yourself with one foot on the step and one foot floating over the edge.
The aim with this exercise is to slowly lower your floating leg down by performing a mini one legged squat and letting the pelvis drop down to one side.
Then pull the pelvis back up and straighten the leg to return to a starting position. This is pretty hard work.
Single leg balance
Start with a small bend in your knee.
Balance for as long as you can one leg – this works the gluteal muscles and also helps to improve your balance.
If you want to progress this – perform mini single leg squats.
IT Band Syndrome
IT Band syndrome is caused when the IT band and its tendons/muscles cannot cope with the load they are being placed under.
This then causes weakness in the IT band and makes it difficult for the lower limb to tolerate the force and load being placed through it.
So – when running or bearing weight on one leg – pain develops in to the lateral thigh and the outside of the knee.
Symptoms can feel like tightness or even sharpness and another symptom can cause instability of the knee due to the sharpness of pain.
When the IT band becomes weakened – it can increase its tension in response – hence the tightness type feeling being experienced.
The sharpness that can be felt at the outside of the knee is typically because this is the compression of the structures of the outside of the knee being caused by the tension of the IT band rubbing over the outside of the knee.
Typical problems encountered with IT band pain – especially runners – is their tolerance to distance or intensity. They commonly report being able to run for a short or slow period but as their distance or speed increases – the IT band then starts to cause pain.
This is because it is not strong enough to cope with the demand being asked of it when needing to generate force and stabilise the lower limb during running.
Running is essentially hopping from one leg to another and placing all of your bodyweight through one limb. Along with the glutes the IT band helps to support this movement.
If it is not capable then symptoms will develop and function will suffer as a result.
How to treat and prevent IT band pain?
One of the main reasons that IT band problems occur is due to imbalance at the hip and glute region on one side more than the other.
It is rare for you to develop IT band pain on both sides at the same time.
The way we develop imbalance can be multi-faceted and often sometimes hard to identify but here are some key points for you to reduce the risk of developing IT band problems in the future.
- Try not to have one sided sitting habits – habits such as cross legged sitting and sway sitting where we sit with our knees under us create rotation of the hip and over stretching of our gluteal tendons which form the IT band.
Because we typically tend to sit and perform these type of habits to the same side over and over again – this leads to one side of our hip/glute region becoming weaker and less effective.
Tendons are designed to be tense and stiff to generate force – they are not at their happiest when they have been repetitively stretched.
- Exercising whilst injured – if we are not moving efficiently due to an injury, especially one to the lower limb and we do not correct this before starting to engage in exercise again – this can lead to overload of one side and development of IT band pain.
Ensuring good rehab and restoring movement patterns so that they are effective and capable of making sure the body equally carries and generates force are essential.
- A good strength and conditioning program.
As previously discussed, we can develop a lot of habits which influence our bodies to become weaker in certain places and the repetitive nature of our lives often leads to imbalance.
Good strength and conditioning training helps to keep our bodies balanced and aids towards injury prevention. Imbalance at the hips and glutes is a primary factor towards it band pain development.
- Plan your exercise properly – programming yourself to exercise in reasonable amounts helps to prevent injuries developing.
Increasing exercise amounts and intensities too quickly can also rigger injuries such as IT band pain.
If we slowly progress our exercise it can help the body to condition at a more comfortable pace and allow us to recover properly. Always plan what you will exercise.
- DON’T foam roller the side of your thigh!
This is the number one most common mistake people have made over the years. Having pain in the lateral thigh or at the outside of the knee was interpreted as the need to massage it – but IT band syndrome is a compressive issue which causes compression of structures below the IT band.
If you suddenly apply a foam roller, on to a band of tissue and squash it against structures like bones and bursas which are already aggravated – you are going to aggravate it even more.
You cannot change the state of fascia with a foam roller – it is not scientifically possible.
The only thing you achieve by doing this is increasing your pain and maybe some nice bruising on your leg….
If this article has helped you, or you think it could help someone then please share it with them.
If you are struggling with IT band pain then seeking the help of a medical professional is advised as sometimes it is not as simple as simply exercising. Identifying triggers and causes of your pain is equally as important as the way that you fix it.