The 5 Best IT Band Exercises to Prevent Hip Tightness

One Peloton instructor shares exercises to strengthen your iliotibial (IT) bands to prevent your lower body from getting tight.

Courtesy of Mind Body Green
Courtesy of Mind Body Green

Body tightness — in any area — is unpleasant, to say the least. And a tight iliotibial band (aka your IT band) is no exception. Usually, a tight IT band leads to discomfort or pain in the hip and knee areas, which can force you to change how you are moving and might evolve into larger problems such as IT band syndrome, in which your IT band gets swollen and majorly irritated from rubbing against your hip or knee bones. In other words, IT band tightness is no fun at all.

ICYDK, the IT band is "a thickening of the lateral aspect of fascia" that surrounds the deep tissues of the thigh and varies in thickness, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It runs from the upper leg to the lower leg along the outside of the thigh, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine. It provides stability as you run and walk to maintain the level of your pelvis — so in other words, it's pretty darn important for steady, injury-free movement.

"IT band 'tightness' is very common when you are working out often and can get in the way of feeling like the best version of yourself," says Hannah Corbin, a Peloton instructor who teaches classes focused on mobility.

But, a tight IT band can be avoided with a little TLC. Here's what to know about what causes a tight IT Band, and the best IT band exercises to help prevent tightness.

What Causes a Tight IT Band

"The IT band is a thick band of connective tissue called fascia and it connects from muscles in the outside or lateral part of the hip down to the outside, lateral side of the knee," says Samantha Smith, M.D., a board-certified physician in internal medicine, pediatrics, and sports medicine at Yale Medicine. When your IT band gets "tight," it gets shorter and could limit your normal range of motion and body mechanics, she explains.

A tight IT band can present in a number of ways. "Some people will just experience a sensation of tightness, so just feeling like they don't have the range of motion or flexibility that they would like to have around their hip and thigh area," says Dr. Smith. "But more commonly, people present with pain either of the outside of the knee or the outside of the hip."

Some of the tightness can stem from muscle weakness around the IT band itself. "Most people think they have IT band issues, really they have tight hips," says Corbin. "So, what you thought were IT issues are really secondary, and they [tight hips] start to dissipate or go away completely."

"I think the most common cause of a tight IT band is the relative weakness of some of the other muscles around the outside of the hip," says Dr. Smith. For example, take your hip abductor muscles (which move your hips away from your midline). If your gluteus medius and gluteus minimus, both muscles in your hip abductors, aren't activating normally and doing the pelvic stabilization that they're usually responsible for, then more of that work ends up having to go to the IT band. So, to summarize: A tight IT band is often a cyclical issue that results from tight surrounding muscles.

Another way the IT band can become tight is from overuse or a quick increase in activity. "This tissue can become abnormally tight or inflamed from overuse injuries, direct compression or trauma to the lateral aspect of the leg, or sometimes with an abrupt increase in exercise or activity," says Thomas Hickernell, M.D., an orthopedic hip surgeon at Yale Medicine and assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine. And of course, a tight IT band can come from a combo of any of these potential causes, notes Dr. Smith.

Best Tips for Strengthening Your IT Band

While it may seem like an obvious solution to simply do IT band stretches to avoid general tightness, keeping the IT band pliable is a little bit more complex. Since overall IT band tightness is impacted by the tightness of the muscles attached to it, "focusing on the flexibility and strength of those different inputs [muscles] has an overall beneficial effect" on addressing IT band tightness, says Dr. Smith.

The best thing you can do to prevent IT band tightness is to make sure you're strong in the muscles around the hip, according to Dr. Smith. "These are not muscles that are going to be necessarily activated with typical squats and deadlifts and exercises that are done on two legs, but really thinking about your side-to-side balance and incorporating a single-leg exercise or specifically, glute-strengthening exercises into your workout routine," she explains.

Try prioritizing a few different exercises for different parts of your body to help avoid IT band tightness, advises Corbin. Stretching surrounding muscle groups can help, as can other movements and practices (think: foam rolling, which applies targeted pressure to your muscles before or after your workout and can help with flexibility and recovery).

And if stretching, warming up before workouts, cooling down after workouts, and foam rolling before and after a session still don't help with a tight IT band, it's time to consult a medical professional. "There are additional options that can be discussed with your doctor, such as topical or oral anti-inflammatory medications, and sometimes targeted injections," says Dr. Hickernell. "If problems persist, it is worth seeing your doctor as problems with the hip and knee joint, or even the lumbar spine, can sometimes contribute to these issues."

The Best 5 IT Band Exercises to Prevent Tightness

These IT band exercises are a combination of foam rolling, strengthening, and stretching, all of which can be preventative measures for avoiding a tight IT band, says Corbin. "If you can alleviate that pressure on the fascia [of the IT band] by rolling out the quads, rolling out the hamstring, and the glute, then, in essence, you're giving [the IT band] more length, because it's not being pulled in every direction," explains Corbin.

How to add these IT band exercises to your workout: Use these IT band foam rolling exercises as warm-ups or cool-downs from your workouts, especially on days when you work the lower body. Aim to foam roll for 30 to 60 seconds on one muscle group before moving on. Or, combine these IT band exercises into a mini-strength session to target your hip abductors and the surrounding muscles. It's important to keep in mind that while a tight IT band can be remedied or prevented with stretching, strengthening, and rolling, pain in your IT band could indicate a larger problem — so talk to a medical professional for advice if you have a tight IT band.

Ready to make your IT bands more pliable and improve your mobility? Try these IT band exercises, demonstrated by Corbin, to prevent IT band tightness and injury.

1. Outside Quadriceps Roll

Why it works: The outside of your quads are adjacent to your IT band, so they're part of the surrounding muscles that can impact IT band tightness. Imagine your thigh as a "box" and concentrate on rolling the box's outside corner, advises Corbin. Avoid rolling directly on the IT band itself.

A. Lie on right side, placing the foam roller perpendicular to and just above right knee with right knee bent and resting on top of the foam roller, right foot on the floor. Right hand and left arm can rest on the ground as needed for support. Left leg extends long with left foot on the ground.

B. Roll forward and backward on outside of right quad muscles until you find a tender area. Hold there between 30 and 90 seconds.

2. Outside Hamstring Roll

Why it works: After you hit your quads, your hamstrings are the next surrounding muscle group to target for a tight IT band. "Envision that same thigh box and concentrate on rolling the outside back corner of the box," says Corbin. "Extend the roll from the crease at the bottom of your buns to the top of your knee crease."

A. Sitting on the ground, place the foam roller perpendicular to and underneath legs with back straight and hands on the floor behind you, fingers pointing forward.

B. Put right hamstring on top of the foam roller. Cross left ankle over right ankle so left leg does not rest on the foam roller.

C. Roll right hamstring up and down until you find a tender area. Hold there between 30 and 90 seconds.

D. Roll up slightly so foam roller moves higher on right hamstring and repeat.

3. Tensor Fascia Latae Roll

Why it works: Your tensor fascia latae (aka your TFL) is the front and outside of your hip. It's attached to the deep fascia and the superficial fascia of the IT band, so working the TFL through foam rolling will allow your IT band to feel relief too.

A. Lie on right side, placing the foam roller perpendicular to and just below right hip with right knee bent and right shin and foot on the floor. Place right forearm and left hand on the ground for support. Left leg extends long with left foot on the ground.

B. Roll forward and backward on right tensor fascia latae until you find a tender area. Hold there between 30 and 90 seconds.

C. Roll down slightly so foam roller moves lower on right hip and repeat.

4. 90-90 Internal Rotation

Why it works: Strengthening your hip abductor muscles (such as the gluteus medius) around your IT band can help with tightness, too. Corbin advises some seated strength training in a 90-90 position for strengthening your glute med. Remember, your range of motion should only be as far as you can move with proper form — so don't worry if you're only able to lift your foot a few inches.

A. Sit on the ground in a 90-90 position with left leg in front: Place left leg in front of body at a 90-degree angle with left knee directly in front of left hip and left ankle lined up with the midline of torso. Place right leg behind body at a 90-degree angle with right knee directly to the right of right hip and right ankle directly behind right knee. Place both hands on the ground for support.

B. Engage core and drive right knee into ground. Lift right foot as high off the ground as possible while keeping core engaged. Squeeze glutes and hold for a breath.

C. With control, lower right foot down to ground.

5. Figure Four Glute Stretch

Why it works: Stretching, as always, is important for injury prevention. The figure four glute stretch allows the IT band and surrounding muscles on the bent leg to feel a stretch. To go deeper into this IT band stretch, use your elbow on the side of the bent leg to gently push your bent knee away from your body.

A. Lie on back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor.

B. Cross right ankle over left thigh to make a figure four shape with legs.

C. Interlace fingertips around back of left thigh and gently pull left thigh toward you until you feel a stretch. Left foot comes off the ground.