Tight Outer Thighs? Here’s the Unexpected Spot To Stretch for Instant Relief

Photo: Stocksy/Leah Flores
When your outer thighs are tight and achy, it can feel nearly impossible to find the right outer thigh stretch to get some relief. And there's a good reason why: It's because sore outer thighs are likely caused by a tight iliotibial band, better known as our IT band, explains Austin Martinez, MS, CSCS, director of education for StretchLab. And guess what? The IT band isn't a muscle—it's fascia tissue—which means you actually can't stretch it!

However, do not despair, my tight outer thighed-friends. There are muscles surrounding and connecting to the IT band that you can stretch, and doing so can work wonders for outer thighs that feel like knotty, over-extended rubber bands. If you're looking to relieve tight outer thigh muscles, you've come to the right place. Keep reading to find the key to thigh tightness relief.

Experts In This Article

What muscle runs down the outside of your thigh?

Let's start with the 411 on the IT band, our problem child. "The IT band is a fibrous band of connective tissue, or fascia, that is located on the [outside] of the hip, thigh, and knee," says Martinez.

The muscle that runs alongside the IT band is called the tensor fascia latae, or TFL. The top of the IT band also connects to the glutes. "The glutes surround the IT band, [and] they are the primary supporter of the hip, whereas the IT band is a secondary," Martinez says.

One of the muscles in the quadriceps, the vastus lateralis, is on the outer side of your quads. But this is really more of a front-facing muscle responsible for bending and extending than an outer thigh muscle.

What causes outer thigh tightness?

Overuse—or repeatedly stressing it out through similar activities—contributes to IT band tightness, which is why it's common in athletes, according to the Hospital for Special Surgery.

Additionally, since the IT band works in concert with the glutes to support the hips, if your glutes aren't pulling their weight, your IT band could suffer. "If the glutes are weak, fatigued, or tight, this may cause additional stress or strain on the [outer thigh muscles] and IT band to 'pick up the slack' with everyday movements and activities," Martinez says.

How do you relieve pain in the outside of your thigh?

To loosen up a tight IT band, you want to stretch the surrounding muscles. But outer thigh stretches can be tricky. "Due to [the IT band's] location on the body, it can be a challenging area to stretch by yourself," says Martinez. "Generally it requires stretching tools or placing your body in specific positions, which may be challenging if you are just beginning your flexibility journey."

Massage can help with tight thighs: You can try foam rolling or using a massage gun to break up the fascia, if you have those tools on hand. But if you're working to relieve IT band tension through stretching, Martinez says the best stretches to focus on will hit surrounding muscles like the glutes and the tensor fascia latae. If the pain is closer to the front side of your outer thigh, you can try a vastus lateralis stretch. Otherwise, try these three stretches to relieve outer thigh soreness related to a tight IT band.

1. Pigeon Pose

Martinez says this stretch will help loosen up your gluteus muscles and your piriformis, a small muscle tucked behind your glues. From all fours, bring your right knee forward towards your right wrist. "Depending on your body it may be just behind your wrist or to the outer or the inner edge of it," he says. Slide your left leg back and point your toes. "As you inhale, draw your navel towards the ground to deepen the stretch," he says. Hold the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat one to two times on each side.

Watch how to do pigeon pose, according to a yoga instructor:

2. Figure four

Similar to pigeon pose, figure four stretches the glutes, but can be easier to get into if you're not super flexible. It can be done either standing or laying down. If standing, lift your right leg, bend into your left knee, and cross your right ankle over your left thigh. Brace your core or hold onto a wall for stability. The further your right knee pushes to the ground, the deeper you'll feel the stretch. If you're laying down, bend your knees and cross your right ankle over your left thigh. To deepen the stretch, bring your hands under your left thigh and gradually pull your legs in toward your chest. Hold the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat one to two times on each side.

Watch a Pilates trainer demonstrate proper figure four form:

3. Standing TFL stretch

This stretch focuses on the tensor fascia latae. From a standing position, cross your right ankle behind your left ankle. Bending through your left knee, push your right hip out to the right, holding on to a chair or bench if needed. Martinez says you'll feel this stretch on the right outer thigh. Hold the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat one to two times on each side.

Here's a quick demo:

How do you keep your IT bands loose?

While thigh stretching techniques can help you find relief after everything tenses up, you might also consider trying to prevent tightness in the first place. How? By practicing thigh exercises and glute exercises that will support the IT band, and doing some internal hip stretches to keep the system nice and lubricated.

Although these may not be the most exciting exercises or stretches, they're worth doing because a tight IT band can cause more than just a little discomfort. "Dysfunction at the IT band can cause abnormal or inefficient movement patterns, potentially placing more stress on the lower body," says Martinez. "It can also lead to IT band friction syndrome, which is when inflammation at the attachment site of the knee occurs. This is common in endurance athletes like runners."

Keep your IT band happy so you can live with no pain, all gain.

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