Try a new take on typical tensor fasciae latae stretches to make lasting improvements in function and mobility.
Tensor Fasciae Anatomy 101
You may not think much about your tensor fasciae latae muscle (also known as the TFL). In fact, most people don’t even know what the TFL is!
But this commonly ignored muscle can have big effects on day-to-day function and pain.
NOTE: if you have tensor fasciae latae PAIN, read this guide instead as the origins of TFL pain are more complex and require proper understanding to be resolved.
Your TFL is a small muscle that originates on your pelvis, at a bony prominence at the front of your hip called the anterior superior iliac spine.
Image by sbrsport.me
The muscle then inserts into your iliotibial band, which is a strong band of fascia that runs down the middle of the lateral aspect of your thigh  to the tibial condyle just below your knee.
Functions of the Tensor Fasciae Latae
Your TFL is a key player when it comes to lower body movement and function. And because of its structure, it acts on two joints – your hips and your knees.
At your hips, your TFL contributes to flexion, internal rotation and abduction.
This muscle also has effects lower down on the kinetic chain.
When your knee is flexed, your TFL helps externally rotate the tibia (toes point out).
In terms of function, your TFL contributes to stability at both your knee and hip by transferring tension to the IT band .
So what does all this mean for your real life?
For one, your TFL is a huge player in single-leg balance.
This muscle works to balance your body weight as you stand on one leg  – which can affect everything from pistol squats, to throwing a kick, to simply transferring weight from foot to foot as you walk down the block.
And because your TFL helps load up your IT band as you move, it helps you generate elastic energy. This translates to more efficient, effective, and powerful movement.
Common TFL Problems
Because this muscle contributes to many different movements and common functions (like walking, climbing stairs, etc), it can easily get overworked, overused and as a result, tight.
TFL tightness is a common problem and if you’ve been feeling persistent pain or discomfort on the outside of your upper thigh or hip, this little muscle could be the culprit.
But tightness of the TFL can cause issues beyond just nagging pain.
A chronically tight TFL can affect your mechanics and alignment further down the kinetic chain – particularly at the knee and ankle.
This can cause problems especially with a lot of repetitive motion like in running or cycling.
As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of factors that can contribute to TFL pain so if you’re suffering from a painful TFL, check out my article on eliminating tensor fasciae latae pain here.
But if you just need effective ways to stretch your TFL, let’s continue.
How Do You Stretch the TFL?
If you’ve got TFL tightness, all you need to do is type “TFL stretch” into Google and you’ll get what you’re looking for, right?
I often see people drop into one of two common options, but the problem is that these tensor fasciae latae stretches don’t usually accomplish what they’re intended to.
In the first option, you stand near a wall, leaning into it with one hand. You drop your leg closest to the wall behind you and drive your hips toward the wall.
Image by www.backfixer1.com
The issue here is that this stretch often hits the lateral torso musculature or the gluteus medius as opposed to the TFL.
Many people with TFL tightness have a postural issue called anterior pelvic tilt. And if you go into this stretch with an anteriorly tilted pelvis, you’re going to be stretching the aforementioned areas.
In the second common option, you lie down on the ground and take both knees over to one side. You then place your bottom foot on top of your other knee to achieve a deeper stretch.
Image by redefiningstrength.com
The issue with this approach is that it requires you going into internal rotation and flexion of the hip, plus external rotation of the tibia.
Because these are the very same movements that your TFL helps perform by CONTRACTING, you are never going to achieve full LENGTHENING of the muscle in this position – which defeats the purpose.
3 Unique TFL Stretch Techniques
Instead of trying to relieve a tight TFL with these ineffective strategies, try these 3 unique techniques that effectively target the TFL.
Static Standing TFL Stretch
Unlike classic TFL stretches, this approach will require you to perform motions that are opposite to the ones that a contracted TFL creates – thus allowing for a fully lengthened tensor fasciae latae muscle.
- Start standing and come into an extended hip position by stepping your right foot back behind you
- Externally rotate your right hip approximately 45° but make sure you’re not rotating your entire pelvis – keep your pelvis square to the front
- Next, adduct your right hip by stepping the right foot back behind the other foot
- Again, keep your hips square as you drive your hips forward, creating a stretch in your TFL
This first technique is a unilateral approach to TFL tightness. In other words, it’s a good way to relieve acute tightness on one side of your body at a time.
However, this move will not be enough to restore TFL length permanently because you’re not building strength at end ranges, so you’ve got to continue on and incorporate the next two moves.
Active Progressive TFL Stretch
This next technique addresses bilateral TFL tightness and unlike the static stretch above, requires you to actively contract muscles to achieve the stretch.
This means that the length is achieved via a neuromuscular reflex called reciprocal inhibition, which results in relaxation of a muscle when it’s antagonists are contracted.
Reciprocal inhibition exists to make sure we’re not wasting energy and are moving as efficiently as possible because it wouldn’t make sense for our triceps to contract hard when we’re flexing our elbows, which is a function of the biceps.
So reciprocal inhibition is a built-in mechanism to relax muscles when they’d oppose our desired movements and make movement more inefficient.
One bonus with this technique is that it’s easy to progress (and see your progress) as your TFL loosens up over time.
First, we’ll test to see if your TFL is indeed tight.
Tensor Fasciae Latae Length Test
- Stand with your feet together, heels about 2 inches from the wall, and head and thoracic spine against the wall
- Contracting your glutes and abs, posteriorly tilt your pelvis and try to flatten your lumbar spine against the wall
If you can flatten your lumbar spine against the wall your TFL is likely not tight.
If you are unable to do so, try again this time with your feet shoulder width apart – if you can flatten your lumbar spine against the wall with your feet shoulder width, your TFL is likely tight.
If your TFL is indeed tight, then you can use this test as an active stretch by first finding the position of optimal stretch:
Starting at shoulder width, bring your feet together by about an inch and keep trying to flatten your lumbar spine against the wall. Once you find the foot width where you can no longer do this, use that width and hold the contraction for 30 seconds. Perform 5 reps.
Every time you do this technique test to see where you’re at and over time your feet will get closer and closer until they’re together.
Active 4-Point TFL Stretch
This last tensor fasciae latae stretch is another active approach, this time working on one limb at at time.
What this drill effectively does is builds strength and control in all of the muscles that are antagonistic to the functions of the TFL.
This allows you to create length in the muscle while also working to strengthen the muscles that might otherwise get lazy and let the TFL take over.
- Get into the 4-point position on your hands and knees
- Straighten the knee while contracting the glutes to extend the hip – DO NOT move the pelvis/lumbar spine
- Externally rotate the hip so your your toes point out about 45°
- With a stable pelvis and spine and straight knee, adduct the hip
- Hold for about 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side for 2-3 reps each side
These approaches to the tensor fasciae latae stretch will help you address TFL tightness via the traditional static stretching method, but also neuromuscularly via the two unique active stretches that are necessary to building length that lasts.
Give them a shot and start giving your TFL some much-deserved TLC.
This article was reviewed and updated on November 4, 2020 by our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Erin Boynton, MD, FRCS to include new research and information on latest surgical developments. Read more about Dr. B here.