Learn everything you need to know about the TFL muscle and how it works in your body.
What is the TFL Muscle?
The tensor fasciae latae (or tensor fasciæ latæ or, formerly, tensor vaginae femoris) is a small muscle of the thigh and hip. Together with the gluteus maximus, it acts on the iliotibial band and is continuous with the iliotibial tract, which attaches to the tibia.
What is the Function of the TFL Muscle?
The muscle assists in keeping the balance of the pelvis while standing, walking, or running.
According to Kenhub “The main task of the tensor fasciae latae is to sustain tension of the iliotibial tract. As the femoral shaft meets the pelvis, an angled pressure from above imposes a high bending strain to the femur.
Both the hip abductors and the tensor fasciae latae counteract the pressure on the opposite side and help stabilize the bone (tension banding effect). Furthermore, the activation of the muscle leads to an abduction, flexion and internal rotation of the hip joint.
Contraction of the tensor fasciae latae muscle also causes external rotation of the leg at the knee joint.
Furthermore, it aslo weakly flexes the leg, when there an existing degree of flexion greater than 20 degrees, and weakly extends the leg, when the angle of flexion is less than 20 degrees.
Finally, the TFL also works to stabilize both the hip and knee joints.”
Is the TFL a Hip Flexor?
The function of TFL is as a secondary hip flexor, abductor and internal rotator. It exerts force on the hip directly and indirectly on the knee through its insertion into the ITB
What Causes TFL Tightness?
The main cause for TFL pain is overuse and compensation for weaker surrounding muscles. Pain occurring in muscles is often the result of the muscles compensating or working much harder than they were made to work.
This compensation occurs due to surrounding muscles being dysfunctional due to inhibition or weakness.
How do I know if my TFL is Tight?
Poke around for a lumpy muscle. As you are poking, begin to sink your right hip back down towards the floor, rotating towards your back leg.
You will be able to feel the TFL contracting and shortening under your thumb. If this is unpleasant, then you probably have a cranky TFL.
How do you Release TFL Muscle?
Use a massage ball to release tight TFL (tensor fasciae latae).
The TFL is a small muscle found on the outside of the hip. The function of this muscle is primarily to stabilize the hip and pelvis, but it also contributes to flex the hip, abduct the hip, and medially rotate it.
Where is the TFL Located?
Tensor fasciae latae is a fusiform muscle located in the lateral aspect of the thigh. It belongs to the muscles of the gluteal region, along with the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus muscles.
The TFL origin is the outer lip of anterior iliac crest, Anterior superior iliac spine (ASIS).
Tensor fasciae latae is found superficial in the anterolateral aspect of the thigh, spanning from the anterior portion of the iliac crest to the superior portion of the tibia, onto which it inserts via the iliotibial tract.
Why is Gluteus Maximus Function so Important at the Hip and Knee?
According to Rayner & Smale…
“It has reported that Glut max has a very large tendinous insertion into the upper aspect of the iliotibial band, which explains the control that glut max and the thoracolumbar fascia can exert on the knee (Antonio, et al., 2013).
And if we continue to look higher up the kinetic chain into the lumbar spine, do Carmo Carvalhais et al (2013) found that active tensioning of latissimus dorsi impacts the contralateral hip’s resting position through myofascial force transmission, and causes the hip to rest in a more externally rotated position.
The fascial connection of Latissimus Dorsi to Gluteus Maximus through the thoracodorsal fascia is just another consideration that needs to be made when hypothesising the contributing factors to TFL overload.
In summary, Lat dorsi strength and glut max strength both have an impact on hip joint position and control. As Maitland would teach us, assess the local structures at the site of pain, the structures which refer to it, and the joints above and below.”
What does it Look like if TFL is Overactive?
Rayner & Smale continue “Interestingly, in patients with advance hip joint osteoarthritis, the lower portions of gluteus maximus atrophy, while TFL and upper gluteus maximus remain the same size, and there is increased bulk through upper portions of vastus lateralis, when assessed with MRI (Grimaldi, et al., 2009).
But the results of this study cannot be extrapolated to all types of hip and groin pathology. Patients with anterior groin pain have been found to display significant increases in AP diameter of TFL and hypoecogenic cone-shaped area in the tendon close to the insertion on the iliac crest, when assessed with ultrasound imaging (Boss & Connell, 2002).
And patients with gluteal tears have been found to present with hypertrophy in the TFL on the affected leg (Sutter, et al., 2013).
Functionally, patients may present with a strategy to use femoral internal rotation and a medial knee displacement with movements such as sit to stand, step ups and walking/running.
Exercises to Reduce TFL Overactivity
“If the goal of rehabilitation is to preferentially activate the gluteal muscles while minimizing TFL activation, then the clam, sidestep, unilateral bridge, and both quadruped hip extension exercises would appear to be the most appropriate” (Selkoitz, Beneck, & Powers., 2013, p. 54).
Sidorkewicz, Cambridge, & McGill (2014) asked a similar question about muscle function when comparing clams to side lying abduction and their results favoured the clam over abduction for maximal gluteus medius activation.
Clinically, I’m careful with going straight to clams based purely on this data because if there is any element of gluteal tendinopathy, the clam is going to compress and likely aggravate the tendon, and in that case, abduction is better.
If you’re starting with abduction (which is fantastic for glut max control), vary the degree of hip rotation from neutral to internal to external to see what works best for your client. Lee et al (2014) suggest that slight internal hip rotation will actually reduce TFL activity and promote more gluteus maximus and medius.
As you read earlier though, my preference clinically is to maintain neutral hip rotation and work on cueing for better gluteal activation. The pictures below represent gluteal exercises where TFL is not preferentially activated (still active but not dominant).”
- Lunges: Photo Courtesy of CrossFit Inc