Did you just kill leg day? Are you a rucker or a runner? Does your job require you to sit most of the time? Chances are high that for any of these reasons (along with any number of others), you've found your range of motion lacking in your hips. You may even feel how tight they are in your movements, or found that your low back is suffering due to the pull from your consistently static position (sitting) or through constant activation (training). One thing is for sure: I see the consequences of tight hips day in and day out with fellow athletes as well as clients. I make recommendations consistently on what should be done to ameliorate the problem, but felt it best to share everything in a full-on recovery series covering different areas of the body starting with this very prominent issue. Let's get started.
HIP MUSCLE ANATOMY
Before we get into the nitty gritty about what you can do to loosen up and strengthen your hips, let's get a visual about what the muscles are so we can pinpoint trouble areas.
The iliopsoas (that is, the iliacus and psoas together which share a common insertion point in the hip complex) is very commonly the region that is most often the "tight" hip flexor. This grouping attaches to the top of the hip and to the spine and is a common trigger of low back pain. Because the psoas attaches to the spine, this muscle also plays an integral role in lumbar spine stabilization.
The tensor faciae latae (TFL) inserts onto the IT band, so if you have had tight IT band problems you also need to take care of this area of the hips as it's also going to be terribly tight.
If you've ever had sciatic pain, you may have impingement from a tight piriformis as the sciatic nerve passes through this muscle. The piriformis stabilizes the hip join and lifts/rotates the thigh away from the body. It allows us to walk, shift weight from one foot to the other, and maintain balance.
The gluteus maximus is one of the strongest muscles in the human body and is one of the primary movers in running. The gluteus medius is a dynamic pelvic stabilizer, meaning it holds the pelvis in a neutral place during strides -- this muscle gets tight particularly in female athletes. The gluteus minimus assists the piriformis in external rotation of flexed thighs, assisting in balance.
The adductors are fan-like muscles in the upper thigh that pull the legs together when they contract and help stabilize the hip joint. They are part of the grouping generally called the groin muscles: adductor magnus, adductor longus, adductor brevis, pectineus and gracilis. Men in particular often have chronically tight groin musculature.
An additional hip flexor which is often forgotten is the rectus femoris, which is one of the anterior quad muscles. Its origin point is attached to the pelvis, making it a hip flexor which must be addressed in any treatment of tight hips.
Each of the many muscles in the lumbo-pelvic hip complex has a slightly different function which you may or may not be able to pinpoint in your daily movements. Together they allow the flexion of the hip joint, the rotation of the pelvis and the extension of the lumbar spine and are an important part of injury prevention and daily activity, regardless of whether you are an athlete.
TESTING YOUR RANGE OF MOTION
Let's assess the flexibility of your lumbo-pelvic hip complex. The Thomas Test is quick and easy.
Your first task once you've identified what's tight is to release the tension locked up in those areas. You may not be able to perform all of these initially, so start with the movement you can execute with the best form. As you progress with daily work on the same areas, your flexibility and range of motion will increase and you can progress to more challenging stretches.
KNEELING HIP FLEXOR STRETCH
LUNGE WITH OVERHEAD REACH
LIZARD POSE (UTTHAN PRISTHASANA)
LOW LUNGE (ANJANEYASANA)
PIGEON POSE (EKA PADA RAJAKAPOTASANA)
RECLINING PIGEON POSE (FIGURE 4 STRETCH)
STANDING FIGURE 4 STRETCH
STANDING PIRIFORMIS STRETCH
BOUND ANGLE POSE (BADDHA KONASANA)/BUTTERFLY STRETCH
RECLINING BOUND ANGLE POSE (SUPTA BADDHA KONASANA)/RECLINING BUTTERFLY STRETCH
YOGI SQUAT (MALASANA)
SIDE LUNGE (SKANDASANA)
FIRE LOG POSE (AGNISTAMBHASANA)
FIRE LOG POSE, PIGEON VARIATION
FROG POSE (MANDUKASANA)
STRAIGHT-LEG SUPPORTED BRIDGE (SETU BANDHASANA VAR.)
SQUATTING INTERNAL ROTATIONS
SUMO SQUAT HOLD
SMR: HIP FLEXORS
STRENGTHEN AGAINST INJURY
Once you've gotten the knots worked out of your muscles and upped your flexibility, you'll need to strengthen your muscles in order to prevent future injury.
GLUTE BRIDGES & SINGLE-LEG GLUTE BRIDGES
This glute bridge variation makes you work hard to achieve full hip flexion. You'll find you have much more glute activation.
CLAMSHELLS WITH RESISTANCE BAND
SIDE SHUFFLES WITH RESISTANCE BAND
SUPINE KNEE LIFTS WITH RESISTANCE BAND
This movement activates the psoas. It is crucial that you keep your spine flat against the ground when you perform this movement.
STRAIGHT LEG RAISES
SIDELYING ISOMETRIC LEG RAISES WITH RESISTANCE BAND
LATERAL LUNGES WITH SAME-SIDE ROTATION
ROTATING PIVOT LUNGES
DEEP AB BREATHING
TIGHT HIP MYTHS
I couldn't finish out this article without addressing some common misconceptions about tight hips. Let's go over what they are.
MYTH #1: TIGHT HIPS ARE ALWAYS BAD
Although the hips are often the source of many pains and injuries to the low back and legs, and although I frequently recommend the above stretches and exercises to clients and fellow athletes to assist in correcting these pains, a certain degree of stiffness is required for specific forms of movement. Runners, for example, require a degree of tightness in the hips coupled with leg mobility to propel themselves forward economically. For them, although some stretching is good to prevent excessive tightness, the strengthening exercises are more important to stabilize the hips.
MYTH #2: STRONG BUTT MEANS STABLE HIPS
One does not necessarily equal the other. The muscle that is most prominent in the glute complex is the gluteus maximus, but it's the gluteus medius that provides stability.
MYTH #3: I NEED TO OPEN UP MY HIPS
The hip joint's primary purpose is stabilization, however many types of athletes require a good range of motion as well. For weightlifters, if their hips are too tight they can't sink into a deep squat. For runners, overly tight hips shorten stride length and can slow up their pace. As with all things, finding a happy medium is the key.
MYTH #4: TIGHT HIPS ARE STRONG HIPS
Muscles can become tight from overuse and repeated contraction, but also from being under-utilized and weak. Both a long-distance runner and an office worker with sedentary lifestyle may suffer equally from excessively tight hips.
MYTH #5: TIGHT HIPS ARE THE ROOT OF ALL MALADIES
Actually, quad dominance is more often an issue for weightlifters, runners and cyclists. When there is a discrepancy in quad vs glute strength the quads take on the task of stabilizing the hips in place of the glutes. Over time this pulls the pelvis out of alignment, strains the hamstrings and IT band and can lead to any number of issues in the low back and knees that wreak havoc on performance. Weightlifters, runners and cyclists: work on the above strengthening exercises and on releasing the tension in those quads! I'll be covering legs in another installment of this recovery series.
You made your New Year's resolution and you've been doing pretty good for those first couple of weeks -- but now you're starting to lose focus and are struggling to stay motivated. That extra hour of sleep sounds better than that morning run, or those free breakfast tacos are more appealing to you than your healthy homemade meal. You still want to reach your goals but you haven't established these new behaviors as habits just yet. This is the critical "make or break" phase where your decisions have enormous impact.
What can you do? Let's talk options.
1. REAL REWARDS FOR YOUR WORK
One surefire way to keep your healthy habits going strong is to give yourself a real reward for a job well done. Working out a positive "habit loop" which involves a cue to trigger the behavior (setting your running shoes next to the door), the routine (running) and then the reward (getting a smoothie or watching an episode of your favorite show afterward) will generate a Pavlovian response to the behavior, increasing the chances of the routine becoming habitual according to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.
Over time, the extrinsic motivation (that is, the tangible reward mentioned above) becomes an intrinsic motivation and the brain begins to associate the sensations of the new behavior with a surge of endorphins. Once your brain is trained to recognize the workout itself as the reward, you won't feel the need for the treat anymore.
2. JOIN A GYM OR GROUP YOU ENJOY
Logic stands to reason that if you're doing your new activities in an environment you like or with people whose company you enjoy, you're more likely to look forward to going. The cost of a given gym or club membership may be prohibitive for you, but definitely shop around and look at your options as best you can. There are many free or low-cost clubs out there, as well as online groups on social media who meet up in person. So long as you can find a way to look forward to being in the place you perform your new behaviors, or enjoy the company you have when you get there, you will generate a new form of motivation for yourself. A strong and supportive fitness community or appealing environment can make all the difference.
3. DRESS FOR SUCCESS EVEN WHEN YOU DON'T FEEL LIKE IT
Oftentimes putting your running shoes on even if you don't feel like running will help to talk you into enacting the behavior you're trying to maintain. Research suggests that our brains are susceptible to "enclothed cognition," which is a fancy way of saying that dressing the part helps to galvanize you toward completing the task. If you put on your workout gear, even if you don't feel like working out you are very likely to find yourself doing just that.
4. MAKE A COMMITMENT, POSSIBLY COMPETE
Joining a fitness or wellness challenge or signing a commitment contract with a gym buddy is a great way to keep you accountable. But don't just put in the work -- be sure that you check in regularly with the people participating in the challenge, or set up a schedule with your buddy so that you know that someone else is counting on you to show up and get it done. Don't let your gym buddy off the hook -- and make sure they don't let you off the hook either!
When you have a friend or two to train with and they're killing the workout, you also feel motivated to push yourself. If you're a competitive person, set up a competition with other people. Maybe you do a versus battle with coworkers for who has the highest number of steps each week, or set up a weight loss challenge; whatever it is, make sure there are some sort of rewards at the end. Anything from simple bragging rights to perhaps a gift card purchased with a money pool from participants who now have a financial stake in the event. You can even bet on yourself using Pact, where you and others pay into a collective pool and set individual goals. If you meet your targets, you cash out; if not, you lose the money.
5. NO RULES ARE THE BEST RULES
Once you set up strict rules for yourself ("I have to start on Monday otherwise I won't be able to do it") makes it easy for you to talk yourself out of that behavior according to Dr. Deborah Feltz, professor of Kinesiology at Michigan State University and author of several fitness studies. The fact of the matter is that life happens and your hard and fast rules don't allow for the bending that needs to take place on a regular basis when conditions are not 100% favorable. Be willing to be flexible and change up your routine if you need to in order to get in whatever you can. Even if you're scheduled for a long run, if you wake up feeling ill perhaps the most you can do is take a walk or perhaps an easy, short jog -- or maybe you need to change up your activity entirely and do yoga instead. Be willing to be flexible.
6. CHANGE IT UP
If you're a resolutioner and you're only a couple of weeks in this possibly doesn't apply to you just yet, but keep it in mind: you may just be bored of the routine and need to switch up what you're doing and how you're doing it. Once you fall into a rut of doing the same thing every day you stop feeling excited about it and your effort ceases to be focused as you start to run on autopilot.
You may want to select a fresh goal (even if it's only slightly adapted from your original goal) and adjust your plans accordingly. You may want to find a new place to execute it or new method to enact it. Your goals that you set may simply be too far off and you need to add some smaller sub-goals to keep yourself going. In either event take a look at what's making you lose interest and swap things up as needed.
7. RETHINK POSITIVE THINKING
Everyone's heard about the power of positive thinking, and perhaps have even experienced it for themselves. But visualizations and other mind tricks only work when you add realistic problem-solving to the mix according to Dr. Gabriele Oettingen, psychologist and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.
It's not just about making a SMART goal and visualizing the outcome (as discussed in last week's article), but it's also about identifying what is holding you back and then troubleshooting. During a study of students who wanted to eat fewer junk food snacks, researchers asked participants to imagine the benefits of snacking on better foods. Those who identified the thing that made healthy snacking difficult for them and came up with a plan to counteract it were most successful at sticking to their goal. The trigger? They wanted something sweet. The solution? Eating fruit.
If you feel too tired after work to work out, try swapping to lunchtime or morning workouts or go straight to the gym after work rather than stopping at home first.
8. TRACK THAT
Nothing kills motivation like the sensation that you're getting nowhere. Chances are you're making progress, but you may not notice if these changes are gradual. Weighing in each week or noting how much weight you're lifting and keeping a record -- or participating in a fit test each month for example -- are great ways to see where you're at with regard to your wellness goals.
Moreover, tracking what you eat raises your awareness and personal (internal) accountability when you log that cheat meal in on MyFitnessPal or your tracking app of choice. Especially when you link up with a friend and allow them to see what you're up to, you know that someone else is noticing what you do and that allows for external accountability as well.
9. PLAN YOUR ROUTE AND SET REMINDERS
Planning is a crucial element of reaching any goal, and most of us need reminders as well in today's culture of distraction. I talked all about it in last week's article, so check it out!
10. THE EARLIER THE BETTER, OR PACK SNACKS
If you're finding that you get distracted by the events of the day and your plans are consistently getting derailed you may benefit from waking up earlier and getting your workout in before your day begins. Getting out of bed is tough especially that first week, but it may just be your path to success.
If low energy is the cause of your after-work workout woes, be sure you're eating breakfast and packing snacks. Eating breakfast helps you stay energized all day long according to Wendy Bazilian, RD and co-author of The Super Foods Rx Diet: Lose Weight with the Power of SuperNutrients. Be sure it includes protein, a fruit or veggie, and a complex carbohydrate such as whole grain toast. A pre-exercise snack to eat about 45 minutes before you train is an optimal habit as well to attain energy to power through. Your snack should be small and easily digestible, and mostly carbs with a little protein. Something like an apple with peanut butter, for example.
11. CALL IN A PROFESSIONAL
You may find that you've reached the limits of your personal knowledge and need some expert advice. A certified fitness instructor or registered dietitian may be just what you need to help you reach your goals. These folks can program training that works best for you, teach you how to use your gym's equipment, account for your personal situation and conditions, set up a meal plan etc. If you have a professional service contract in place, this is also a tangible, financial commitment that may help you feel more obligated to your goals (yes, this is really a thing that helps motivate people).
12. STOP MAKING WELLNESS ABOUT HOW YOU LOOK
A frequent pitfall of resolutioners is obsessing with how they look and making that the be-all, end-all for their wellness goals. Chances are you desire to look like someone who has an entirely different body type and wellness history than yourself. While sometimes it's possible to reach a state of having six-pack abs or whatever your goal may be, it may also be outside of your genetics/body type. I for example will never have an hourglass figure because I have a short torso; I will also never have a thigh gap regardless of how small I am because of how my hip and leg bones are positioned. Set goals that begin with where you are and are attainable, and be sure to break down your goals into smaller victories along the way such as losing 5% of your body weight for example, executing a perfect push-up or running a full mile without stopping. Review last week's article for more about successful goal-setting.
13. DO WHAT YOU LOVE
If you hate every moment of the thing you're doing, you're not likely to keep up the habit. Prioritize workouts that you'll look forward to and plan meals that are appealing to you (but still healthy).
14. SHARE YOUR PROGRESS
Posting your gym selfie or results of your meal prep, checking into your accountability group, or just talking to a loved one about how your training or meal planning went is a great way to hold yourself accountable. Very often people I don't even know are paying attention to my posts will ask me during a lapse what I'm up to and when I'll be posting again; sometimes when I'm engaged in an easy-to-follow daily challenge others will participate along with me without posting about it. Knowing that people are watching and deriving inspiration from what I'm doing is a tremendous motivator for me.
15. DON'T BE AFRAID TO START SMALL
Got 5 minutes? Apparently you do if you're reading this! So make a plan to do a 5-minute workout every day and stick to it. Work your way up from there -- when you're comfortable with 5 minutes, bump it up to 10 minutes.
There are all kinds of free workout videos on YouTube for 5-minute workouts you can do right where you are. Take a look, set up a playlist and get crackin'!
16. DO IT FOR A NOBLE REASON
Sign up for a charity race or event or participate in an event that offers charity fundraising. Once you begin raising money for a cause you believe in, you now have a sense of debt that you need to strive for and a deadline in sight, the end goal of completing that marathon or finishing that event for the sake of the people receiving the charity and the people who donating on good faith that you'd execute your training. This is a phenomenal way to keep you focused on your target.
17. CONSIDER EXERCISE AN ESCAPE FROM THE DIGITAL WORLD
Put your phone on Do Not Disturb if you use it to listen to music while you work out or pick up a now-archaic MP3 player that's not attached to any network. Drop your phone all together in your gym locker, leave it at home or in your car. Take your fitness time as time in the real world away from your devices and think of it as your time off the grid.
18. ...OR MAKE IT A GAME
For some folks, the digital world is absolutely essential. So why not use that connection to your advantage? Try Zombies, Run! for example, or any app from MapMyFitness Inc which all have some "fun" components to them.
19. MAKE IT CONVENIENT
Train at a gym close to home. Train at home. Start your run the moment you step outside the door. Set up your meal plan and write up your grocery list in advance of the day you to go to the store. Prep your healthy snacks (cut up fruits and veggies etc) and put them into single serving containers and bring them along. Carry your water bottle everywhere.
The easier you make it to adhere to your chosen behavior, the more likely that you will engage it.
20. TRY THE 5-MINUTE RULE
What is the 5-minute rule? Set a timer and start your workout. If after five minutes you still don't want to be doing it, stop. In most cases, once you get started it doesn't seem so bad after all; starting is the hardest part!
21. TAKE A BREAK
Yes, that's right. Your lack of enthusiasm may potentially be a sign of overtraining and you may just need a day off particularly if you have been consistently training for a long time. If you do take a break, don't make it open-ended: set a hard end date for the break when you resume your normal schedule.
The new year brings potential for a fresh start. You're all fired up about cleaning up your nutrition and putting the work in to burn off the extra pounds you just gained over the holidays. You hit the gym for a couple of weeks, but then your adherence begins to wane as the excitement dies down. How can you keep this from happening to you? How can you keep your New Year's resolutions year-round? Let's discuss some strategies.
PROPER GOAL SETTING
One third of those who make resolutions quit before the end of January. This is in part due to a lack of planning and detail of the resolutions being made. Any goal you make should be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely.
CREATE AN ACTION PLAN
So now you've got your goals ironed out, and they're SMART. Not only that but you have smaller sub-goals lined up as well. From here you'll need to develop a plan of action: how are you going to reach your goals?
Outline your gameplan. Write it down. Talk to a friend or family member about it and get some feedback. Put this plan somewhere easily accessible and review it regularly. Set reminders on your phone or write your necessary actions down in your calendar. Review the following week before it begins so that you can mentally prepare yourself for your newly-adjusted schedule.
MAKE IT A TRUE PRIORITY
Once you've set your goals, it is critical that you make the actions leading to those goals a true priority. This requires a shift in mindset regardless of what your goal is. Losing weight (and keeping it off), eating better (indefinitely), keeping a clean house (indefinitely), spending more time with your children (indefinitely): all of these things require a long-term lifestyle change.
It's said that when something is truly a priority to you, you will find (or make) the time for it. If it is not a true priority, you will make excuses. It's not something that most people want to hear, but it is true all the same.
The trick to this is to think of your goal as an unquestionable daily requirement. Just as you get dressed, eat breakfast, brush your teeth and go to work you will also put in that time at the gym, cleaning house, with your kids, etc. Take out the notion that you have a choice. If you really want to reach that goal, you WILL take the necessary steps to get there.
Part of the way you can help steel your resolve is by employing visualization techniques. When you feel your intentions wavering, take some time out and mentally picture your goal being actualized: you've lost the weight and fit into that dress you wanted; you have more energy and feel great from eating a healthy, balanced diet; your house is pristine and visitors are complimenting how clean you've kept it; you share a stronger bond with your kids from the time you have spent together.
But don't just SEE it -- FEEL it. How do you feel now that you've lost the weight? How do you feel about your eating habits? How does it feel to have such a clean and organized living space? How does it feel to share that irreplaceable time with your children?
Keep those mental images and feelings on tap so you can draw from them whenever you need. Write down your goals and keep them in a place you see frequently such as your bathroom mirror or at your desk at work, or keep them with you and repeat them thoughtfully whenever you are struggling.
Your accountability can be anything from hiring a personal trainer to checking in with a friend or relative to posting about what you did on social media or blog. Whatever you decide to do, make sure that you have someone else following along who can and will ask you about your resolutions if you don't tell them first.
Set clear expectations and be sure that wherever or however you are creating accountability, you receive that feedback and questioning piece.
FIND SUPPORT & RESOURCES
Having support along the way is crucial to your success, but the good news is that there are all sorts of accountability groups online even if you don't know anyone willing to be that cheerleader you need when things get tough. Join a Facebook group or forum, introduce yourself and make it a point to get to know a few other active members to generate the rapport you need. Find a training or support group either in your area or online. Spend some time on your search engine of choice looking for resources: websites, books, reference guides or (better yet) honest to God people who are knowledgeable about the subject of your resolution. The more access to data and interaction you have, the more likely you will succeed because your goals will be in the forefront of your thoughts multiple times a day as you engage with those people or materials.
Keeping track of where you started and where you're going is important during any pursuit. Take photos of yourself before you start working out or eating better, of your house before you begin your new cleaning regimen. Write notes about how your relationship with your children is before you begin making more time for them. Be aware that you will likely feel all sorts of negative emotions when you do this, because after all this is something that you wish to change about yourself. But if you don't record your starting point, how can you truly track where you are in your plan?
Don't just take "before" photos or notes, either. Be sure continue doing so at specific intervals: each week perhaps, or each month. Be sure you update your log at a regular interval that is not too spread out from your last entry.
Review your log each time you add a new entry and compare where you are to where you were before. If something is not going well, reflect back on your actions and behaviors to see if you can discern the root cause. This will help you to adapt your action plan (and possibly your goals) accordingly.
REWARD YOURSELF FOR REACHING MILESTONES
It's too easy for you to say, "I've been doing good so I'm going to eat a cheat meal" and then that quickly turns into a return to your prior poor nutritional habits. Establish a reward system for yourself: when X happens, I will Y. "When I have lost 10 pounds, I will get that scarf I've been eyeing" or "When I have consistently spent time with my kids each day for 2 weeks I will plan a special date with my significant other for a place I've wanted to go."
It's optimal if the reward you intend for yourself once you achieve your intermediate task is related or beneficial to your end goal. This isn't a requirement, but it does better set you up for success. Maybe you purchase a new piece of training gear or something you can use to meal prep more conveniently for example.
LEGITIMATE REASON OR EXCUSE?
When your visualization techniques aren't working and you're on the fence about whether to persist toward your goal or take a break for a day, I find that it is incredibly helpful to take a step back. Look at the situation and the argument against taking the necessary steps toward your goal. Is that argument valid reasoning, or an excuse?
Examples of potentially valid reasoning:
Examples of excuses:
IT'S OKAY TO MAKE MISTAKES
Everyone falls off the wagon from time to time. It happens to the best of us. It is therefore crucial that you cultivate a sense of self-forgiveness when you mess up. If this is an issue you struggle with, take some time to read this article from Psychology Today.
Another important thing is to prevent the mistake from becoming habitual. If this is a challenge for you, take a look at this article about how to break bad habits.
It is okay to make mistakes. Each time you do and learn from them, you gain a little more self-knowledge to help you succeed in the future. Just get back on the wagon, let it go, and keep on rollin' from wherever you are now.