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.