What’s the one thing that runners, cyclists and desk-bound office workers have in common? Tight hips.
While 27 muscles cross the hip joint — and tightness in any one of them can cause aches, pains and limited range of motion — one of the most common culprits of reduced hip mobility are short, tight hip flexors, explains W. Kelton Vasileff, MD, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine and hip preservation at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
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All About Your Hip Flexors
“If one muscle isn’t working the right way, your body is going to adapt to it.”
First, the facts. Your hip flexors are a group of muscles (mainly, your iliopsoas, sartorius, pectineus, tensor fasciae latae and quads) that run down the front of your hips and thigh, and attach to your spine, pelvis and femur. They allow you to lift your knees to your chest while maintaining a stable spine and pelvis. However, when they get tight, those muscles not only become less effective, they also cause the opposing muscle group — aka the hip extensors, made up of your glutes, hamstrings and other hip muscles — to slack off.
In fact, in one 2015 study in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, female athletes with tight hip flexors exhibited decreased activation in both the flexors and hip extensors when they performed a simple squat exercise. And the gluteus maximus (the biggest muscle in the butt) showed the most difficulty firing.
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So what happens when your hip flexors, glutes and hamstrings stop doing their duty? Other muscles that cross the hip have to pick up the slack, increasing the risk of lower-body injury. “If one muscle isn’t working the right way, your body is going to adapt to it. You’ll use different muscles, your gait and posture may change. And as a result, you put yourself at risk of aches, pains and potentially more serious injury,” Vasileff says.
What’s more, tightness in any of these muscles around the hip can pull like tension wires on the pelvis and the leg. Over time, if not corrected, this can add stress on the knee and alter movement patterns of the pelvis. This creates even more discomfort up the chain and into the low back.
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Hip Flexors Don’t Lie
So how come athletes and couch crashers alike often have tight hips? That’s mostly because everyone spends too much time sitting. (One study published in The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that gym nuts spend the same amount of time sitting per day compared to people who rarely work out.)
When you sit down in a chair, you place your hips into partial hip flexion. (Think: your legs are bent so that your knees are raised toward your chest, just not all of the way up). Eight hours later, they’ve done nothing but chill out in a semi-contracted, shortened position, becoming tighter and tighter, explains physical therapist Jaime Edelstein, PT, CSCS, senior director of regional onsite rehab facilities at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
Plus, when you sit at your desk, planted like a petunia, you reduce the activation throughout your entire core. After all, your abs don’t have to work very hard to keep you upright when your desk chair has a back. Over time, this leads to a weakening of the core muscles. This then requires your already weak hip muscles to work harder than they should have to, Edelstein says.
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“When you sit down in a chair, you place your hips into partial hip flexion…Eight hours later, they’ve done nothing but chill out.”
If you think about your fitness routine, many exercises put your hips in this exact same partially bent position. For instance, when you’re cycling, your hips are slightly flexed for the majority of your ride. And when running, you’re moving each hip from full extension to partial flexion over and over again with every stride. This can result in muscle tightness, often from new use (ramping up mileage) or overuse, rather than lack of movement, Edelstein says.
Something else to think about: While these exercises strengthen the hip flexors (as well as extensors) they do so only through a partial range of motion. Without training your hips through their full range of motion — from a hip thrust all of the way out in front of your thighs to your knees tucked right against your chest — they won’t get strong through that full range.
This restricted range of motion explains why many people have the flexibility to pull their knee into their chest using both hands. But, if they let go, they don’t have the strength to hold that position with the knee raised. (Stand against a wall and try it now to test your hip mobility.)
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Loosen (and Strengthen) Up
Step one for addressing those tight hips: stretch. It’s the key to breaking up all your time in a chair. “If you sit for work, make sure you get up every 30 minutes for 30 seconds just to quickly take your body out of the flexed position,” Edelstein says.
In those 30 seconds, try the half-kneeling hip flexor stretch with arms overhead. To do so, lower your body into a lunge until your back knee rests on the floor. From here, fully extend both arms over head. Lean back to extend your shoulders and arms toward your back foot, as you gently push your hips forward. Keep pushing until you feel a stretch in the hip and thigh of your back leg.
Of course, stretching isn’t the only to-do for making your hips more mobile. Vasileff and Edelstein both emphasize the importance of strengthening your hips flexors and extensors, as well as your core. Their advice: Start with these five exercises.
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5 Exercises for Stronger Hip Flexors and Extensors
1. Against-the-Wall Hip-Flexor Contraction
How to: Stand tall with your back against a wall (a). Use both hands to pull one knee all the way into your chest (b). Once you’ve established your balance, let go with both hands and try to keep your knee touching your chest for as long as possible (c). Then repeat of the opposite side.
2. Hip Thrust
How to: Sit on the floor with a flat bench directly behind you (a). Rise up so your upper back presses firmly against the bench. Keep your feet planted on the floor in front of you. Hold a dumbbell or barbell across your lap (b). Keep your gaze toward your knees and forcefully thrust your hips up toward the ceiling until your upper back is on top of the bench and your torso is flat from head to knees (c). Pause, then slowly lower back to start and repeat for at least eight reps.
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3. Dead Bug
How to: Lie flat on your back with your arms and legs extended straight up toward the ceiling and stacked over your shoulders and hips, respectively (a). Engage your core to press your low back into the floor. Maintaining that torso position, extend one leg straight in front of you and the opposite arm toward the floor behind you (b). When they are just a few inches off of the floor, pause, then raise them to return to start (c). Repeat for at least eight reps, then repeat on the opposite side.
4. Kettlebell Deadlift
How to: Stand tall with your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart, a kettlebell placed between your feet (a). Hinge at your hips to send your butt back behind you and, allowing a slight bend in your knees, grab the kettlebell by the handle with both hands, palms facing you (b). Keeping a neutral spine, flat back and your arms fully extended, thrust your hips forward and stand to lift the kettlebell off of the floor so that it lands against your body (c). Squeeze your glutes to reach the top of the movement, pause, then slowly lower back down (d). Repeat for at least eight reps.
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How to: Get into a push-up position, shoulders stacked over your hands, feet together, and body forming a straight line from head to heels (a). Work on increasing the tension throughout your body: Brace your abs, pull your shoulder blades down and away from your ears, and squeeze your glutes together. Maintain this contraction for the entirety of the exercise. Try holding for at least 30 seconds.