Despite what it sounds like, having tight hips doesn’t mean you’re a pro on the dance floor. Tight hips affect many people and the discomfort and pain associated with this problem can be life-changing. The reality is that every year we see more hip-related postural problems thanks, in most part, to inactive lifestyles. Sedentary workers are most at risk from tight hips and lumbar spine complications but people involved in certain sports and activities can also suffer.
Ever noticed tightness in the hips after prolonged sitting or intense exercise? Most people will have experienced this at some stage in their lives. The actual discomfort often manifests itself in other parts of the body, such as the low back. First, almost everyone has tight hips. Second, you need to fix that. How and why do we experience tightness of the hips and what are the consequences?
Modern living contributes to most of the tightness we experience around the hip joint. Let’s first look at the hip joint area and why it’s so important to take care of this part of the body.
What is the Hip Joint?
The Hip is one of the most important joints in the body and is one of the most active. It’s also one of the most flexible and mobile, or at least it should be. The joint consists of a ball-and-socket connection between the hip bone and the femur (your upper leg). All around the joint are ligaments that protect it from dislocation or damage. The muscles around this area (quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings) are also the strongest in the human body.
While running, jumping, climbing stairs and performing most sports, the hip joint is subjected to high forces.
Purpose of the Hip Flexors
In simple terms, the hip flexors allow you to pull your knee upwards. That might not sound like a lot but think about the situations where your knees move in an upwards direction. Running, kicking, squatting, sitting, walking up stairs, etc. Your hip flexors activate constantly throughout the day.
If you lie on your back and raise your leg, you’ve activated the hip flexors. Performing a sit up will also call this muscle group into use, despite the fact that situps are supposed to be about strengthening the abdominal muscles. Remember, every time you perform a sit up you’re probably making your hips tighter. The long-term consequences can be severe, as we’ll see.
How Tight Hip Flexors Affect our Bodies
This muscle group (there is more than one muscle in the flexors) is so often neglected in strength training and mobility programs. The leg extensors (quadriceps, iliopsoas, etc) are the muscles that get all the attention. They help extend the leg. When you perform squats, leg presses or any other exercise that straightens the leg, you’re hitting the leg extensor muscles. But what about the muscles that draw the leg and hip together? The flexors. Often neglected and weak, these muscles need attention.
When we sit all day, we put the hip flexors into a flexed position. They become tight and this can often have the effect of ‘turning’ off the glutes. What this means is that the glutes fail to engage or don’t activate during exercises that would normally use them as prime movers. All those squats and lunges designed to get the perfect thighs and posterior might be for nothing if your hip flexors activate so much that the glutes are inhibited.
Our ancestors didn’t suffer from these problems as they didn’t have chairs. They spent their time actively moving, squatting, or lying down.
A result of sitting is the shortening of the hip flexors. Short muscles are not strong muscles (compared to their full-length versions). Weaknesses in the flexors cause imbalances in the body that lead to serious problems such as lordosis, weak hamstrings, and weak abdominal muscles.
Why Stretch the Hip Flexors?
If I told you that tightness in the hips cause anterior pelvic tilt, lumbar hyperextension, and inhibited gluteal muscles, would you worry?
Maybe not, but what if I told you weak flexors result in weak (and flat or saggy) glutes? Nobody wants that. What about a curved back? A constant backache? It’s probably fair to say that nobody wants poor posture like this:
Now I’ve got your attention, let’s focus on how to stretch the hip flexors to prevent these problems in the first place.
Tight hips and lower back pain
Tension in the front of the tights can cause anterior pelvic tilt. This means that the hips are pulled or rotated forward and this imbalance causes the back to overarch. Ever seen a very thin people that look like they have a fat tummy? In many cases their appearance is caused by hyperextension of their lower back.
If lower back pain is most likely something you can fix with a little help.
How to Stretch the Hip Flexors
We’ll start with some static movements and then we’ll look at dynamic variant.
The couch stretch (static stretch)
In front of a wall or couch (or any stable surface) kneel down and then put one foot on the floor in front of you. The back lower leg should be pressed against the wall or couch in a horizontal position. Maintaining a stable position push your hips slightly forward and down while engaging the glutes and hamstrings. In fact, squeeze the glutes and hamstrings to get the most benefit from this stretch.
You’ll feel the stretch right across the front of your quads and into your hip (if you’re doing it right).
Tight hip flexors??
Try this one out to improve your hip mobility 👇
Your body will thank you later. pic.twitter.com/lzbAsX8zuZ
— Dr. Dale Bartek (@drdalebartekdpt) October 11, 2018
Hold the stretch for 30-60 seconds. Ideally, these exercises should take 4-6 minutes. Beginners might find this difficult so start off with an easier option and move on from there.
Change legs and repeat.
Repeat on each leg two or three times. Be careful standing back up as the hips might feel a little different.
The Psoas Stretch (static)
The psoas connects your thigh to your spine. So it’s an important one. It’s one of the main players in the hip flexor muscle group and one that can become very tight. Issues with the psoas can contribute to problems like back pain, lack of core stability, bowel complications and breathing difficulties.
This stretch is similar to the couch stretch but you can perform it anywhere and it targets the muscle a little differently.
Kneel into the lunge position with the knee actually touching the floor. You might want a towel, cushion, or yoga mat under the knee as it can be uncomfortable to perform this exercise without some form of padding.
From the 90-degree angle lunge starting position, imagine pushing your rear knee into the floor. Squeeze the glutes at the same time.
Push your hips forward while maintaining the contraction in the glutes.
Tighten your abs so you’re not arching your back or sticking your tummy out. We’re trying to prevent over-arched backs so this is important.
The easiest way to think about this is to try to let the hips sink down and forward while you keep the glutes and abs activated.
Most people will feel a stretch immediately. Increase the range of motion until it feels uncomfortable but not painful.
Hold for 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat. Then perform the stretch on both sides 2-3 times more.
The longer holds are where you can make the most progress. If you can stretch for 3-4 minutes on each leg, you’ll see better results. This is difficult for beginners so start off with less challenging times. Never compromise on form!
Reducing sitting time will help relax the tension on your psoas.
This is a great exercise for activating the glutes and hamstrings.
Lie on the floor with your knees bent and your lower leg perpendicular (90-degree angle) to the floor.
Without raising your heels or rocking back on your heels lift your hips to be in line with your knees and shoulders. If you can’t make it that high work up to the full movement slowly.
Hold the hips in this line for 2-3 seconds and return to the floor. While holding the top of the movement (with the knees, hips, and shoulders in a straight line) squeeze your glutes to activate and train them.
Repeat 10 times.
Single leg split squat (dynamic stretch)
Static stretches are fine but most people don’t spend enough time in the stretched position. What works best are dynamic stretches. Dynamic stretching refers to stretching muscles through muscular activation and momentum. The walking lunge is a great exercise and the single leg split squat is a similar movement. It’s also quite tough but is a great hip muscle strengthening exercise.
Find a weight bench or strong and stable chair. Place one foot on the bench and the other foot in front of you. Imagine you’re preparing to do a lunge movement but the back leg is raised on a platform (the bench).
Bend the leading leg as if you were lunging or squatting and feel the knee of the trailing leg moving downwards. Try to make sure that the knee of the front leg stays behind the toe line. Keep your heel firmly on the floor and press back up through the front leg, Don’t lean forward or back. Maintain a straight back posture. Tighten your abs and glutes.
As your body descends into the lunge the hip of the back leg stretches. As this is a dynamic movement the hip flexor will also strengthen thanks to the stabilizing function it performs as you lunge forward.
Try to get 10 reps and then change legs.
Repeat 2-3 times on each leg.
If this doesn’t challenge you, try holding a dumbbell or kettle bell close to your body. This is not an easy exercise but you can begin by limiting the depth until you feel confident and stable enough to go deeper.
A fully qualified Complementary Health Practitioner, Siobhan brings over twenty-five years of working and training experience to The Bodywise Clinic. Member of the Irish Massage Therapy Association.
Originally trained in Canada, Siobhán has also studied in New Zealand, the UK and Ireland in the fields of Remedial Deep Tissue and Sports Massage, Lymphatic Drainage Massage, Pregnancy Massage, Dry Needling, Low Level Laser Therapy, Smoking Cessation, Reflexology and Reiki. Siobhán is constantly upgrading her skills and recently studied a course in Orthopaedic Massage and Pain Management.