Tight Hips? Weak Hip Flexors Could be the Culprit
Written by Kirsten Ahrendt & Video by TJ O’Brien
You stretch, foam roll, lacrosse ball smash, perform banded distractions – but for how long? How many reps? Which muscles should we specifically target so that we can be in a better squat position? Everyone on Instagram is all #SwoleAndFlexy and I’m over here moving like #MrsRoboto and my spirit animal is #NotSoSuppleLeopard.
The thing is, “muscles are stupid creatures and they only do what they’re told to do.” This is a quote from Dean Somerset on a topic that has struck home for me – people dealing with chronically “tight” hips.
Main Reasons Your Muscles Contract
The thing about muscles is that they only do what they’re told to do. The nervous system is actually in charge and the brain tells your muscles to contract. Here are a few of the main reasons as to why a muscle contracts:
– to produce movement (eccentric or concentric action)
– to provide stability
– to protect joints during novel movements or ranges of motion
Constantly Stretching Without Gains?
So, back to our tight hips – if a muscle is actually tight, it should be able to become less tight (short) by stretching it, and the range of motion increase should be somewhat permanent (and healthy if we combine some activation and strengthening exercises to control the new range of motion).
However, if we constantly stretch our hips and see little to no lasting gains in better positions and movement, it would seem that our muscles are being told to stay tight for a reason. The muscles may be holding tension to provide stability for another part of the body that is lacking. In the case of our tight hips, this is often tied to providing stability for the lumbar spine.
Bring On the Planks!
This is where planks come in! Our hips are closely tied to our core (anterior, posterior and lateral). If our core is weak or not “activated”, the body will create stability somewhere else – i.e. compensation and faulty movement patterns creep in. The muscles around our hips need to create and resist internal rotation, external rotation, hip flexion and extension for us to optimally squat. If they are figuratively and literally “tied up” with being tight to provide stability for another part of the body that isn’t doing its job, then they may not have a full range of motion available.
So, if we can activate the muscles of the lateral, anterior, and posterior core (i.e. all of it!) then there may be a correlated increase in the range of motion in the hips. Dean Somerset summarizes it well in the two paragraphs below.
Stimulating Lateral Core Stability
“The muscles of the hip that resist internal rotation are primarily found on the lateral aspect of the hip. These muscles play a key role in providing lateral stability to the spine along with the obliques, psoas, serratus anterior and latissimus dorsi. The side plank can help to stimulate these muscles and force them to work together to help stabilize the spine in a position that doesn’t allow compensation, and therefore can re-set the hip and core to allow the hip to move properly.”
Stimulating Anterior Core Stability
“The muscles that resist external rotation are primarily found on the medial and front of the hip, and have a high correlation to anterior core instability. This is where the front plank comes in. When done properly, the hip flexors are held in a stretched position while the rectus abdominis is working in conjunction with the obliques and glutes to provide the best pelvic and spinal stability possible.”
Planks don’t have to be the only activation tool in your toolbox… single arm farmer’s carries are also a great tool to get the muscles providing lateral stability in the core.
Applying the Plank to Your Routine
With all this said, keep in mind, hips are like snowflakes…no two are alike. What works to address one person’s hip issues may not tackle the right culprit for another person’s issues. But barring any structural issues, core activation may be a useful tool in your pre-squat routine.
Shorter holds done for more “reps” will be more beneficial. Consider doing:
– 10 on/:10 off for 5-6 ‘reps’; or,
– a tabata scheme rather than 1:00 of work
Your focus should be be on a perfect, neutral spine position and MAXIMUM contraction of the glutes, belly button tucked up into the spine, lats pulled down and on, and deep belly breaths. The goal is to signal the correct muscles to activate rather than reinforce an overextended and compensatory position.
Other Hip Flexor Strengthening Options
See Coach TJ’s video above for how to use the hip circle bands to strengthen your hip flexors.
Here’s to a strong core, happy hips and optimal squats!