By Howard Calvert published
Why do you need hip stretches? As Shakira once famously sang, your hips don’t lie. And she knew what she was talking about: your hips complain when they’re overworked, under-stretched and in generally bad shape. And you may not realize it, but problems in your hips can, in turn, lead to issues in your back and lower leg muscles.
Healthy hips are integral when it comes to movement, especially repetitive hio-hinge movements like running. If you often find yourself perusing our best running shoes for men, or best running shoes for women guides, loosening up your hip flexors is going to be key to improving your running.
One of the major issues your hips will complain about is too much sitting. And that can result in problems further down the line. According to Henry Ojo, neuromuscular and musculoskeletal injury rehabilitator, it’s not a good idea to have your hips in flexion for long periods of time during the day.
“Whether it’s sitting at a desk, watching the latest episode of your favorite show, driving for an hour plus or even commuting on the bus or train, all these activities will shorten the hip flexors if performed regularly over long periods of time.”
To combat this, it’s recommended that you work on lengthening your hip muscles to aid mobility, reduce the chance of injury and keep you exercising pain-free for longer.
Why hip stretches are important
The hip is like the highway of muscle connections. More than 20 muscles are connected to, or pass over, the joint. Some of the main muscles include the abductors in the outer thigh, the hip flexors running down the front and the adductors on the inner thigh. If any of these muscles shorten due to prolonged sitting, it will have a follow-on effect to other muscles, in particular those in the lower back and legs.
To combat this, you should be performing stretching exercises targeting the hip muscles regularly. “Stretching the hip is important as it helps avoid tight hip flexors and, in turn, tackles the predisposing factors to other related musculoskeletal conditions,” says Ojo.
When we walk and move throughout the day, our hips flex and extend repeatedly to propel our movement. “In a balanced hip, the hip flexors move the leg forward and the gluteals and hip extensors turn on during the weight-bearing phase of movement to stabilize and extend the hip,” says Dr Amy Hoover, physiotherapist at P.volve.
“Over time, when the glutes are restricted from working correctly, they may become weak and disrupt the stability and balance of the hip joint. This causes more stress on the lower back, hip and pelvic joints due to lack of support from the large muscles of the glutes.” If you're looking to really loosen up your glutes, using one of the best foam rollers can help with massaging this vital area, which is very connected to the hips.
Ojo says that there are a number of musculoskeletal conditions of the hip that research has shown are related to tight hip flexors, from ‘pinching hip’ to greater trochanteric bursitis [inflammation of the hip] and even lower back pain.
“One of the hip flexor muscles – the iliopsoas – serves as a major compressor of the lumbar spine,” he explains. “It’s important as it contributes to spine stability due to its size, as it spans from the thoracolumbar region, passing across the lumbar spine and pelvis to the femur attachment.
In most cases, the stabilizing potential of the iliopsoas has been attributed to the spinal compression it produces. A 1996 study by Clinical Biomechanics suggests that compression in the psoas muscle [in your lumbar spine] will create segmental stiffness.”
Ways to increase hip mobility
Luckily, if you’re suffering from tight hip muscles, there are simple ways to aid mobility and increase flexion.
Dr Hoover recommends two easy stretches for tight hip flexors:
- Leg-hang stretch. “Lay on the edge of a bed or table, and let the leg closest to the edge hang off the side while you hug the opposite knee into your chest. Allow the hanging leg to relax and let gravity help to open and stretch the front of the hip. Hold for 20-30 seconds and repeat 3-5 times on each side.”
- Half-kneel stretch. “With one foot on the ground and the other leg kneeling, tuck your pelvis and tailbone under to create a posterior tilt in the pelvis – as if to flatten the lower back. This will open up the front of the kneeling hip. Sometimes this is all you need to feel a stretch, but if this isn’t enough try gently lunging forward to increase the stretch in the kneeling hip. Hold for 20-30 seconds and repeat 3-5 times each side.”
- Ojo also recommends a variation on this stretch, so that your kneeling leg’s foot is pressed against a wall. At the same time you lift your arm up and stretch it across your body while maintaining a neutral pelvis in order to extend the hip flexor stretch. See a video of how to perform it here.
Other ways to fix hip problems
Ojo highlights recent research by the University of Winchester that shows that the use of muscle gun devices is recommended as part of a structured warm-up pre-exercise due to an increase in range of motion. The study found that daily use of a Theragun on the hamstrings and lower back increase hip flexor and thoracic range of movement.
“Massage guns come highly recommended by regular gym enthusiasts, athletes and their health care practitioners as a way to improve the hips’ range of motion,” adds Ojo.
Howard is a freelance health and fitness journalist and copywriter. He has written for publications including ShortList, Runner’s World, Trail Running, Women’s Running, Red Bulletin, Wareable and Cycling Weekly. He enjoys nothing more than lacing up his trail shoes and heading out to explore new trails. He’s run ultramarathons everywhere from the French Alps and Canadian mountains to the Welsh coast and Peak District. When not running, he’s usually found hitting his local MTB singletrack trails or on a quest to find the country’s best cinnamon bun.
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