It’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of hip flexibility and strength for every athletic activity.
The hips provide most of the incredible power and force that our lower body can generate for running and jumping, and deficiencies in strength and flexibility in this area of the body can mean the difference between a winning performance or a painful end to the game.
Beyond athletic activities, though, issues with your hips can negatively impact your daily life.
Possible issues include pain, decreased mobility for activities such as stooping and squatting, and even difficulty with simple daily encounters such as jumping over a puddle in the street.
Just as in my previous articles on knee health and shoulder pain, I’d like to share some essential points about the hips that can help you understand a bit more about what’s happening in this area and how it can impact your training and life.
Public Service Announcement
Before we get into the nitty gritty, here’s an obligatory PSA: We’re not doctors, and this article and the suggestions below are no substitute for being seen by a real-live professional in person.
If you’re having ongoing aches and pains that don’t seem to improve with rest, you really should make an appointment to see a doctor or physical therapist as soon as possible.
Good, now let’s continue.
Let’s Take a Look at Hip Structure
When my patients and clients describe some of their hip issues to me, they can point to a pretty wide area that seems to be anywhere from right below their low back to the middle of their legs.
And actually, because of all the various muscles and structures in the region, that’s very reasonable.
Though the hip joint itself refers to the femoral head (the “ball” on the top of your leg) connecting to the acetabulum (the “socket”) of the pelvis, it really is a much bigger area than you might think, especially when we account for the large amount of myofascial structures surrounding the joint.
Just to give you a picture of what’s shaking in your hip, here’s a list of the relevant muscles:
- Hip Flexors (rectus femoris, pectineus, psoas, iliacus, tensor fascia lata)
- Hip Extensors (gluteus maximus, semitendinosus, semimembranosus, biceps femoris)
- Hip Rotators and Abductors (quadratus femoris, obturator internus, gemilli, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, piriformis, sartorius)
- Hip Adductors (adductor longus, adductor brevis, adductor magnus, obturator externus, gracilis)
All of these muscles support and allow the hip to move and generate force in a variety of angles and positions.
Weakness and decreased flexibility in any of these muscles can compromise performance and possibly generate pain through inappropriate stress and strain from normal daily and recreational activities.
The Hip vs. the Shoulder
Compared to the shoulder joint, the hip is much bigger and sits more deeply in the socket. Because the hips have to carry the majority of our bodyweight through thousands of steps a day, they need to be quite stable, whereas the shoulders need to be more mobile in order to move our hands through all our daily tasks.
This isn’t to say that hip mobility isn’t as important as hip stability, especially when we consider that we want to do much more than just walk or stand all day.
Flexible hips are necessary for the variety of exercises and fitness training that we recommend here at GMB.
The ligaments of the hip are also much thicker and stronger than the shoulders because of the larger amounts of strain and pressure in this area. You generally only see hip ligament issues due to high force trauma or moderate force, repetitive overuse in sports that require a lot of jumping/landing, and force production in supranormal ranges of motion (such as with dancers, track and field athletes, martial and performing artists).
The Two Most Common Hip Complaints
The primary pain complaints regarding the hip are muscle strains (in the hamstrings, hip adductors, flexors) due to unfamiliar exertion or overuse, with the root cause of poor movement patterns as a result of deficient strength, flexibility, and/or coordination.
And along those lines, the primary non-painful complaints about the hips are in regards to hip tightness. Perhaps it’s because of all the sitting we do, in our cars, at our desks at work, and on the couch plopped in front of the TV, but we lose a lot of the natural hip flexibility we had as children.
Unless your day job has you squatting and twisting on a regular basis, it’d do us well to take our hips through a much greater range of motion than is needed for our daily tasks alone.
Decreased strength is a concern as well, since the big (and small) muscles surrounding the hip need more stimulation than is gained from everyday walking. The prevalence of hamstring and groin strains in “weekend warriors” is a testament to how poorly conditioned we are for more athletic activities when we spend 6 days out of 7 sitting on our butts.
It would be oversimplifying to the point of error to generally identify particular hip muscles as either weak or tight. Just as most everybody thinks they have tight hamstrings, whereas in all likelihood they instead have weak hamstrings and weak glutes.
Tightness doesn’t necessarily go along with strength, nor flexibility with weakness. It is entirely possible, and likely more probable, to be both tight and weak simultaneously, especially at the hips.
How to Build Flexible and Strong Hips
So, you know by now that, to build the healthiest hips possible, they need to be both strong and flexible – one or the other won’t cut it.
In the following videos, I’ll show you some exercise variations to improve these attributes. These exercises will help you address the various weaknesses and inflexibilities that tend to build up over years of misuse and poor movement patterns.
Hip Flexibility Training Video
I’ve shown a variety of stretches and flexibility exercises in previous posts (you can find those here), and there’s literally no end to flexibility material on YouTube and other sites online.
So, in this latest video, I wanted to share some twists on old standbys to demonstrate how to approach flexibility training in a less regimented and more exploratory manner.
In general I suggest moving in and out of a stretch a few times before holding the position for 30 seconds or longer. This serves as both a warmup and as a natural priming for the muscles to accept a stretch without the natural reflex resistance.
Don’t worry about sets and reps and hold times; instead, re-frame stretching as experimenting with different angles and positions.
From time to time we get comments from people that they “can’t even get into the starting position” of some of the stretches we show. Well really, the starting position is wherever you can start it. The idea is not to mimic the exercises exactly but to begin wherever you can, and go from there.
Hip Strength Training Video
The standard big strength moves such as squats and lunges are important pieces for building great hip and leg strength, but be wary of training the same patterns over and over again. It’s nothing to do with “muscle confusion” or any nonsense like that; rather, it’s that we tend to form fixed movement patterns with consistent repetition of any skill.
Consistent repetition is the basis of motor learning!
Yet, this is a double edged sword as every repeated movement gets ingrained and fixed, even if we don’t necessarily benefit from the move. Changing position and angle of force in exercise stimulates not just the local muscle, but also the neurological connections between the respective body areas and the brain.
In this video I’ll show you a few new ways to change up classic leg strength exercises. Give these a test run and let it inspire you to create some variations of your own.
Again, don’t worry too much about sets or reps. Just see this as an opportunity to practice.
Change Things Up for Consistent Results
Strong and flexible hips are key for nearly every athletic endeavor, as well as many aspects of normal, daily life. Since they are key players in both generating force and attenuating strain, the hips are protective for the low back and the knees.
Too often we find ourselves performing the same movements every day. Absorbed in the routine of work and home life, we lose sight of our hips’ incredible potential strength and mobility. Spend even just ten to fifteen minutes a day on fundamental and creative hip exercises and you’ll notice a dramatic increase in your ability to move your whole body strongly and gracefully.
Additionally, athletic ability is measured by quick movement change, creative actions, and the right use of your strength at the right time.
Just as you should strive to be consistent in your exercise plan, you should also be vigilant in continually assessing your strengths and weaknesses. With these various findings and applying your observations into your regimen, you can persist in productive training throughout your life.
Poor movement involves a combination of strength, flexibility, and motor control/coordination so it behooves us to work on a diverse range of movement and exercise, both to keep us motivated and optimally functioning.
Explore What Your Hips Can Do
It’s great to have a foundation of a regimented exercise routine and plan, which along with consistent, hard effort, brings the best increases in performance and ability. This is especially true for beginners and people returning to their training after a long period off.
But at some point you’ll be hitting diminished returns based upon the time spent doing the same repetitive actions day after day. When you start to feel stale, or your energy levels drop, remember the fun you had as a child just playing around, and seeing what new things you could do with your body.
I shot this video recently, not to teach a particular exercise, but to show what I mean by ‘playing around’ with movement.
Take your time and give yourself room to explore all the various actions and positions your hips can handle. This is the true key to improving all aspects of your hips range of motion and power.
Move Freely, Without Pain
The hips are just one of many areas of the body that commonly cause issues. Get your body in order with our free Body Maintenance Guide.