Many exercises work the hip flexors, the front part of the hips, necessary for maximizing speed and quickness. But fewer exercises work the hip extensors, or the glute and hamstring muscles. Too much hip flexion and not enough hip extension can lead to an imbalance called anterior pelvic tilt. Too much of a forward tilt, and you won't be able to stride through a full range of motion, limiting your power.
Hip flexors are commonly used in abdominal and cardio routines. They are the prime movers in Leg Lifts, Sit-Ups, Decline Sit-Ups, and V-Ups, as well as in elliptical work, the arc trainer, and stair climbing or stepping. High-rep intervals of exercises such as Mountain Climbers and Burpees also work the hip flexors, as do walking and running.
Testing for Overuse
Many people have tightness about the hip and don't know it. It may feel like stiffness in the front hip or thigh, or it may cause pain or tightness in the lower back on one or both sides.To gauge your hip tightness, try the Thomas Test. Be sure to test both legs.
- Stand at the end of a table or your bed.
- Sit just on the edge, grab one knee, pull it to your chest and lie back, keeping your other leg fully relaxed.
If your thigh starts to come up off the table, the iliopsoas (primary hip flexor) is tight. If your leg begins to straighten, the rectus femoris (front of quads) is tight. In either case, you should avoid excessive hip flexor work and add hip flexor stretching and hip extensor work to your routine, along with hip extensor work.
Remedies for Tight Hip Flexors
If your hip flexors are tight, you should avoid Leg Lifts, Sit-Ups, Decline Sit-Ups and V-Ups. These exercises will only increase hip flexor tightness. Instead, for your core routine, use exercises that specifically target the abdominal wall and lower-back muscles rather than the hip flexors.
Alternate Core Routine:
- Planks - 3 x 30 sec (working your way towards 60 sec)
- Side Planks - 3 x 30 sec (these will be harder, so work toward 45 sec)
- Bridges - 3x 60 sec (easier than planks, focus on using the glutes)
- Roman Chair Back Extensions - 3x 10-12 reps (this exercise needs little weight added to it)
- Stir-the-Pot - 3 x 5 circles each direction (work up to 10 each way)
Also, vary your cardio routine to avoid overuse of any specific joint. Try biking, swimming, rowing or skiing to vary your movements. This is especially beneficial for those who are not runners or those who find it difficult or painful to run.
Lastly, focus on hip extension. Romanian Deadlifts are an especially important exercise, because they help develop the glutes, hamstrings, back and shoulders. Hip Thrusts, Bridges, and Glute Presses are also good for developing the hip extensors.
Hip Extensor Routine:
- Romanian Deadlift - 3 x 12-15 reps
- Rolling Bridge - 3 x 8-12 reps (body weight only, best to use a foam roller under your feet)
- Hip Thrusts - 3 x 8-12 (best to put the upper back and shoulders on a bench with the bar across the hips)
- Glute Press - 3 x 12-15 reps (either a machine or on all-fours with a band)
Be sure to use weight that allows you to complete the set with some discomfort without sacrificing technique. Focusing more on hip extension and less on hip flexion is crucial to avoiding overuse in the hips, preventing improper tilt of the pelvis, and maintaining lower back health.
- Axler, C., and McGill, S.M. (1997) "Low back loads over a variety of abdominal exercises: Searching for the safest abdominal challenge." Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 29(6):804-811.
- Kavcic, N., Grenier, S., and McGill, S. (2004b) "Determining the stabilizing role of individual torso muscles during rehabilitation exercises." Spine, 29(11):1254-1265.
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