Ben, Head of Strength at Grow Fitness
For at least the last ten years, I’ve experienced an uncomfortable tightness in my hips when performing certain exercises. I would often see other people completing these exercises or yoga poses with ease, but suffer from cramp or other discomfort when I attempted the same movements. Some quick internet research told me that tight hip flexors was a common problem with symptoms similar to my own, so I assumed that this was what my problem was.
The hip flexors are a group of muscles that originate on the lower spine and the iliac Crest (pelvis). They’re primarily responsible for flexion and extension in the hip, i.e. raising your leg and extending it out behind you
In the past, I would half-heartedly address the tightness in my hips every few months, but this year I have resolved to tackle this more consistently – so if you’re experiencing the same problem, let’s do it together!
First of all, there are some quick and easy test you can do to determine if you have tight flexors, tight quads or weakened hip muscles.
Test for tight hip flexors and quads
For this test, also known as the “Thomas Test”, you’ll need a firm, flat surface above knee height – perhaps a box in the gym or a sturdy table at home.
- Sit on the surface, with the edge under your mid-thigh. Lie back and pull your knees up to your chest
- Flatten your back to the surface, ensuring that there is no arch in your lower back (you shouldn’t be able to feel a gap between the surface you’re lying on and your back)
- Slowly let go of and lower one your legs down
- Is the back of your lower leg in contact with the surface? Is that knee capable of bending to 80 or 90 degrees, or is it extended out in front of you?
- If the back of your leg is not touching the surface, see if you can straighten that leg. If by straightening it, the back of your leg drops down and touches the surface, then you know you have tightness in your quad muscles
- If, however, you can’t lower your leg to the level of the surface you’re lying on, then you have tightness in your hip flexors
Test for weak hips
- Standing tall, pull one of your knees up to your chest. Don’t let your arms do all the work – tense your leg muscles
- Release your hold on your knee and try to hold it in position using only your leg muscles. If you can maintain the position, this suggests you have strong hips
- If, however, it drops to around hip height (like mine does when I do this test) it means you have weaker hips, that are forced to enlist other muscles to compensate for its weakness, which kick in around hip height
To strengthen weak hips, you essentially need to practice the above test, holding the knee above the hip and trying to keep it there without needing to use your hands. You can start with your foot on a bench or chair and lift the knee up, as though you were climbing a giant set of stairs. Alternatively, you can start by raising the knee and holding it as high as you can, using just your leg muscles. Either hold that knee there for as long as you can, or complete repetitions of the movement, pausing with the knee as high as you are able to take it.
Over time, if you consistently practice, you should notice that it becomes easier to raise your knee into that position and that you are able to keep it there for longer.
Exercises to tackle weak hip flexors
If, however, you have done the above tests and established that you don’t have weak hips but tight hip flexors, here are a few exercises and stretches you can do to tackle the problem. Done regularly, all of these will help to strengthen the hip flexors, as they are involved in each exercise to the fullest range of movement. As you get stronger, you can make the movements more challenging by adding resistance – for example a weighted bar bell or pair of dumbbells.
- Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, toes pointing forward or with a slight turn out. Your hips should be stacked over your knees, with your knees stacked over your ankles
- Lower your bum out behind you, as if you were going to sit on a chair
- Keep your chest up and open, shoulders back
- Lower yourself down, keeping your core tight throughout the movement, until the tops of your thighs are parallel with the floor, forming a right angle at the knee
- Your knees should not go over your toes
- Explode up, powering through your heels, without allowing your knees to cave inwards and keeping the core tight
- Finish by standing up right, tilting your pelvis forwards slightly at the end of the movement
- Start in a standing position. Take one stride forward with your right leg, keeping your core engaged and your back straight
- Lower your hips until both knees are bent to roughly 90 degrees, with your left knee nearly touching the floor
- Keeping the core braced and the spine tall, press down through the heel of your right foot to get you back up into a standing position, engaging your glute muscles
- Repeat with your left leg
- The key thing is to make sure that the front knee doesn’t buckle inwards, and that your front knee doesn’t reach out over your toes. Remember that you want the bend at the knee to be around 90 degrees
- This is basically like walking up a giant staircase. For this exercise, you’ll need a stable surface to step up onto. Try knee height, but if this is too challenging, start with something lower and build up to it
- Step up on to the surface, keeping the core tight. Push up through that leg, squeezing the glutes to bring your body up. The movement should be slow and controlled, ending with both legs meeting at the top
- Step down and repeat with the other leg
- To make this more challenging, you can add resistance (for example, by holding a dumbbell in each hand) or increase the height of the step. You could also add a knee up to the end of the movement – when you step up on to the surface, bring the trailing leg up high to the chest, pause and lower back down. This will not only help your hip flexors, but also work your balance – bonus!
Stretches to tackle weak hip flexors
As well as the targeted exercises described above, there are a few stretches you can do to help strengthen weak hip flexors. Try to repeat each of these three times a day, at least three times per week. Frequency and consistency is key, so really try and get into the habit of incorporating these stretches into your routine!
Kneeling hip flexor stretch
- Begin in a standing position and take one step forwards with your left leg, slightly longer than your usual stride. Lower your right knee gently towards the floor (you may want to use a cushion for support), with the sole of your foot facing the ceiling
- Keeping your core tight and your back straight, gently lean forwards, until you feel a nice stretch pulling through your right leg. Hold this position for 20-30 seconds
- Repeat 2-3 times for each leg
Psoas quad stretch
- Begin in the same kneeling position described above, but instead of leaning forwards, reach back, grasp the ankle of your back leg and pull it gently towards you
- Alternatively, you could use a gym bench or a sofa to help you. Stand a step away from the bench, then reach back with your right leg, placing the top of the foot on the bench. Slowly lower the left leg to stretch through the hip – with this technique, you don’t need to use your arms and may actually benefit from a deeper stretch
- The key here is to keep the pelvis tilted under and squeeze the glutes as much as you can, to release tension through the hip flexors
- Repeat 2-3 times for each leg
- Begin in a seated position on the floor, then bend your knees to bring the soles of your feet together
- Bring your heels as close to your body as you can, pulling gently on your feet to bring them towards your pelvis as far as is comfortable
- Keeping your back straight, lean forwards and hold the stretch for 30 seconds
- Rather than just pushing the knees out and down to the floor, try to actively push the heels together and feel like you’re pushing your pelvis towards the ceiling, giving you a sense of your inside thighs twisting to face up
- Don’t bounce into the stretch or force yourself to go beyond what is comfortable
- To increase the stretch lean forwards with a sense of elongation up the back and forward, rather then just dropping the chest to the feet
- Repeat the stretch 2-3 times
If you would like any help on any of these exercises and stretches, feel free to email us or drop in and see us!