Hip flexors. These hardworking muscles are crucial in foundational movements such as sitting, standing, walking and running — they act as a bridge connecting your torso to your lower body. Some muscles in this group can be notoriously weak or tight and those of you who have ever had issues with this part of your body will know the uncomfortable pain of either all too well. There’s a lot of debate in the world of sports science over how much you should strengthen and stretch your hip flexors — we’ll explain.
What are hip flexors?
A flexor is a muscle that flexes a joint. The hip flexors are a group of muscles that flex the hip joint. These muscles are grouped into different areas — the inner hip, the anterior compartment of the thigh, the glutes and the medial compartment of the thigh.
Now that you understand where they are let’s talk about what the hip flexors do precisely. Hip flexors contract when we are seated or when our knees lift towards our chest. This means that jogging, running, high knees, sit-ups, mountain climbers, and squatting to name a few fundamental movements.
Are my hip flexors tight?
Pop quiz! It’s time for a Thomas Test. There are a number of ways to do this test, but we’ll cue you through the home version. Here’s how:
Lie on your back on a hard and high surface (e.g., coffee table)
With your hips square, bring your knees into your chest.
Place both your hands on the right shin and extend the left leg out straight.
Observe whether or not your left leg rests comfortably on the ground. If it doesn’t, it’s a clear sign that your hip flexors are tight. If your left heel touches the ground but the knee doesn’t straighten, that’s another sign that your hip flexors or hamstrings may be tight.
Do this test at home and record a video or have a someone take photos. If you’re not confident in self-diagnosis, book an appointment with a physiotherapist or personal trainer to help diagnose your potential hip flexor tightness and advise you on workouts and stretches.
What causes tight hip flexors?
Prolonged sitting and activities like running or cycling can lead to tight hip flexor muscles and a variety of skeletal imbalances. Think: if you only cycle for exercise, certain muscles in your legs will get stronger (in a lot of cases you overwork these muscles) yet your core and outer hip muscles might get weaker from lack of engagement. So what? Well, these muscle imbalances often lead to skeletal imbalances and injuries down the line. If you have particularly tight hip flexors, your body will start to create an anterior pull on the pelvis (anterior pelvic tilt). You can identify an anterior pelvic tilt if your belly protrudes slightly in the front while your butt sticks out in the back (what some people refer to as “duck butt”).
My hips don’t appear to be tight, but they’re sore
Just because your hip flexor region feels sore doesn’t necessarily mean the muscles there are tight — in fact, they might need strengthening. This is where that sports science debate we mentioned earlier comes into play. It’s important to identify whether you’re tight or if the muscles are weak. Again, the Thomas Test will help you identify if you’re maybe stretching something that actually needs strengthening.
If you’re someone who’s got a good stretching routine down, both before and after a HIIT workout, bike ride or run, odds are the discomfort you feel indicates that there are grounds for more strengthening exercises. It’s important to add that many yogis with extremely flexible hips run into overstretching injuries like hip flexor strains. But, these injuries aren’t just limited to the uber-flexible. Runners, cyclists, and Stairmaster lovers might strain these muscles due to frequent overuse. We’ll share a hip flexor workout below but, first up, some stretches.
Hip flexor stretches
If you’ve ascertained that your hip flexor muscles are tight, we’ve got some stretches just for you. Hold each of these stretches for about 10 deep breaths (20 seconds) before releasing or switching sides.
Kneeling hip flexor stretch
Come into a lunge position with the right foot forward. Position the right knee over the right ankle and place your left knee on the floor. Bring both hands just above the right knee and maintain a straight spine as you move forward slightly with the right knee. Squeeze your glute muscles and breathe into the left hip flexors. Switch sides.
Standing hip flexor stretch (quad stretch)
Stand tall with your hips square and bend your right knee, bringing your foot towards your bum. Grab the right foot with your right hand and actively pull the foot closer to your glutes. As you do this, send the right knee down towards the ground and keep both knees together. squeeze your butt to promote a posterior pelvic tilt and hold — then switch sides.
This one is like the Thomas Test! Start in a supine position (meaning lying on your back) with legs extended straight on the ground. Pull the right knee into your chest and keep your back, hips, and left leg on the floor.
Reclined bound-angle pose
Lie on your back and bring the soles of your feet together to touch, allowing your knees to open and drop out to the sides. Breathe deeply to stretch the inner thighs, hips, and groin.
This stretch gets at the piriformis muscle of the hip flexor. Sit with both legs extended in front of you. Bend the right knee and place the right foot on the floor. Place your right hand behind you and hook your left elbow on the outside of the right knee. As you twist toward the righthand side, keep your spine straight and breathe deeply. Switch sides after about 20 seconds.
Hip flexor strengthening exercises
Now for some strengthening movements! Add these exercises to your workout routine, especially if you run or cycle often.
Lunge with knee drive
Come into a lunge with your right foot forward, then drive down through your right foot as your stand and lift your knee up into your chest. Repeat this movement 10 times before switching sides.
Lie on your back with your knees bent at 90° and positioned over your hips. Extend your arms straight above your shoulders up towards the ceiling. As you straighten the right leg, lower your left arm straight behind you with control. Make sure your lower back doesn’t come off the floor when executing the movement. Switch sides. This is one rep.
Come into a plank position with the tops of your feet on an exercise ball. Engage your core and hips then lift up into a pike position. Lower down slowly. This is one rep.
Squat with leg lift
Start in a squat position. As you stand, lift your right leg up and out to the side. Return to a squat and repeat on the left side. This is one repetition.
Begin in plank position. Pull your right knee in towards your chest, then immediately switch to bring the left knee in towards your chest. Maintain a strong plank form and move as quickly as you can, maintaining good form. Count left-right as one repetition.
Here’s the full workout. Repeat it 3-4 times for the best results:
Lunge with knee drive — 10x each side
Dead bug — 10x (left-right equals one)
Squat with leg lift — 10x (left-right equals one)
Ball pikes — 5x
Mountain climbers – 10x (left-right equals one)
For more exercise how-tos and workouts to strengthen your hip flexors, sign up for 8fit.