As a strength trainer who lives to workout with free weights on a strict training regimen, I have a muscle group that affects my ability to squat low and deep with a heavy barbell that every one of you reading this should also be mindful of, no matter whether you are a strength athlete or not.
If you are the sedentary type who likes to sit around and do little more than watch your television while munching on snack cakes, you might want to continue reading this.
If you are not intentionally sedentary but have a job that has you sitting for long periods of the day such as office work or truck driving, this applies to you too.
The muscle group I am writing about is your hip flexors.
This same muscle group that allows me to load a heavy barbell onto my back and then to squat down low and deep with it before standing back up, is the exact same muscle group that has a direct impact on your mobility, or lack thereof, when you sit your rear end in a seat for extended periods of time. It is the same muscle group that has truckers walking all hunched over after extended periods behind the wheel while out on the road. The hip flexors are a muscle group that no matter, young or old, athlete or non-athlete, male or female, it makes no difference who or what we are, should be kept strong and supple. Otherwise, we might one day find ourselves being checked prematurely into a nursing home when we can no longer get on and off our toilets without assistance from others.
What are the hip flexor’s
Your hip flexors are a group of muscles near the top of your thighs that are key players in moving your lower body. When the hip flexors are referred to, it is often about the psoas major and minor, iliacus and rectus femoris. Sartorius also plays a role in hip flexion as do the front fibers of the tensor fascia lata. The hip flexors really are a large and significant muscle group. They have the ability to pull the pelvis forward and to arch your back when standing or sitting. The hip flexors let you walk, kick, bend, and swivel your hips. When these muscles are too tight you will find yourself having a difficult time in standing up straight. When these muscles are really tight, your hip flexors can actually stretch or tear if you make a sudden movement.
Hip flexor tightness can, and will, come from living a sedentary life where you do a lot of sitting during your waking hours. This problem can be exasperated even more if you are prone to allowing yourself to be dehydrated a good deal of the time. Truckers can be terrible about this as there is not always a good place to pull a semi truck and trailer off the road in order to relieve themselves when they have to urinate. Therefore, many truckers will not keep their bodies adequately hydrated when out on the road.
Many, if not most, problems with the hip flexors, originate because of a lack of flexibility. To give you a clear picture of how these muscles lose their flexibility, imagine yourself with a broken arm, your injured elbow is bent and encased in a cast. When your doctor removes this cast after six or eight weeks, the soft tissues around your elbow (muscles, tendons, ligaments, and even skin) will have shortened. If you have worn an arm cast, you know your elbow would not straighten out easily until you had stretched it over several weeks to restore full range of motion. Similarly, if your hip is constantly kept in a flexed position from sitting extended periods day after day, the hip flexors will shorten and shrink, limiting your ability to fully extend, or straighten your hips.
This group of muscles can become prone to tightness as a result of:
- Non-optimal posture with an arched back. It may be compounded by a forward tilt of the pelvis.
- Sitting for too long when at work, studying, and driving.
- Weak muscles at the back of the hip, such as the glutes and deep hip rotators.
- Non-optimal contact and function with the feet in your gait as you walk. The psoas may not get the opportunity to open well as we walk and therefore stay shortened and tight.
- Weak core and trunk control muscles and timing (poor load transfer between trunk to hips)
- Digestion problems (inflammation of the gut causes problems with psoas which lies very close to the bowels)
What can we do about tight hip flexors?
Often, when you experience pain in the lower back and hips it is because of tight hip flexors. Fortunately, there are several stretches and exercises that relax and strengthen the hip flexors. With improved strength and flexibility, a person is less likely to experience pain or injury. If you find that a good portion of your day is spent sitting, please make time to learn and perform these simple stretches and exercises:
- Seated Butterfly. The seated butterfly stretch stretches the hips, thighs, and lower back. It is easy to perform and is done from a seated position.To perform this stretch:
- Sit up straight on the floor with engaged abs.
- Push the bottoms of each foot together while pushing the knees out.
- Pull heels towards the body and relax the knees, allowing them to drift towards the ground.
- Hold for about 20 to 30 seconds, breathing deeply.
- Bridge Pose. Bridge is a popular pose in yoga. It stretches many parts of the legs, hips, and back while lying down.To perform this stretch:
- Lay flat on the ground with arms laid flat on either side.
- Pull feet towards the buttocks and keep soles flat on the ground.
- Engaging the core, lift the buttocks into the air and form a straight, angled line from the knees to the shoulders.
- Hold for about 30 seconds, lower, and repeat.
- Pigeon Pose. Another popular stretch in yoga, Pigeon pose gives the hips a deep stretch. This pose is difficult to perform, so people should use caution when trying it for the first time.To perform this stretch:
- Start out in a plank, as though doing a push-up.
- Lift the left foot and bring the knee directly forward toward the left hand, and push the foot towards the right hand.
- Move the outstretched right leg as far back as possible.
- Keeping the hips straight, lower the body to the ground as far as possible.
- After a few seconds, switch sides.
- Mountain climbers. Mountain climbers are a type of move that a person does from a plank-like position. Mountain climbers mimic the motion of climbing up rocks, which is where the name comes from.To perform mountain climbers:
- Start in a regular plank with hands and feet placed shoulder-width apart.
- Keep the hands firmly planted on the ground and pull the right knee up to the chest on the same side of the body.
- Then, return to the starting position and repeat with the left leg.
Start off with 5 to 10 repetitions and build up to about 20 to 30 over time.
- Lunges. Lunges are an excellent exercise to strengthen the leg and hip muscles. People can perform lunges in a variety of ways, including forward, backward, and toward either side. The simplest is a forward lunge.To perform a forward lunge:
- Start in a standing position with feet just slightly apart.
- Place hands on the hips or let them hang straight on either side of the body.
- Take a big step forward, ensuring the heel makes contact with the floor first.
- Bend the forward knee until the thigh is parallel to the floor and the knee is over the ankle while bending the other knee towards the ground.
- Step back into the stand position, pushing off the floor with the leading foot.
- Repeat, alternating sides.
To start, 5 to 10 repetitions may be all that a person can do. However, building up to 20 to 30 repetitions is a good number to aim for
- Squats. Squats can work the muscles of the legs and engage the core at the same time. Squats have an added advantage of being very flexible, meaning a person can adjust the intensity to fit their changing fitness needs.To perform a squat:
- Start in a standing position with feet slightly spread apart and arms to the side.
- Bend the knees and push the buttocks toward the back.
- Drop down until the legs are roughly parallel to the floor, keeping knees in line with the feet.
- Keep the abs tight and bring the arms up to chest level.
- Repeat 10 to 30 times depending on fitness level.
As strength grows, people can add can jumps or weights for an extra challenge. (1)