Tight hip flexors are a common complaint in both the training and rehab world. Many people sit for extended periods of time each day, especially those who work desk jobs. The result is “tight hips” that need fixing.
When it comes to training, I like to keep things as simple as possible. If we want to properly stretch the hip flexors, we must consider their function and the implications they have at the hip and spine. Each of the hip flexor muscles has their own unique function, but in general: the hip flexors flex the hip (who knew?!) They also can anteriorly tilt the pelvis. Why? Because the hip flexor muscles attach to the pelvis or lumbar spine. If they are allowed to freely pull on the pelvis or lumbar spine, they pull the pelvis forward and the result is an anterior pelvic tilt, which is a hip flexed position.
If the Hip flexors are allowed to pull on the pelvis and lumbar spine, they can anteriorly tilt, or rotate the pelvis forward.
To effectively stretch the hip flexors, we want to bring the hip into an extended position, or a posterior pelvic tilt. We can facilitate a posterior pelvic tilt in two ways:
- Contract the hip extensors (the glute max for our demonstration) and abdominals for an active posterior pelvic tilt.
By actively contracting the glute max and abdominals, one can facilitate a posterior pelvic tilt, or a posterior rotation of the pelvis.
2. Fully flex the hip to facilitate a passive posterior pelvic tilt.
This one may be a little more difficult to visualize, but let’s analyze. If we flex the hip through its full range of motion and then try to get more motion, the result will be a posterior pelvic tilt and the lumbar spine will flex manifesting as a rounded lower back. This occurs because the pelvis is the next bone that is free to move. This happens passively because the body is compensating as a result of a lack of mobility at the joint. An example of this motion is the “butt wink” or the posterior pelvic tilt at the bottom on a squat when an individual has no more hip flexion range of motion available and the lower back rounds as a result.
If no more hip flexion range of motion is available and we try to further “flex” the hip, the result will be a posterior pelvic tilt.
Now that we understand some basic motions of the pelvis, let’s tackle our “tight” hip flexors!
Step 1: Front Foot Elevated Hip Flexor Stretch
The elevated foot is assisting in a posterior tilt of the pelvis. Once the front foot is elevated, contract the glutes and abs to posteriorly tilt the pelvis. This combination will facilitate a hip flexor stretch. It is unlikely this technique is making any structural changes, but an acute bout of stretching (static or PNF) can provide short-term decreases in muscle tightness and increases in range of motion. It is important to follow this up with a loaded activity to in an effort to sustain longer term changes in the new range of motion as a result of the stretch.
Step 2: Eccentric Split Squat
Eccentric training has been shown to have a positive impact on flexibility and muscle length. If the first stretch has temporarily decreased the perception of tightness and increased range of motion, introducing a load to your once “tight” hip flexors now puts the hip in a position to use this new range of motion. While performing the exercise, remember the keep the abs engaged to stabilize the pelvis. This ensures you are not performing this exercise in an excessive anterior pelvic tilt.
Step 3: Stability of the Pelvis & Posterior Chain Activation
The psoas march is a classic drill to use the abs in an anti-extension manner (if you are unfamiliar with the exercise, you can view it here) and this last drill will kick it up a notch. By elevating the feet on a bench or platform, it will force you to activate the posterior chain of the legs and require more activation of the abs and anterior core muscles to stabilize the pelvis. This comes back to the old adage in PT school where “proximal stability leads to distal mobility.” We need stability at the pelvis before we can think about flexing the hip!
See What It Looks Like!
- Behm DG, Blazevich AJ, Kay AD, Mchugh M. Acute effects of muscle stretching on physical performance, range of motion, and injury incidence in healthy active individuals: a systematic review. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 2016;41(1):1-11. doi:10.1139/apnm-2015-0235.
- O’sullivan K, Mcauliffe S, Deburca N. The effects of eccentric training on lower limb flexibility: a systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2012;46(12):838-845. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2011-090835.