Tight hip flexors are generally the cause of inactivity and are consequently very common with many of us working several hours a day sitting down. This inactivity and lack of stretching causes your hip flexors to shorten and creates compensatory changes in the function of your pelvis and lower back. These changes can lead to limited movement in the hip joint as well as intermittent or chronic pains and strains… all of which will affect your performance in the gym.
Squatting with Tight Hip Flexors
When you perform squats with tight hip flexors your center of gravity is shifted forward, causing you to lean forward. By leaning forward you are decreasing gluteal activation, increasing quad activation and causing your hip flexors to fire as a mechanism to help you balance. Your hip flexors will pull you in to a deep flexion (deeper then you would normally experience when your gluteus is adequately engaged) resulting in over activation of the frontal hip musculature.
As you stand up your hip flexors attached to your quads are firing and will stay shortened, contributing to anterior pelvic tilt and making it extremely difficult to activate the posterior hip muscles sufficiently.
Identifying Tight Hip Flexors- the Thomas Test
- Lie down with your legs hanging off the edge of a table
- Pull your knees to your chest and hold them there with your hands
- Extend the left leg and let it hang off the edge of the table.
- Have someone observe the location of your knee on the extended leg compared to the position of your hips. Your knee should hang lower than the table. If your knee is in line with the table or above it then that is a positive indication of hip flexor tightness.
Fixing Tight Hip Flexors
When a squat is performed incorrectly it will reinforce compensatory patterns and negative form that is likely to lead to injury. For these reasons it is extremely important to address and fix tight hip flexors.
Upright movements will cause firing of your hip flexors to some degree so we primarily recommend the first three exercises:
- Self Myofascial Release (rolling): Using a foam roller or even better, a lacrosse ball, roll slowly side-to-side across the stretch of muscle just under the bony protrusion of your pelvis on both sides.
- Twist on the Thomas Test (see above): have someone slowly push downward on your extended thigh until you feel a stretch through your quad and the front of your hip. Hold for 1 minute and repeat 2-3 times.
- Quadruped Rocking with Active Shoulder Flexion: get on all fours and drive your hips backward until your hips are sitting on or as close as possible to your heels. Push through your arms so the motion is coming from your shoulders. This exercise teaches your body to move in to a position of deep flexion without engaging your hip flexors.
- Groks Paleolithic Chair: perform a bodyweight squat and get down as low as you can while keeping your back straight and heels on the ground. Pause at the bottom and hold the position for 1-2 minutes, building to 10 minutes. You may need to hold on to something to assist you at first.
- Sideways Leg Swings: Face a wall and place both of your hands against it for support. Swing one leg side to side in front of your other leg without rotating your torso. Perform 20 reps per leg
- Couch Stretch: adopt a kneeling position in front of a bench or something that can hold your foot up. Your back knee should be flexed so your heel is as close as possible to your butt. Squeeze your butt and hamstrings to push your hips forward and avoid hyperextending your lower back. You should feel a stretch in the hip on the side that your foot is back. Hold this for 1-2 minutes before switching legs
- Half Kneeling Stretch: Adopt the half kneeling position. Move your hips and trunk forward until you feel a stretch in the hip pocket of the leg with the knee on the floor. Keep your back straight, your abs braced and the glute of your back leg contracted. Hold for 30 seconds each leg and repeat 3 times.
- Seated Butterfly Stretch: Sit on the floor with the soles of your feet together and your knees bent to the side. With your back straight and core braced, pull your heels toward you while simultaneously relaxing your knees toward the floor. Breathe deeply and hold for up to 30 seconds.