How to Lengthen Hip Flexors – Hip Mobility Guide
Tight hip flexors are a common problem for many adults and they can have a big impact on your lifting technique and chances of injury. Personally, I have struggled with hip flexor trouble in the past and found that my squat form was severely affected. This article will explain how to lengthen hip flexors and improve your hip mobility by outlining the methods I have found helpful and used for myself.
Often, problems with hip tightness are caused by the extended periods of sitting that many of us do during the day; driving, sitting in the office, watching T.V etc.
Over time, the muscles in the front of your body can become tight as a result of being in constant flexion. Eventually, you will probably start to notice some little niggles or feelings of discomfort as the day goes on.
These little episodes of discomfort can be a sign that something isn’t quite right with your muscles. Tightness and imbalances will make movements like squatting, and even climbing stairs more difficult.
If you feel like something is not quite right with your hip mobility, you should seek to address the problem right away before it becomes a real issue.
Tight and shortened hip muscles are a prime culprit of lower back pain, psoas syndrome, and other musculoskeletal disorders. It isn’t only office workers who sit down all day that get tight hips; anybody who puts their hip flexors under load regularly, such as athletes and lifters, can eventually suffer with tightness too.
When your hip flexors lack range of motion, they’ll start making the compensatory changes by altering the mechanics and involvement of other muscles. As a result, muscle imbalances will occur and your risk of injury is increased.
So, to prevent the chances of injuries and to make sure you can perform your gym lifts properly, a routine of both stretching and strengthening the muscles that surround your hips would be a great place to start.
As a side note, another cause of your hips feeling stiff and immobile can be that your core muscles aren’t functioning properly and, as a result, your hip flexor muscles are being put in a state of constant tension to “pick up the slack” from your core. If you have tried stretching your hips in the past and not seen results, check out this article on hip flexor stretching by Dean Somerset to see whether core dysfunction could be the issue.
What do the Hip Flexors do?
Your hip joint is surrounded by the group of flexor muscles: pectineus, Sartorius, quads, and tensor fasciae latae.
The powerful contraction and relaxation of these muscles provide mobility at your hip joint and stabilise your spine. The hip flexors run across the front of your hips and attach to the pelvis, femur, and spine. As well as facilitating hip flexion, these muscles are also responsible for keeping your hips and spine stable. You can see why hip flexors play such a big role in how your body moves and holds itself.
What are the causes of limited Hip mobility?
Firstly, it is commonly accepted that extended periods of sitting act like a slow poison to your body’s mobility. Sitting for too long and with poor posture has a seriously detrimental effect on hip function and mobility.
Not only can it lead to shortened hip flexors, but a lot of sitting can cause your glutes to become less active and weak. A lack of glute activation then puts your hamstring under an added load and can lead to hamstring tightness; it’s all one big chain of dysfunction and compounding issues.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, overuse can be just as damning for your hip flexors. Dancers, runners, and most other athletes are at higher risk of iliopsoas injury. Just as with sitting for long periods, repeated hip flexion during activities like sprinting can make for tighter hip flexors. It would certainly be advisable for athletes to put some time into keeping their hips mobile in an effort to reduce injury risk and to enhance performance.
Watch the video above for a quick test you can do to see if your hip flexors are indeed tight.
Why Tight Hip flexors are a problem?
As I stated above, when your hip flexors aren’t working as they should be, it has a direct impact on how your body moves. Excess tightness in your hip muscles will pull your spine, knee, and pelvis out of their natural alignment. As a result, the chances of experiencing back and knee problems are increased.
According to the Jacksonville Orthopedic Institute of Rehabilitation, the effects of the shortened hip muscles can become long-lasting if action isn’t taken.
The hidden reason behind chronic low back pain, knee injuries, muscle strains, and ligament sprains could well be your shortened hip flexors. If this is the case, pain relief and rest will not be enough; you will need to address the problem by improving the mobility, strength and function of the muscles.
The Benefits of Hip Flexor Stretches?
Before I get to the routine and exercise you can try, here is a quick snapshot of some of the benefits you could see as a result of bettering the way your hips move:
- Improved flexibility around your back and lower limbs
- Decreases chance of lower limb/back injury
- Improved posture
- Better transfer of power to muscles around the hips
- Less neuromuscular inhibition (greater range of motion)
- Better athletic performance
- Enhanced blood circulation
- Faster recovery and less muscles soreness
- Less restriction and more comfort during movements like squatting and deadlifting
How to Lengthen Hip Flexors - Mobility Routine
I struggled for a long time with a couple of very common issues that many gym-goers will be aware of: anterior pelvic tilt and “butt-wink” during squats. Both of these issues can be a result of poor hip function and the following routine, on top of my usual strength training, is what I followed and feel really helped with them.
This routine is made up of 3 separate components:
I recommend combining numbers 1 and 2 (stretching and myofascial release) into a routine that can be completed multiple times daily.
The strengthening exercises can then be plugged into your current training program.
Before stretching the muscles, I like to focus on massaging and releasing "knots" in the muscles. I don’t really know if there is scientific evidence for performing the myofascial release before stretching but it makes sense to me that you should release tension and trigger points in the muscle before stretching it.
In 2015, a study published in International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy reported that the muscles lengthened dramatically in athletes when stretching is combined with myofascial release.
The simplest way for me to describe self-myofascial release is that it works very much like a sports massage but you can do it yourself with the aid of some simple pieces of equipment like a foam roller. It works as another form of stretch for the muscle but can target specific areas of tension and release them via a neuromuscular response.
When I was really focusing on my hip mobility, I combined this foam rolling routine with the stretching routine in the next section and performed it in the morning, post-workout and before bed. Nowadays, I still try to do it post-workout and before bed as much as I can.
Foam rollers and tennis or lacrosse balls are the most popular tools for self-myofascial release.
Ideally, you will be performing a foam rolling or ball massage routine on most of your body’s muscles. However, for your hips in particular, I suggest rolling a foam roller over your glutes, hamstrings, the front of your hip joint into your abs and the full length of your quads.
Mobility Routine Part 1: Myofascial Release
Use the following foam rolling technique on the front of your hips, quads, hamstrings and glutes:
Work one muscle or section of a muscle at a time.
Begin at the top of the muscle and roll slowly down to the bottom.
Find the most tender point within the muscle and hold the roller there.
Put as much weight through that point as you can stand and hold for 15-20 seconds or until you feel a reduction in the tenderness.
Slowly roll away from the point of tenderness and repeat the drill. You may find another tense spot or you may need to work the same spot again.
I work in this way on each muscle for 1-2 minutes before finish with a few slow rolls through the entire length of that particular muscle.
Switch sides or move on to the next muscle group and repeat the process.
Gentle, steady, and prolonged stretch is the way to go with this part; you will need to stretch each muscle a lot and for a long time if you want to see results.
Perform the stretches several times a day if you can. I used to like to do them in the morning, post-workout and before bed.
“Hang out” in each stretch for at least 2 minutes
Apply heat before starting the stretching exercises. I’m not too sure if there is any real evidence for this but I always seem to feel better when stretching after a hot bath or shower.
Breath deep and try to relax during each stretch.
Stretching may be uncomfortable but do not allow it to become painful.
Mobility Routine Part 2: Stretching
Use the guidelines above and perform the following stretches after completing your myofascial release/foam rolling.
Get into the supine lying position. Flex your knees to 90 degrees and cross the right knee over left one. Pull the crossed right knee towards opposite shoulder.
2. Frog pose
Come into the prone position. Keep your arms flexed under your forehead and then, apart your legs as much as you can. Lastly, flex your knees to 90 degrees to get additional stretch.
Made popular by Dr. Kelly Starrett, this is one of my favourites for hip flexor stretching. Assume the position in the photo below, either against a wall or the back of your sofa (hence the name).
Comfortably sit on the floor. Bend one knee to 90 degrees and take it out in front of you so that your calf runs parallel to you body. Keep you torso straight and extend your back on the floor behind you.
Bring yourself into a very deep squat and hold the bottom position. You can use your elbows to push out against the inside of your knees to really open up your hips. Aim to keep your chest up and facing forwards.
Strengthening the muscles
As discussed earlier, poor hip function can be a combination of both tight and weak muscles, which is why you need to stretch and strengthen them.
It is likely to be your core and glutes that need the most work in order to enhance your hip mobility. The exercises below should most certainly be considered as part your training regime:
Get into the prone lying position. Keep your neck and back in a neutral position. Flex your elbows and rest your forearms on the floor. keep your knees extended with hips-width-apart. Brace your abs and tense your quads and glutes as hard as you can.
From a standing position, brace your abs and take a large step forward with one leg. Bend the stepping leg to around 90-degrees while your back leg should be hovering just above the ground. Push hard off your front leg and return to the start position. You can perform lunges with dumbbells or a barbell to increase the resistance.
There are a variety of different squat variations and all of them can be used to strengthen the muscles around your hips and lower body. The barbell back squat is one of the very best exercises you can do and I highly recommend it for almost everybody. If you need help with your squats, check out my back squat technique article.
4. Hip thrusts
Rest your upper back against a bench or box and sit with a barbell resting across your thighs. Using the bench for upper back support, thrust your hips by lifting them towards the ceiling. Pause and squeeze your glutes hard at the top of the movement before returning slowly to the start position.
5. Dead bugs
Grab a mat and follow the steps in the video below. The key to this movement is to keep your abs braced throughout. Straighten your left leg and lower it close to the ground while simultaneously extending your right arm out above your head. Hold this extended position for 5 seconds and switch sides.
Final thoughts on hip flexor stretching
It has probably taken a number of years and countless hours spent in poor positions to create the tightness and dysfunction that you are feeling in your hips. Therefore, you would be foolish to expect a quick, easy fix for them.
It will take patience and consistency if you are to improve the situation. It’s hard to say how long it will take for you to see results but I would suggest sticking to the recommendations made above religiously for a period of at least 6-8 weeks before judging their effectiveness.
Of course, these are just recommendations based on my own experiences and you should always consult with a registered medical professional before starting any type of new physical activity routine.
Let me know if you have found this useful in the comments below and post your favourite hip mobility exercise – I’m always up for trying new things to keep my hips mobile.