One of the biggest issues I am running into with my clients in terms of getting them stronger, fitter, and healthier is mobility! Specifically hip mobility!
Hip mobility in very basic terms means full range of motion throughout the hip region such that a client would be able to assume this position:
This full range of motion position requires tremendous ankle mobility, hip flexor flexibility, hamstring flexibility, core strength, back strength, and balance, just to name a few of the requirements.
Without full range of motion through these tissues it becomes harder and not as safe to do many exercises because the body will end up compensating for joints and tissues that aren’t moving properly. For example, something simple like walking can become restricted and detrimental if your hips are tight and restricted because you will start to change your gait patterns to make up for your tight hips!
Or let’s take a squat for example; a person with very tight hamstrings (muscles down the back of your legs) or hip flexors (muscles up the front of your hips) perhaps is going to look more like this when they squat:
In this photo you can see my hips are barely coming below 90 degrees, I am getting a huge curve in my lower and upper back, my toes are pointed right out, and I can’t sit tall in my squat position. Not a healthy squat position!
It is not suggested to add weight to a squat pattern that looks like this because it could be dangerous and detrimental to the muscles and joints. And if you can’t squat properly you are limited in one of the best exercises for strengthening, and improving the muscle in the posterior chain of the body (glutes, hamstrings).
Even in other exercises like a glute bridge:
or a deadlift:
Your lack of ankle or hip range of motion is going to cause you to compensate in your posture, body alignment, and how you activate your muscles. Over time this will cause muscle imbalances for sure, and most likely injuries. For example in a deadlift position you may not even be able to get into the proper start position if you are lacking the mobility to align your pelvis and spine properly.
Why have you developed this poor range of motion in your hips:
Think about sitting at your desk all day:
Even when sitting in good posture your hips are still locked in one position- one tight 90 degree angle! The muscles have learned to get bound up in this flexed hip position. Over time: days, years and months of only being in this position will tighten up those structures and joints.
To make matters worse, most people choose to run or cycle as their forms of activity, and in both of those activities the hips still stay flexed and never achieve their full range of motion!
Why Are Tight Hips Dangerous?
Without using our hips in their full range of motion our body experiences a number of side effects:
- First of all many hip replacements are done on hips that have lost their strength and flexibility! What this means is that healthy joints that are going to stay healthy long term require full range of motion movements to stay strong, mobile, and functioning correctly. When a joint is strong, mobile, and functions correctly it is much less likely that there would be an issue or complication causing injury or need for replacement down the road! By keeping your hips active and strong in ALL ranges of motion you can expect healthier hips long term!
- Second of all, activities like hiking and any kind of sport require a tremendous amount of mobility and strength around each joint (hip and knee and ankle especially) in order to stay safe and injury free while playing!! When you lack mobility or strength around the hips your knee or ankle often ends up taking the brunt and getting injured. Your body works as a kinetic chain, meaning that starting from the ground up certain joints are supposed to be more mobile, and certain joints are supposed to be more stable. The hips are in the mobile category! As a result if you lose your hip mobility over time another joint needs to become mobile to make up for aka, aka most likely your knees or your lower back because the are next in line on the chain.
- If you want to have the strongest, most powerful, and best looking legs and butt around, you want to squat and squat deep. A deep squat with a heavy load has been shown to be one of the best exercises for developing strong good looking hamstrings and glutes (back of the leg and butt). For most of you that is probably reason enough to get that mobility back 🙂 I know for me it’s motivating!
- Low back pain anyone? This is the most common side effect I see lack of hip range of motion having on people! When the muscles, tissues, and fascia surrounding the hip joint are tight they most certainly are influencing the strain on the lower back as many of them attach in and around this area. Chronically tight muscles in the hip area will continue to pull on the spine and vertebrae of the lower back, leading to chronic back pain. Tight hip flexors are the main culprit for this as they attach up the front of our hips into our lower back. The more we allow our hip flexors to tighten by sitting at a desk all day the more they end up pulling on our lower back!
- Digestion and organ function! Maybe you don’t think about it very often, but our body is one huge interconnected unit of muscles, tissues, organs, bones etc. When we don’t use our skeletal structure as it was intended to (squatting fully and deep, amongst other motions) then we aren’t getting the most from our organs either! More and more people are starting to advocate a deeper squat to improve digestive function. If you are really interested you should google “squatty potty :)”.
- Finally, we lose functionality of certain muscles when we don’t squat low and take our hips through their full range of motion. Sitting too much causes us to lose the nerve connection to some of our major muscles- our butt muscles! When we don’t squat deep we lose a massive opportunity to fire nerve message to our glutes and core to activate! Also, if you are too tight to bring your body into a full extension motion (like a full glute lift, squat, or deadlift) you aren’t going to have the ability to strengthen the glutes in their full range of motion at all!
What to do about these tight hips?!
So now we know, we need to focus on improving hip mobility to prevent injury, and maintain proper function of our tissues long term. How can we improve hip mobility:
The main culprits to poor hip mobility are:
- Tight hip flexors
- Tight outer hip regions- external rotators of the hip.
- Tight hamstrings.
These are the top stretches/rolling routines I recommend doing daily to improve hip mobility:
First of all ensure you are STRETCHING AND ROLLING DAILY for at least 10-20 minutes
Ensure you are ROLLING AND DYNAMICALLY WARMING UP THESE TISSUES before exercise.
- Hip flexor stretches
In this position I am trying to keep my posture tall, engage my core, and flex my glute/butt muscles. This deepens the stretch through the front of my hips. Hold it 1-2 minutes per side, or if it’s before activity hold 10 seconds per side, but keep alternating side to side. For variations on this stretch suitable for you google “Kelly Starrett couch stretch”- or send me an e-mail 🙂
There are a MILLION variations you can take on this stretch.
First you can simply do a static held hip flexor stretch like this:
Here I start by pressing my hips to the floor, holding there fore 5-10 breathes.
Next you could try this variation:
Do a 3-5 second twist through the rib cage to each side. The whole time I am keeping my spine as straight and tall as I can. I am still holding my hips down to the ground, you should still feel a deep pull in the front of the back leg, and the back of the front leg.
A third variation that works really well can be found in this video:
In this video Kelly demonstrates a variation on this stretch:
What he does is he starts in the initial hip flexor stretch (found above), and puts his left hand on the left knee and pushes out to the side and really works the hip in a side to side motion. Next he tries to press his belly button down into his ankle.
On the second step he takes the front foot wider, again works the knee side to side 5 times and then again tries to put his belly button to his ankle. He also tries to stretch his chest forward and walk his hands away from his body in the opposite direction.
Myofascial Release for the hips: Mobilizing the hip tissue:
Beyond stretching it is also important to mobilize the fascia and tissue surrounding the joints in order to improve their range of motion.
Find yourself a myofascial ball, I prefer to the yoga tune up balls and dig into the hip/glute muscles around the side and back of the hip. Level 1 would be pressing your hips into the ball against a wall. Level 2 is sitting on the ball on the ground. The purpose here is to relax into the ball and dig around into these tissues like a deep tissue massage. Myofascial release can have a profound impact on opening up joints. Aim to target all the tissues on the side of the hip and the upper back portion of the hip.
Using a foam roller might work for you to start but you will find you can’t dig into those small hip muscles as effectively as using a myofascial ball. This might be a really good place to begin if you know you are really tight.
Another great stretch for the outer hip region is pigeon pose, often seen in yoga:
Aim to bring your knee up all the way to It’s same side wrist and the same leg ankle up to the opposite side wrist (so the shin would be vertical to the top of the mat).
Final way to ensure better hip mobility- The hamstrings!
And finally! Don’t forget about those hamstrings. Here are some stretches you can do daily to open up your hamstrings. Remember to hold and breath while you do them!
You can also try to do some myofascial release on the hamstrings using a mobility ball and sitting on a chair. You want to sit on a chair with the ball underneath the back of the leg, gently resting on the ball. You then breathe into it and roll the ball up and down and side to side. Remember, don’t push past a 7/10 intensity.
I truly hope this article helped you gain further awareness around the importance of hip mobility, and how to improve it!
Now for the credit roll:
I wouldn’t be able to have posted this blog if it wasn’t for the YWCA Health and Fitness Centre downtown Vancouver allowing me to take all these fabulous photos! They are part of a guidebook I wrote for my Women’s weight lifting group which I run at their gym, and have also posted the guide book online for purchase. I have a level 2 women on weights program coming up in April- sign up soon as there are only 8 spots available 🙂
If you are interested in doing some personal training (potentially work on that hip mobility!) at the YWCA please contact member services 604-895-5777!