If you’re experiencing discomfort from tight hip flexors, chances are you understand what’s causing it: excessive SoulCycle or excessive time spent sitting at your desk, to identify two probable sources. What’s not as clear is which exercises you should engage in to elongate tight hip flexors and alleviate the pain.
Perhaps you’ve attempted going for a stroll or performing stretches after your workout class, but those likely haven’t offered much relief for the soreness. That’s because the issue isn’t actually in your hip flexors — it lies in your glutes, according to Allison Heffron, D.C., a chiropractor and owner of Adjust Your Performance in Springfield, New Jersey. And rather than stretching, what you truly need is to strengthen. Fortunately, that can be easily achieved with the appropriate exercises for tight hip flexors.
What Leads to Hip Flexor Discomfort?
Have you ever experienced a sharp ache running from the front of your pelvis down to the uppermost part of your thigh every time you lift your leg? That’s what you would classify as tight, tender hip flexors. A quick lesson in anatomy: Your hip flexors comprise a group of muscles that connect your pelvis to your femur (the bone in your upper leg) and assist in its upward and downward movement, as well as all the tiny movements in between, as per research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The largest among the hip flexor muscles are the psoas muscle, which wraps from the posterior of your spine around the anterior of your pelvis to the top of your femur, and the iliacus muscle, which connects the upper anterior part of your pelvis directly down to the same tendons on the femur as the psoas.
“Typically, hip flexors tighten because they’re hyperactive as a response to something else being hypoactive — usually your glutes,” says Heffron. Due to activities like prolonged sitting or rushing through your squats with incorrect form, your glutes don’t always receive sufficient activation. Sure, you may think you’re activating your glutes effectively when you’re working out, but if you’re experiencing sore hip flexors, that’s a prominent indication that your glutes aren’t engaged enough.
“It’s almost as though your glutes are the switch to deactivate the hip flexors. When you’re exercising or even just walking and you concentrate on activating the glutes, it hinders excessive activity of the hip flexors. This allows the hip flexors to rest and be less burdened while the glutes perform their intended function,” says Heffron.
Consider your hip flexors as the muscles governing the anterior portion of your leg, while your gluteal muscles (all three of them — maximus, medius, and minimus) govern the posterior portion.
When the two groups of muscles are activating and functioning in harmony, everything is well. However, when one group fails to fulfill its duties, the other must compensate for the deficiency.
It might also help to enhance your core, according to Heffron. “The hip flexors attach to the front of the spine and cross over the front of the hip, so if your core is inactive, then you will either slouch or hyperextend into your low back, creating more tension in the hip flexors and less activity in the glutes,” she says. Same issue, different stimulus.
Spin and cycling classes are high on the list of culprits for causing tight hip flexors, but it’s really all connected to sitting. Whether on the saddle, on an airplane, or at your desk, parking it in a seat most hours of the day puts your hip flexors in a contracted and shortened position while also inhibiting your glutes from activating. Trying to use your hip flexors when they’re tight worsens the problem — and, therefore, the discomfort. (
“By no means does this mean you need to avoid spin or riding your bike,” assures Heffron. It just means you need to do a little extra strength work — including some of the exercises for tight hip flexors below — to combat those muscle imbalances.
The Most Ineffective Exercises for Hip Flexor Pain
If you’re experiencing the tightness every time you ascend the stairs or sit down, your instinct has probably been to Google “hip flexor stretches.” But pigeon pose and happy baby — two of the most common stretches that will come up from a quick search — don’t actually resolve the issue. To be frank, they may even aggravate the hip flexor pain.
These types of movements are referred to as static stretches, which are exercises without any sort of dynamic movement. “Think of stretching a rubber band for a long period of time. As it stays stretched, it starts to lose its elasticity, so when you let go, it won’t be as effective or stable. Similarly, static stretching begins to decrease the elasticity and stability of the muscles,” says Heffron.
So, should you never static stretch? Well, it’s fine to do, say, post-run when your body is super pliable. But most physical therapists and trainers agree that static stretches aren’t the best choice when your body isn’t already warm — such as when you’re attempting to alleviate pain at night or first thing in the morning. (
You’ll also want to avoid any exercises where you’re bringing your legs up toward your torso, such as starfish crunches or mountain climbers. These contract the hip flexors, and you want to elongate to relieve tension.
Enhancing the strength of your buttocks and central region, conversely, exercises both sets of muscles to ignite proficiently, alleviating stress on your hip flexors without completely destabilizing them.
The Greatest Exercises for Tight Hip Flexors
If your hip flexors are hurting, try the uncomplicated routine below first thing in the morning after your physique is warmed up and flexible, advises Heffron. You should commence to observe relief after just a week or two, though the lengthier you do this hip flexor workout and the more you progress, the more enduring relief you’ll experience.
A few remarks: You want to go sluggish and controlled, really squeezing your nucleus and glutes with each movement to amplify stability. Think “rehabilitation” over “workout.” And while you’re perhaps accustomed to performing more repetitions or holding a plank for longer than this routine prescribes, the squeeze-and-release occurring here (called isometric contraction) aids in building endurance in your muscles and employs more muscle fibers to aid in stabilization, states Heffron. Translation: Work slow now, and when you’re prepared, you’ll be capable of efficiently activating those glute and core muscles when you’re performing faster movements and more repetitions. (And if you still have hip flexor pain, try these yoga hip openers as well.)
A. Lie on back, feet hips-width apart and flat on the floor, arms straight with palms flat on the floor. Tighten abs, endeavoring to hold this gentle contraction throughout the exercise while still breathing.
B. Keeping shoulders and feet on the ground, squeeze glutes and press hips up toward the ceiling until body forms one line from chest to knees.
C. Pause, then gradually lower back to starting position.
Do 3 sets of 8 repetitions
A. Lie on back with arms extended in front of shoulders, pointing toward the ceiling. Bring knees to a 90-degree angle. Tighten abs and press lower back into the floor.
B. Take a deep breath in and, while exhaling, slowly extend left leg toward the floor and bring right arm overhead.
C. Keeping abs tight, slowly return arm and leg to starting position. Switch sides; repeat.
Do 3 sets of 8 repetitions on each side
Banded Bodyweight Squat
A. Slide a medium-strength looped resistance band over feet and place right above knees.
B. Stand with feet slightly wider than hips-width, toes turned slightly out. Tighten abs, aiming to hold this gentle contraction throughout the exercise while still breathing.
C. Keeping chest and head high, shift weight back into heels, squeeze glutes, and push hips directly back and downward.
When decreasing hips, continue to push knees outward to maintain tension on the resistance band.
D. Once thighs are parallel to the floor, utilize glutes to ascend back up to the starting position, while still pushing knees out and engaging the core.
E. Take a pause at the top; repeat.
Complete 3 sets of 8 repetitions.
Plank with Forearms
A. Begin in a push-up position, but with forearms instead of hands. Lower the hips so the body forms a straight line from shoulders to ankles.
B. Tighten the core and contract the glutes as strongly as possible. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds while taking deep breaths.
C. Release and pause; repeat.
Complete 3 sets of 8 repetitions.
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