Having good hip mobility matters. Much of the force that your body generates comes from your hips. Without mobile hips, you’ll have a harder time jumping, swinging a kettlebell, running, or even walking. Plus, if you have reduced flexibility and mobility in your hips, it can impact your athletic performance and the everyday activities you do around the house. Many people have reduced hip mobility and aren’t aware of it – yet it places added strain on their muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Reduced flexibility and mobility in the hips force other muscles in the posterior chain to take up the slack. This creates imbalances that increase the risk of injury. Your knees even take a hit when your hips lack mobility. Those achy knees could be coming from your hips being too inflexible.
The Structure of Your Hips
So, what makes the hips such an important force and power generator? Your hips are a ball and socket joint, similar to another joint in your body, the shoulder joint. The difference, other than size, is the bones that make up the hip are more deeply placed into their socket, giving the hip more stability and less mobility than the shoulder joint. That’s why it’s harder to dislocate a hip than a shoulder.
The “ball” of the hip is the head of the femur bone in the leg, while the socket is the acetabulum, a group of three bones that make up the hip. Overlying the bones are more than 16 muscles that support and stabilize the joint. These muscles also allow your hips to move. They include hip extensors, hip flexors, hip abductors, hip adductors, and hip rotators. Whew! The hip has a lot of function, which is why it’s so important. Strong ligaments connect the ball to the socket in the hip for added stability.
Hip Flexibility and Strength: They Both Matter
Healthy hips have to be strong but they must also be flexible and mobile. When you do exercises like squats and lunges using resistance, you build strength in your hips. However, hip flexibility and mobility are more problematic. One reason so many people lack mobility in their hips is that they sit too much. When you assume a sitting position, the muscles that flex your hips shorten in length. Not only does this create tight hip flexors, but it can also lead to an anterior pelvic tilt where the hips are tilted forward, creating an abnormal curvature in the back and unnatural prominence of the abdomen and buttocks. You’ve probably seen people with this problem! It’s quite common among office workers that sit much of the day.
If you have tight hip flexors or an anterior pelvic tilt, you most likely have reduced hip mobility as well. A weak posterior chain is another cause of decreased mobility in the hips. So, both strength and flexibility are vital for good hip function. If you have tight hip flexors, the muscles in your back are forced to work harder and this places stress on other muscles and tendons. Remember, when one group of muscles is weak or inflexible, other muscles have to take up the slack. Over time, this can lead to back pain.
Lowering the risk of back pain is one reason to work on hip flexibility and mobility but flexible hip joints have other “perks” as well. For example, you’ll be able to generate more power from your hips. That’s important when you throw a ball. Your hips will also be more engaged when you do other exercises that target your lower body, including kettlebell swings, squats, and deadlifts. So, you’ll get more from your strength and power workouts and lower your risk of injury if you have good hip mobility.
Improving Hip Mobility
To get greater hip mobility, you first have to work on relaxing hip flexor tightness. When your hip flexors are tight, the antagonist muscles that extend your hips, the glutes and hamstrings are weak. Unless you correct the imbalance between hip flexors and extensors, your back muscles will be forced to compensate for the weakness in the glutes and hammies. We don’t want any one muscle group to have to work too hard.
So, the first order of business is to regularly stretch your tight hip flexors, the quads, and psoas muscle. There are a variety of hip flexor stretches you can do to counter the tightness. Some of these stretches include hip flexor lunges and kneeling hip flexor stretches. Another effective exercise for stretching the hip flexors are goblet squats while holding a dumbbell in front of your body. Descend slowly, emphasizing the eccentric portion of the movement, and pause at the bottom for a few seconds. Spread your knees outward slightly as you hold the position to increase the stretch in the hips.
Also, work on strengthening your glutes and hamstrings, using exercises that specifically target these muscles. Romanian deadlifts, walking dumbbell lunges, hip thrusts, glute bridges, single-leg, stiff-legged deadlifts, walking lunges are exercises that target the hamstrings and glutes. Widening your stance when you do squats and one-legged squats are all effective for glute strengthening.
Beyond stretching and strengthening, focus on increasing the mobility in your hips. A simple exercise that does this is leg swings. First, do a set where you swing each leg from front to back. Hold onto to a sturdy surface as you swing your leg. The power of the swing should come from your hip. Secondly, do a set where you swing each leg from side-to-side. Again, the emphasis is on the motion coming from the hip. Do a few sets of legs swings at the end of a workout to improve mobility. You can also do them when you take a break from sitting during the day.
Finally, foam rolling may help with hip tightness as well, although the effectiveness of foam rolling is unproven.
The Bottom Line
Strengthen and stretch to improve your hip mobility and overcome the effects of sitting too much. Doing so will lower your risk of injury and improve your performance in sports, weight training, and the activities you do every day. Hip mobility will help you overcome the imbalances that come from sitting too long and improve your movement patterns as well.
Movement as Medicine. “4 Hip Mobility Drills to Improve Your Squat”
J Strength Cond Res. 2012 May;26(5):1265-73. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31824f2351.
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