How improving hip mobility can unlock athletic performance
Guest written by Cheryl Williams from www.energyexplosion.co.uk
Many of us find ourselves with perpetually tight hips. That could be due to prolonged periods of sitting down or standing up, doing a lot of exercise or even too little. The reason behind tight hips is individualistic, so there is no ‘one fix suits all’ solution. However, fundamentally the reason your hips are tight is because they are not functioning properly or optimally.
Stretching alone will not help, you may find that you do stretch and that does not change how tight they feel. Does that sound familiar?
So why focus on improving your hip’s function?
- If you do a sport that involves running you will need strong hip extension to power you forwards, and strong hip flexion to stop you tripping over your own feet. Not only that, doing something that requires a lot of repetition of the same thing over, and over again, not being performed optimally or even correctly, can lead to acute and overuse injuries. No one wants an injury, right? And no one wants an injury that keeps coming back either.
- If you lift weights of any discipline, Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, CrossFit, Les Mills Bodypump, or even doing your own thing at home or in the gym, moving your hips correctly will make your technique better. You will get stronger, which will make you fitter (disclaimer: depending on your exercise regime and dedication) and way more badass. You will also look cooler and more inspirational because you will be doing things like deadlifts, squats, cleans, snatches, etc., correctly, further reducing your chance of injury.
- You become more flexible in your hips, hamstrings and glutes, because your hip joints are functioning as they should and have no reason to compensate to allow you to do a movement that your body isn’t actually prepared for.
- Your ability to stabilise gets better, so your risk of falling reduces (I am still working on this). Standing up in a chair becomes easier (unless you have done some heavy squats or deadlifts, or even a long run the day before).
- In fact, everything you do improves when your hips function better, even your sex life.
- You generally feel so much more comfortable in your body. Less aches and pains and you become stronger and more supple.
What is involved in hip extension and hip flexion?
It is important to understand these actions so you can improve function.
Hip extension is the action at the hips where the front of the hip is opened and the muscles lengthened, and the muscles at the back of the hips are contracted to shorten. The femur (thigh bone) passes behind the pelvis.
Hip flexion is the opposite action, where the muscles at the front of the hip contract and shorten, causing the torso to hinge forwards closing the space between the chest and thighs, and the muscles at the back of the body are lengthened.
Muscles responsible for hip extension are primarily your gluteus maximus (the bigger butt muscle), with help from your biceps femoris (one of your hamstrings) and erector spinae (lower back).
Muscles responsible for hip flexion are primarily the hip flexors (iliacus and psoas major), with assistance from rectus femoris (one of the quads) and sartorius (also a hip external rotator and the longest muscle in your body).
As you perform hip extension concentrically (contracted and shortened) the hip flexors work eccentrically (contracted and lengthened) and vice versa. This means that you cannot perform one without the other.
So, if your hips are tight in the front, they cannot perform properly at the back. If they are tight in the back, they cannot perform properly at the front.
Therefore stretching alone won’t help (and this is coming from a Yoga teacher) and an approach that involves strengthening at range of motion is needed (the Personal Trainer and Biomechanics Coach takes over).
How do you improve the function of your hips?
This is the formula I follow for myself and my clients, and the reasons why.
Perform a muscle energy technique (MET) for the action of hip extension and/or hip flexion, or a combination of both.
An MET (muscle energy technique) is a gentle isometric contraction (where the muscle is contracting but not moving) that enables the muscle to relax via the process of autogenic or reciprocal inhibition. In simple terms, the muscle relaxes because it is used at a lengthened state. It also improves your brain’s proprioception of that muscle from the joint, so in time it understands that the action is safe to perform and range improves.
Applying a 20% effort x 4 repetitions for a period of 20 seconds, per limb, is optimal for results. It does not need and should not be maximal effort. Most effective performed 4 times a day initially.
Watch the video for an appropriate MET for hip extension and hip flexion.
Mobilise your hips
This may not always be needed and is very dependent on how your hips feel as an individual and what your ‘sport’ is. You may also benefit from hip internal and external rotation movement too, or mobilising your calves, as examples.
By mobilising I mean to prepare the hips to move, stretch, or strengthen. Specifically, here we are concerned with hip flexion and hip extension, so we will move through those actions slowly and with control, gradually increasing the range of motion. Emphasis on control here, control allows us to move with purpose, to get the movement correct, to feel the muscles contracting and lengthening. Repetition allows the brain to accept the length you are creating, sending messages to your muscles to let go and accept that range.
Timewise you do not need to spend a long time doing this, up to 10 repetitions each side is ample.
Watch the video for hip extension and flexion mobility examples.
Deep stretching of hip flexors and hip extensors
This is not always necessary, and you can skip this step if you are short on time. However, I still see stretching as important to maintain or improve flexibility of muscles and the range of motion at the joint. If your hips feel particularly stiff then deep stretches are necessary, and if you are not that stiff, well they will just make you feel incredible. If you find that your muscles are already very lengthened and weak, then stretching is not for you. Do what is right for your body.
There are several ways you can do this, and I recommend picking the way that works best for your personality and lifestyle.
Complete each stretch 3 x 1 minute in duration on each side (if appropriate for that stretch). This is great if you are more concerned about muscle flexibility, are not used to holding stretches for long periods of time or get bored quickly.
Hold each stretch for 3-5 minutes on each side, or even up to 10 minutes if you are experienced at stretching. This style is the basis for Yin Yoga, which helps to improve muscle flexibility, targets the connective tissue at the joint and also helps the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in restoring the body and helping you to relax.
Watch these videos for recommended stretches.
Hip Flexors: https://youtu.be/rzJWZT9Fbt0
Hip Extensors: https://youtu.be/crZ8ZSFhQ9A
Full Yin Yoga Class: https://youtu.be/N7r4r8-0boQ
Strengthen the actions of hip extension and hip flexion
This is important to do AFTER the MET and any stretches you do. You have increased the range of motion at the joint, so strengthening the muscles that control these actions at your new range of motion will help to maintain the range for a longer period. Of course, this also takes time and regular work.
Generally, when we are working on strength, we use a rep range between 1 and 8 reps, with 3-6 sets. If you can do more repetitions then increase the load (add weight/resistance), if you are not able to add load, increase the repetition amount instead or difficulty of movement. You must work to your level on this, focus on feeling the correct muscle groups working, correct technique is far more effective than a heavier weight with poor form. If you only have bodyweight options available to you, strength can still be built with increased repetitions, so do not worry.
Watch the video below for some hip flexion and extension strengthening exercises. This is not an exhaustive list, and you can load and progress as desired.
Hip Flexion: https://youtu.be/0mxybWi76_8
Hip Extension: https://youtu.be/-8DIJpzIwHY
Stabilise the joint
My favourite bit, working on balance to stabilise the hip joint whilst performing hip flexion and extension. Strength and flexibility are nothing if you cannot be stable. Really this combines strength, flexibility, and strength at range work, plus you work on strengthening the other muscles that support your hips. Other benefits of improving balance include improved focus, concentration and directly transfers over to improved athletic performance, or simply put, helps you to not be so clumsy.
An important thing to remember here is that grounding your feet and spreading the weight evenly through the four corners of your foot will help you a lot.
Watch this video for a balance flow.
If your hips feel tight then they are not functioning correctly, let alone optimally. Stretching alone will not help, you also need to strengthen, stabilise, and teach your brain that the action is actually okay.
The more often you work on a weakness, the quicker it will become a strength. But if you work on it too much you will not have a chance to recover. So do add in rest days.
If you need help, speak to an expert.
I hope you enjoyed your coffee break, now time to get moving.