Tight Hip Flexors?
Hip flexor tightness is actually a pretty common complaint in adults, brought on even more frequently now during quarantine because of long periods of sitting in front of the computer for work AND play. We may try to counteract the inactivity with longer walks & runs, but this could actually make the feelings of tightness worse. Both walking and running (especially in faster speeds) activates the hip flexors in order to swing the leg forward. Do that more quickly and for extended periods & you get one very fatigued hip flexor. And if we go right back to sitting without paying special attention to softening the tension there, the shortened position of sitting can send hip flexor tightness into pain.
Based on several people reaching out for help with this specific area of tightness, I created a 10 for 10 hip flexor mobility flow. Ten exercises, in sets of 10. Meant to be performed several times in a row, it uses massage, contract/relax, passive & active stretching in order to build layers of muscle relaxation onto one another. No watching tv or talking please- stay focused: Feel the tightness, contract the muscle, then let it go. Let's get started.
1- Foam Rolling: 10 minutes
Yes that may seem like a long time, but rather than frantically rolling over your muscle while simultaneously wincing in pain, roll onto a spot, take a breath and try to unclench your body's natural reaction. Softening the tendency to clench tightly takes a lot of purposeful exhalation, can actually take more time than you think.
Roll onto a spot, breathe, relax and notice how your muscle can let go, then roll onto another spot. Rocking or stretching while on the foam roller are other techniques that can enhance the muscle relaxation. Places to massage? Not just the hip flexor- try rolling the Quads, Glutes, Hamstrings and Calves as well. Overall relaxation will help the body enter the right mind state for targeted relaxation.
2- Contract the Hip Flexor: 10 reps
Why Contract an already tight muscle? Because often muscles need to relax in order to contract but the opposite is also true: Muscles need to contract in order to relax. Explore the full range of muscle connection & movement. Wake up the hip flexor in a position that's not painful or too effortful, to bring blood in the area and prepare for its stretch.
Below are two versions of a hip flexor exercise, one easier than the other. Both require pelvic stabilization by performing a pelvic tilt to flatten the low back. In this way, the hip flexor is the prime mover & your back stays in a position that avoids pain.
3- Contract the Glutes: 10 reps
Perform a pelvic tilt and lift up the hips by extending at the hips as far as you can go without arching the back. Extending from the hips creates a straight line from ribs to hip & hip to knee, and stretches the hip flexor over the front of the hip joint. Contracting the Glute releases hip flexor tone through a reflex called reciprocal inhibition. So with every rep, hold long enough to feel the glutes contract, then think about the hip flexor tightness releasing.
Below are 2 versions of a Glute Bridge, one harder than the other. Use the version that allows you to feel a strong effort in your glutes and NOT in your back. Some people find pulling the heels to the hips helps them "find" the contraction.
4- Floppity- Floppity: 10 shakes, then relax
I know, I know... you're probably thinking this part is weird. But sometimes people get too focused on pushing into stiff range, and some shaking & unstructured movement can give you a little reality check on how much you're unintentionally holding.
5- Fatigue the Quad: hold 10s, do 10x
Strengthening the Quad can help to re-establish normal strength relationships of the leg & hip muscles. But more importantly, one part of the Quad crosses the hip, and activating the muscle prepares it for stretch. Make sure hip & knee positioning are in proper alignment.
6- Standing Hip Extension: hold 10s, do 10x
Often the leg never achieves full hip extension in normal walking. Instead, once the body feels a hip flexor restriction, it extends the back or shortens its stride, causing overuse & oftentimes pain in the low back.
Meant to rehearse an exaggerated form of normal hip movement, maintain a strong pelvic tilt to protect the back from arching & see how far your hip can extend. You should feel this in your hamstring & glute with NO arch sensation in your back.
Leaning on a wall helps you maintain a somewhat flexed back if you keep your ribs down and stomach tight. Standing with minimal support feels less like a typical exercise, and challenges your balance & brain a bit more, but it is obviously is more similar to normal walking. Both versions are below.
7- Quad stretch: hold 10s, do 10x
An oldie but a goodie. Don't forget to- yep, you guessed it- pelvic tilt to avoid arching your back. Sense a theme here?
Ten times may seem like a lot. I usually alternate my quad stretches with the standing hip extension in #6.
8- Kneeling Hip Flexor stretch: hold 10s, alternate 10x
This is the first time we directly try to stretch the hip flexor with a passive stretch- and only after all other muscles are activated & loose. Overall body relaxation & the loosening of adjacent muscle groups makes softening the tone of your targeted muscle much easier. This is a good strategy to use with stiff hip flexors.
9- Modified Plank: hold 10s, do 10x
Time to connect to your abdominals without using your hip flexors for assistance. You may be tempted to make this harder by straightening the legs, but don't. Keeping the knees down IS the harder version in this case. Keep your pelvic tilt, pull your belly button in and shift enough weight into your hands to feel an abdominal contraction. Then shift back into the next movement in the series: the child's pose.
10- Child's Pose: hold 10s, do 10x
These can be alternated with the modified plank in #9, or done separately if more focused stretch is desired. Many yogis cue "lengthening" the back and some practitioners stretch their arms straight to do so. But I prefer to use this position in order to ROUND the low back as much as possible, looking for a stretch there. Keep your hips anchored to your heels (yes, with a pelvic tilt) and press the ribs down in order to round the low back. Breathe deeply, concentrating on the exhale. Walk your hands to one side to increase the stretch on the other side. Use rolled blankets under the ankles, behind the knees or between the hips & stomach in order to make the stretch easier and without pain in other stiff joints. Look for the low back stretch with your exhale.
There you go! A 10 for 10 hip flexor mobility flow: 10 exercises meant to move, activate & loosen the hips. Repeat the flow a couple times to create a mobility workout on recovery days.
Remember the themes of this flow: Becoming an expert in glute & abdominal contraction starts with understanding how a pelvic tilt limits back extension and isolates motion in the hip, making hip flexor stretching more effective. Stretch & Contract with Intention.
As always, reach out if you need more guidance.