Stretching the Hip Flexors
Why it matters….How everybody does it wrong…and How to stretch so you actually improve hip mobility
By Dr Jason Gray BHK DC MSc
Adequate flexibility of the hip flexor muscle group is critical for locomotor activities such as walking or running. The problem is this muscle group is prone to becoming tight and restricted, which will block normal motion of the hip joint and cause inefficient and painful movement patterns across the lumbo-pelvic-hip region.
For example, with walking and running the thigh needs to extend back behind the body to allow the trunk to progress forward over the stance leg. Under normal circumstances this thigh extension should occur at the hip joint itself. But if the hip flexor muscle group is tight the hip joint can’t extend properly, and the body is forced to find another way to get the thigh positioned back behind the body during gait. Most commonly, the body will extend the hip back behind the body by extending and/or rotating through the lower back in an effort to compensate for the tight hip.
This solves one problem as it get the thigh behind the body, but this compensation pattern comes at a cost as this pattern will jam-up and compress sacroiliac and lumbar facet joint, which will eventually lead to back pain. In fact, this is one of the most common movement compensation patterns seen with lower back and sacroiliac joint problems.
On a side note, when this happens in runners it creates an energy leak at this hip as it inhibits elastic energy storage and return in the hip flexors, which will affect performance.
Improving Hip Extension
As you can see building and maintaining flexibility of the hip flexors is important, and stretching is an effective way to do this. The problem is most people don’t stretch these muscles properly. In fact, the way most people stretch these muscles will not only be ineffective, but can actually do more harm than good. So lets take a look at the common errors most people make so we can be sure to avoid them, and then discuss how to make sure you stretch these muscles properly.
The most common way to stretch the hip flexors is with a lunge type of stretch. The issue with this is that if the hip flexors muscles are tight there will be a tendency to the pelvis and low back to arch forward (see image above). This same compensation pattern is almost always repeated when trying to stretch the hip flexors. When this happens it will not only be a little help to the hip flexors, but it can actually do more harm than good as this pattern will further stress the low back and actually perpetuate and strengthen the compensatory pattern.
To prevent this from happening, and to focus the movement at the hip joint, the pelvis and lower back must be held stable during the stretch. The easiest way to do this is by holding a PPT during the stretch. This will stabilize the pelvis and focus the stretch at the hip joint. Furthermore, by repeating this movement sequence of hip motion in conjunction with pelvic and lower back support the nervous system will begin to form a new, more effective motor pattern.
The principle can be applied to any type of hip flexor stretch, including a standing or kneeling lunge, or any variation of these types of stretches. For instructions on specific hip flexor stretches, check out the ‘Hip Flexor Stretches’ or ‘Hip Extension Mobility Tract’ from our Exercise Library.