Modern-day living gives your hip flexors quite a beating. These key muscles are responsible for lifting your knees towards your body and allowing bend at the waist, and are notoriously in need of some extra love, strengthening and stretching.
Given the increasing time so many people spend seated at their desks, in cars and elsewhere, these muscles become shortened and tight without the proper attention and care. The hip flexor muscles are actually a group of muscles that work together, and include the iliacus and psoas major muscles (AKA the iliopsoas) along with the rectus femoris, which is part of the quadricep muscles, among others.
Interestingly, often muscles that are tight and in need of stretching are also the same muscles that need to be strengthened, as otherwise you risk overuse, strain and injury. Thankfully, there are some very simple at-home strengthening exercises and stretches that can pretty quickly work to support optimal hip flexor function and health.
How Do I Know if My Hip Flexors Are Tight?
First and foremost, if you spend a lot of your day seated and don’t stretch your hip flexors often, you can pretty much assume you have tight hip flexors. Another common culprit for women is wearing high heels. Activities that often lead to tight hip flexors and even overuse include running, biking or going too hard on the leg extension machine. When your hip flexors are tight or overused (especially the rectus femoris muscle), this creates a downstream inhibition of the gluteus maximus, which becomes weakened.
This muscular imbalance leads to pain in the hips and low back and can easily lead to injury. What’s more, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons reports that by 2030, the projected growth rate of total hip replacements could grow by a staggering 171%! Especially bad news for women, who make up between 55-62% of patients.
How Do I Know if My Hip Flexors Are Weak?
Contrary to popular belief, tightness and weakness often go hand in hand, so it’s important to create a well rounded routine that incorporates both stretching and strengthening.
It’s possible that hip flexor weakness and tightness can lead to injury and tight hip flexors. Again, if you spend a lot of your day sitting and don’t really do much to strengthen your hip flexors and you’re feeling discomfort or aggravation in your hips, this is probably a good sign that you also need to strengthen this key muscle group.
The good news is that even if you’re not entirely sure if or why your hip flexors are tight or weak but are just seeking relief from discomfort or pain, there are some simple and highly effective strengthening exercise and stretches to begin implementing today.
10 Ways to Strengthen and Stretch Your Hip Flexors
First, the stretches:
For you yogis out there, you’re probably familiar with the deep relaxation that come come from this hip flexor-stretching asana. This stretch in a powerful hip-opener, but be sure to move into it slowly and only go to your comfort level. From a plank position, bring one leg forward and bend the leg so that you knee is in line with your hands. You can stay up for a nice back-bend addition, or lay down on top of the knee for a deeper hip stretch.
Check out this video for more guidance, as you want to be sure you execute this move safely. You’ll probably feel best using a yoga mat for knee support, I love this one for adding a little bit of extra spice to my workouts.
Stretching those chronically tight quad muscles is essential for targeting the hip flexors, and it can be done in a few ways. The simplest stretch is a standing quad stretch, and you can use a wall or chair for balance. Bend one leg back, and use your hand to actively pull the foot towards your glute, holding for at least 30 seconds.
Another common yoga stretch, this one is quite simple and fully relaxing. Lay on your back and pull one knee into your chest, holding it with one or both hands. Hold for 30 seconds, then pull towards one side slightly, until you feel a particularly tight/tender spot. Hold for another 30 seconds, then do the same towards the opposite side, and switch legs.
Sit with your feet together and knees out. If you are more flexible this won’t feel so difficult, but many people will need to sit on a pillow or block to avoid curving the spine. You can also move your feet further from your body for less stretch, and closer for more. Just sitting in this position might be plenty, but you can gently lean forward for a deeper stretch.
Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
Sometimes referred to as a runners lunge, come down to a kneeling position and bring one foot far forward. Lean into the forward leg until you feel a hip flexor stretch. You are essentially in a low lunge position, and should breathe into this stretch and hold for at least 30 seconds on each side.
Now, on to the strengthening exercises:
Lunge to Balance
Lunges can be both a restorative stretch and strengthening exercise, and adding the balance component improves stability. This multi-joint movement targets hamstrings, quads, glutes and more, and the balance component also calls for controlled flexion, which calls on the hip flexor muscles. From a standing position take a big lunge backwards with one leg, being sure that your front knee does not move past the toe as you come into your lunge. With control come back to center, keeping the leg balanced and off the floor for about ten seconds, then lower and switch sides.
The dead bug exercise is a very subtle yet incredibly effective movement for core activation and strength, along with hip flexor strengthening. You’ll want to check out an instructional video to get this one right, but it essentially involves laying on your back with your legs lifted and bent at 90 degrees, and very slowly alternating toe touches on the floor. You can advance this move by doing a straight leg raise, but it’s important that your lower back does not arch unnaturally off the floor.
You can add resistance bands for more challenge once you gain strength.
There are seemingly endless variations of the mountain climber exercise, and it’s an excellent addition to your workout for hip flexor and core strength. Start in plank position and slowly bring one leg in towards your chest, and back. Switch quickly to the next leg, switching back and forth for 30 seconds to one minute. For a cardio burst, do these as quickly as possible, in a controlled manner.
Squat with Leg Raise
The squat is probably the best total body, functional exercise out there, and should definitely be a part of everyone’s strength training routine. Adding in a leg raise is a great addition for hip flexor strength. Do a normal bodyweight squat, and at the top of the squat lift one leg out to the side. Come immediately back to a squat, then lift the opposite leg when you come up. Switch back and forth for 10-15 reps on each side, alternating back and forth.
Swiss Ball Knee Tuck
An excellent way to strengthen hip flexors, core and shoulder musculature, and you’ll need a swiss ball for this exercise (also referred to as a yoga ball, stability ball or balance ball). Check out this video for an example, and be sure to really keep your core activated and tight, not allowing your low back to sag down.
Hip flexors can seem like a chronic problem area, but picking some or all of these stretches and strengthening exercises to perform every day can quickly help to relieve tension and, in the long term, to prevent injury.