If you’re anything like me, flexibility does not come easy. So instead of just accepting the fact that you were not made to do yoga, you stretch like crazy. I’d be lying if I said that I stretch like crazy, but I’d like to think that I have spent more time stretching than the majority of people who are more “flexible” than me. So what gives? Well today I want to give you a few reasons why you are not making improvements in your flexibility, specifically in your hips.
Let’s think about all of the things that tight hips have been blamed for: low back pain, shoulder pain, hamstring injuries, poor running technique, poor lifting technique, poor hitting technique, poor throwing technique, and many more. Many people will blame tight hips on the fact that they sit at work or school for 8 hours per day. The counter argument would be that you spend 7-8 hours per night with your legs mostly straight, thereby offsetting the time spent sitting at work. So here are 3 reasons why your hips are tight:
1. Breathing- It is the most fundamental and most frequent thing we do all day. Did you know that we breathe around 20,000 or more times per day? The majority of us spend our time in a sympathetic state. The sympathetic nervous system (often referred to as fight or flight) causes our muscles to go into a more tensed state in preparation for action or danger. This is great if you are about to go for a 1 rep max deadlift, but not if you are stressed out driving in traffic.
The sympathetic nervous system is correlated with fast shallow breathing that is pretty typical of people in our society. On the flip side, parasympathetic breathing (often referred to as rest and digest) is associated with the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system. So, think “relaxed muscles.” The vagus nerve is a major player in the parasympathetic nervous system, and the vagus nerve is stimulated by slow diaphragmatic breathing.
Do this: Perform diaphragm breathing by laying on your back and filling your belly when you inhale, breathing in through your nose. Exhale through your mouth as if you were filling a balloon.
2. Pelvis Position- The hip flexor, the muscle group that everybody is always trying to stretch, has a few muscles that originate right on the pelvis. Iliacus, one of the major hip flexors, originates at the top of the pelvis. Sartorius and rectus femoris both attach at the anterior superior iliac spine (the front of the pelvis). Therefore, pelvis positioning is very important for these hip flexor muscles.
So let’s go through the possible pelvic positions. The picture below demonstrates exaggerated pelvis positions. The number one position I have seen as a clinician is an anterior pelvic tilt. This causes the pelvis to rotate anteriorly, thereby shortening the hip flexors. Additionally, an anterior pelvic tilt causes the low back to tighten, the hamstrings to tighten, and the glutes to turn off. You can stretch all you want, but if you’re stuck in a hyperextended position all day, your hip flexors are going to be tight.
Do this: similar to the breathing drill, lay on your back, but this time put your feet on a wall so that your knees and hips are both at 90 degrees. Now, take a breath in through your nose and then exhale through your mouth while you draw your rib cage down towards your hips. Think about tucking your tail bone under you and flattening your low back against the ground. This will take you to a more neutral position. Be conscious, and try to replicate this position during your day and during your lifts.
3. Your hips really are tight- With all that being said, there are some individuals who truly do have tight hips. There are many common stretches and mobility strategies to addressing tight hip flexors.
Do this: Below is a common and effective stretch for the hip flexors. It is called the “couch stretch,” and there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. The first picture is the wrong way. In this picture, the pelvis is anteriorly tilting (see reason number 2 above), and the low back is hyperextended. These are two things that we don’t want to see when performing athletic movements. That stretch you feel when you do lean back and hyperextend your low back is coming from your anterior hip capsule. The goal of this stretch is to loosen up the anterior musculature and not the anterior capsule. Make sure that you have a neutral spine and pelvis and squeeze the glute on the side being stretched (the second picture below).
Don’t waste your time stretching your hips for 20 minutes before your training session. The literature tells us that stretching routines do not literally change the length of muscle tissue but rather decrease the tight sensation that is felt by that which is being stretched.1
So there you have it folks: 3 reasons why your hips may be tight. Employ these 3 strategies into your daily movement practice if you fall into one of these categories.
1. Increasing Muscle Extensibility: A Matter of Increasing Length or Modifying Sensation? PHYS THER. Cynthia Holzman Weppler and S. Peter Magnusson. 2010; 90: 438-449.