A Better Way to Stretch Hip Flexors
Perhaps no other group of muscles has received as much attention—or condemnation—by coaches, trainers, and therapists as the hip flexors. And, as a consequence, no other muscle group is stretched with greater frequency, intensity, or enthusiasm.
The hip flexors have developed a particularly bad wrap among the athletic population, since most people in this group have an anteriorly tilted pelvis and hip flexors that are positioned to be short, strong, and hypertonic.
In the world of stretching, the hip flexors get a lot of love.
I know I used to stretch people’s hip flexors like it was going to go out of style, and in the process probably did more harm than good. Believe it or not, you probably are too.
That said, my thought process has changed a lot over the years when it comes to finding ways to inhibit this stubborn group of muscles without creating unnecessary collateral damage to your body.
What Are You Actually Attempting to Inhibit?
At Pure Performance Training we like science, and because of that, and the fact that we like you to know what you’re actually trying to stretch, let’s take a quick look at the anatomical structures at the front of your hip, known collectively as your hip flexors.
Tensor Fasciae Latae (TFL) arises from the outer border of the iliac crest and attaches between the layers of your illiotibial band, about 1/3 of the way down your thigh. It often becomes overactive as an internal rotator, which often results in a strong “pinch” at the top of your hip.
Psoas and Iliacus arise respectively from the transverse process of your lumbar spine and interior iliac surface. These guys are powerful flexors and external rotators of the hip, so when they become short and neurologically dominant they knock the glutes, hamstrings, and obliques out of position, making them less effective.
Rectus Femoris is a two joint muscle, crossing both your hip and knee on the anterior thigh, and directly affect motion at both joints
When is it Time to Stretch?
It is easy to assume that when a patient or client comes in to the clinic or gym with an anteriorly tilted pelvis, that they are in need of hip flexor stretching. But, that isn’t always the case.
I recently wrote about the importance of position in this article. Determining position should be a priority in deciding if you should be stretching your hip flexors.
Below are three different situations in which the course for correcting a client’s anteriorly rotated pelvis differ depending on the type and degree of compensation that has developed in response.
Because of the nature of his anteriorly tipped, forwardly rotated, and externally rotated pelvis Person A’s femurs counter that, and go into a position of internal rotation. But, he compensates by excessively externally rotating his femur(s), to help him get to midline during gait, and ends up stretching out the ligaments of his anterior hip.
This will reflect by the inability of his hip to fully extend, adduct, and internally rotate (Modified Ober’s Test), but the same side will show a negative Thomas Test (back of thigh touches table).
Modified Ober’s Test
Modified Thomas Test
These results indicate a overstretch of the anterior joint capsule—illiofemoral and
pubofemoral ligaments—allowing extension to occur in a position where it should be limited.
If you’re this person it is smart to avoid aggressively stretching the hip flexors. It’s important to understand that muscle stretching doesn’t happen in isolation. Every time you stretch your hip flexor you’re not only stretching the rectus femoris and psoas, but also the passive structures of your hip that provide it with much needed stability and support.
Person B has an anterior pelvic tilt, but has not compensated via excessive femoral-acetabular external rotation. Her hip can’t fully extend, adduct, or internally rotate, but her Thomas Test on the same side is positive.
The anterior position of her pelvis acts as a boney block to the movement of her femur into adduction and the anterior ligaments of the hip appropriately limit extension.
I’ll take this scenario 10/10 times. Now, you know this person still has ligamentous integrity that you don’t want to compromise that by continually stretching the anterior hip.
Instead, promoting posterior pelvic tilt is the more intelligent way to go.
Inhibit the Hip Flexors via Posterior Pelvic Tilting
Change Position for Inhibition.
There are many exercises you can use to promote posterior tilting of the pelvis and inhibition of the flexors. Below are three that I’ve had success using.
Deep Squat Breathing w/ Lat Stretch
Un-Resisted Wall Reach
Supine Hooklying Restorative Synchronized Resisted Glute
*Good option for TFL inhibition*
Correctly Stretching the Hip Flexors
Truly short/stiff hip flexors may be preventing someone from extending the hip and achieving a posterior tilt of the pelvis during inhibition and re-positioning exercises If you’re a “Scenario B” person and perform inhibition and re-positioning exercises promoting posterior pelvic tilting and still can’t extend, adduct, or internally rotate your hip, then you may need to actually stretch your hip flexors.
As a “Scenario 3” person you can also confirm this by lying on your back, on the floor or a table. If you can’t seem to keep your lower back pressed flat into the surface tight hip flexors may be the culprit. Because muscles don’t work independently a truly tight psoas will make the diaphragm continually work as a postural stabilizer until it let’s go and allows the diaphragm to be used for respiration. Therefore, allowing the lower back to flex and pelvis to posteriorly tilt. Now, when you go back to perform the above re-positioning exercises you’ll hopefully be successful at getting the hip extend, adduct, and internally rotate.
But you have to remember that not all hip flexor stretches are created equal. Below are a list of hip flexor stretches that I would recommend avoiding and a list of ones you should be doing. Choosing the safest stretches will be critical to your progress.
Stretches to Avoid:
Wall Hip Flexor Mobilizations
Passive Supine Hip Flexor Stretch
Stretches to Do:
Supine Psoas and Rectus Femoris Stretch w/ Active Hip Extension & Knee Flexion
Core-Engaged Half-Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
Core-Engaged Half-Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch (Targeting Psoas)
Also, note that all of the above exercises incorporate both extending the hip and flexing the knee. Remember the rectus femoris crosses both of these joints and hip extension and knee flexion will put the greatest stretch on this muscle.
Incorporating Hip Flexor Length Into Strength Training
Stretching the hip flexors doesn’t just have to occur in an isolated manner during your warm-up and cool-down. Consider using strength training exercises that incorporate both hip extension and knee flexion. Give the two exercises below a try. You’ll feel a nice stretch on that back quad while challenging your anterior core, hamstrings, and glutes.
DB Split Squat
Stretching is something that has been around forever and I don’t expect anyone to abandon it any time soon. All I’m asking is for you to consider the position your joints are in before you go begin excessively stretching them, especially the front of your hip. Take the tips from above and begin to incorporate smarter stretching into your workout routines.
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