Since starting yoga in December 2014, I’ve spent the last year working on correcting all the mistakes I made in the previous 25 years of my life in terms of flexibility. With all the exercise I’ve ever done, stretching was never a priority and only now am I realising what a terrible idea that was. I’ve made some great progress, but still have such a long way to go. An area I have seen the slowest progress in is my hip flexors, and being the little anatomy nerd that I am, I decided I wanted to know why and how can I win this on-going battle. Tight hips are so common these days, yogi’s and non-yogi’s alike, so chances are, this article applies to you!
What are the hip flexors?
For the sake of not boring you all to death with an anatomy lesson, I’ll very briefly explain the 3 main muscles that form this little group known as the hip flexors as they are the biggest game players.
Psoas Major (pronounced so-ass) – originates from the side of the vertebral bodies of the lumbar spine and inserts onto the femur.
Iliacus – originates from the top of the pelvis and also inserts onto the femur.
These together are referred to as the iliopsoas muscles.
Rectus Femoris – originates from 2 points in on the pelvis and inserts into the base of the patella. It is one of the 4 quadriceps muscles that sits at the front of the thigh.
The main roll of the hip flexors is, believe it or not, to flex the hip! Think bringing knee up to chest and flexing the torso forward. We do this ALL the time without even thinking about it; walking, cycling, sitting, climbing stairs etc. So what’s the issue, why is this muscle so tight in so many of us and crucially, why is this even a problem?
Do you have tight hip flexors?
The simple answer here is probably yes! Lifestyles these days unfortunately mean these muscles spend a huge deal of time flexed and therefore becoming comfortable in a shortened state. There are the super flexy among us who can sit smugly reading this with their leg behind their head but even for those similar to myself, who stretch daily, defeating tight hips is an uphill battle, quite simply as I always spend more time flexing them than I can ever spend stretching. At work I sit for the best part of 12 hours, us desk workers are at particular risk. We sit for hours on end at work, we sit on the train/car journey home, we sit at the table to eat dinner, we may go for a run, we may go to the gym and bust out some badass squats or we sit on the sofa to watch TV before going to bed where a large portion of us favour the foetal position and curl our knees up towards our chest. So much time spent contracting the hip flexors, how much time spent stretching them? Its easy maths.
A simple way to test if you do actually have tight hip flexors is ‘The Thomas Test’. Lie on a table with half your thigh over the edge. Lie back and hold your knees in towards your chest and ensure your lower back is in contact with the table. Let go of one leg and allow it to relax towards the floor.
- If the lower leg does not sit flat against the table, the iliopsoas are tight.
- If the leg does not hang down at a 90 degree angle then the rectus femoris are tight.
- If neither applies and your leg rests on the table, then congratulations, I’m totally jealous of your hip flexors.
And no cheating! If your lower back comes off the table then you are letting yourself go into ‘Anterior Pelvic Tilt’ and it’ll appear as though you have lovely long hip flexor muscles when you don’t…Which conveniently brings me on to:
Anterior Pelvic Tilt – Who, where, what now?
Hang in there, don’t let the fancy words put you off! Anterior pelvis tilt (APT because it takes far too long to type) is caused by tight hip flexors and causes the front of the pelvis to drop forwards as the tight muscles pull it down.
Many of you may think ‘So what? I’m not bothered about my flexibility, my pelvis can sit however it damn well pleases!’. But this isn’t all about yoga and achieving the most beautiful King Pigeon of your life (but it’ll certainly help).
ATP causes excessive curvature in the lumbar spine which can eventually cause significant back pain due to compression of the invertebrate discs. I think there’s no coincidence between our increasingly sedentary lifestyles and the increasing number of people who suffer with back problems. As well as that, there’s increased potential for knee issues due to the unnatural position the femur is pulled into in relation to the tibia. This can then cause over-pronation of the foot resulting in ankle problems and flat feet… I’ll quit my rambling, you get the picture, there are many stages to a negative chain reaction which you can fall victim too all due to tight hips.
Also, women may be more familiar with the term ‘belly pooch’, but ever wondered why that bit on your tum just refuses to budge no matter how hard you try? Well it may not be fat! The anterior tilting of the pelvis causes the abdomen to push out at the bottom. So if the quality of your lifelong health doesn’t persuade you to stretch your hip flexors, maybe your quest for a washboard stomach will.
So maintaining a good range of flexibility at the hips really isn’t just for those on the quest for the splits (2016, I’m coming for ya!), it really is something that’s beneficial to everyone’s health, maintaining healthy joints and a good posture. With that in mind, how can we stretch these elusive muscles?
Stretch It Out
OK so now, yoga! I’ve put together a collection of my favourite hip flexor stretches which will combat tightness and help prevent and undo the issues mentioned above. There are many many more, some of which Yoga Journal outlines well but these are a great place to start. Hold each stretch to the point where you feel tension in the ‘belly’ of the muscle and aim for 10 long deep breaths, using your exhale to relax and possibly stretch further. Warm muscles will stretch more effectively than cold so warm up first, whether that be with a run/at the gym or a bunch of yummy sun salutations.
Come into a lunge position, front knee tracking directly above ankle, hips facing forward. Push the back heel backward, really extending through the leg. Weight evenly distributed through both feet, sink the hips low.
Drop the knee for a low lunge variation. Raise the arms and bend back if you’re feeling jazzy!
King Arthur Pose
Set up kneeling in front of a wall, bend the leg placing the knee next to the wall with the shin resting up against it. Bring the front foot forward into a lunge position.
- Push back with the strength of the front leg, pressing your bum into your foot.
- Sink the hips forward and down.
From a high lunge position, bring both hands to the inside of the front foot. Back knee can either rest on the ground or stay lifted. As flexibility increases, drop the upper body down onto forearms.
From a high plank, bring the left knee to rest behind the left wrist. Keep foot flexed and rest lower leg down onto the mat, foot resting below the right hip. Right leg extends out directly behind you. Keep the hips square and facing forward. Using the palms, press into the mat to encourage the hips to sink lower and the spine to straighten. Bring the front leg parallel to the front of the mat as flexibility increases.
From all fours, extend the left leg out behind you and flex the knee. Reach the right hand up and behind you to take hold of the ankle. Kick the foot up and back into the hand aiming to lift the leg as high as possible. Keep the gaze forward. Flip the grip if you’re trying to be a ninja.
Fish Pose Variation
From bridge pose, walk the feet underneath the bum keeping the toes curled under. Using your hands above your shoulders, push the body over the toes to allow the knees to rest on the ground. Tilt the chin back and rest the crown of the head on the floor. Take arms over head if you’re loving this as much as I do ♥
Lie face down on the mat, bend both knees and take hold of the outside of your feet/ankles. Using the strength of your legs, kick the feet up and back into the hands, lifting the chest from the ground. Ninja’s – go ahead and flip that grip.
Remember I am not a medical expert, and neither am I a Yoga Teacher (yet!), this is just a bunch of information I have discovered for myself which I wanted to share with you.
I hope you all have a lovely festive season; New Years Resolution for more hip flexor flexibility anyone??
♥ Merry Christmas ♥