Safety / Injuries
How to Identify and Correct Tight Hip Flexors
“Tight hip flexors” is a buzzing term in gyms around the country. People in yoga studios are stretching out their hip flexors, runners are blaming a short stride and injuries on these muscles, and your clients are probably asking you about their own tight hips.
It’s important to understand exactly what it means to have tight hip flexors so you can help your clients. They may genuinely have tight muscles in the hips that need stretching, but they may also need to strengthen the hip flexors or related muscles, like the glutes or core.
Tackle the issue with information so you can determine if your clients really do have tight hips or if there is another problem. With a few new stretches and exercises, you can help those with tight hip flexors loosen them up, get better mobility with less pain, and avoid injuries.
What Exactly Are Tight Hip Flexors?
First, help your clients understand what the hip flexors are, what they do, and how you know when they’re tight. The term hip flexors refers to a group of muscles in and around the hips that help move the legs and the trunk together, as when you lift your leg up, bending at the hip.
The Hip Flexor Muscle Group
The hip flexor includes:
- The iliopsoas, which is actually two muscles, the psoas and the iliacus,
- The tensor fasciae latae,
- The rectus femoris,
- And the sartorius.
Together these muscles produce flexion, the movement and tightening of muscles that allows for flexing of the hip joint. They also help to stabilize the spine.
Strengthening the core is important to supporting the hip flexors, but are sit-ups the best way to work your abs? We have the answer here.
Signs You Have Tight Hip Flexors
The obvious sign, of course, is that these muscles just feel tight. You try to stretch them and they don’t move much. But there are other signs too. Tight hip flexor muscles can impact several other areas of your body, so you might have:
- Tightness or an ache in your lower back, especially when standing.
- Poor posture and difficulty standing up straight.
- Neck tightness and pain.
- Pain in the glutes.
You can also do a test to evaluate tightness. Lying on your back on a table or bench, pull one knee up toward your chest and hold it there. Let the other leg relax downward over the edge of the table. It helps here to have someone hold that leg for you so you can do it slowly.
If your hip flexors are fine you should be able to fully extend the thigh so its parallel to the floor and bend the knee to 90 degrees without the thigh rising up. Any difficulty with these movements indicates tight hip flexor muscles.
What Causes Hip Tightness?
For most people, the biggest cause of tightness is what we do all day long: sitting for too long is a major culprit in tightening the hip flexors. When you sit all day at a desk, the iliopsoas, in particular, shortens, making the flexors tight.
Some athletes are also more prone to tightness. Runners use the hip flexors, especially the iliopsoas, to lift the leg up with each stride. This repeated shortening of the muscle isn’t compensated for by a lengthening movement. Runners often end up with tight hip flexors for this reason.
Having a weak core can also be an issue that contributes to tight hip flexors. Because these muscles are connected to and stabilize the spine, they often take over when the core is not strong. This can lead to tightening and pain.
Stretches to Loosen up Tight Hip Flexors
Having tight hip flexors can cause injuries, pain, and restricted mobility, so it’s worth taking a few minutes per day to stretch them out if you have tightness. Here are some stretches to try, for you or your clients:
- Foam roll. A foam roller can be useful in stretching and loosening hip muscles. Get into a forearm plank position on the ground with the roller under the front of one hip. Let the other leg stay out to the side, off the roller. Roll up and down for about 30 seconds, focusing on points that feel especially tight.
- Pigeon pose. Borrow this move from yoga to stretch out the flexors. On your hands and knees, pull the right knee forward. Bend it under your chest and stretch out the left leg behind you. Lay down on top of your bent knee as much as you can. With tight muscles, it may take some time before you can do this fully, so take it slowly.
- Butterfly stretch. Sit on the floor with the bottoms of your feet pressed together. Let the knees fall outward to stretch the hips. For an extra stretch, gently push down on your knees.
- Low lunge. Perform a deep lunge with the right leg forward. Gently let the left knee rest on the ground and straighten that leg as much as possible. Put your palms flat on each side of the right foot, then raise the left arm up above your head and lean to the right. Hold a few seconds and repeat on the other side.
Exercises to Strengthen Hip Flexors
Moves that strengthen the hip muscles, the glutes, and the core will all be useful in preventing tightness in the hip flexors as well as injuries. These moves can improve strength and provide a good stretch at the same time:
- Glute bridges. This move will work your hips, core, and glutes. Lying on your back with knees bent, lift the hips up as high as possible and squeeze the glutes. To make it more difficult, cross one leg over the opposite knee and lift one side at a time.
- Single-leg squat. To really focus on one area at a time, try a single leg skating squat. Lower into a typical squat and lift one leg up and back as you rise back up to standing position. Stretch the opposite leg out straight to lengthen hip flexors while also working the glutes.
- Mountain climbers. In plank position on your hands, alternate bringing each knee forward, toward your chest. You can use sliders for this and do it either fast or slow to work both hips and abs.
Learn more about the versatile, powerful squat, and what good form actually looks like in this ISSA blog post.
Hip flexor tightness can be a real pain, but working certain muscles and doing the right stretches provide easy fixes. Help your clients be more aware of their hips and diagnose any issues so you can correct them before they suffer injuries.
If you’re interested in the fine details of movement and form and helping people avoid or recover from injuries, check out the ISSA’s Corrective Exercise Specialist certification course.
Corrective Exercise Specialist
The ISSA's Corrective Exercise Course will help you learn how to identify and correct the most common movement dysfunctions that you are likely to see in a wide range of clients, from the weekend warrior to the serious athlete. Both health care professionals and certified personal trainers can benefit from this distance education course, learning more about how people move incorrectly and how to guide them to correct those dysfunctions.
Please note: The information provided in this course is for general educational purposes only. The material is not a substitute for consultation with a healthcare provider regarding particular medical conditions and needs.