There are many movements that every individual should perfect for proper functional movement. One of the most important of these movements is the hip hinge. A strong hip hinge requires ideal flexibility and muscular strength and mastering this movement pattern can prevent injury and enhance physical performance.
We hinge all the time. When we bend to pick something up off the floor, when we bend to sit in a chair, when we bend to stand up from a chair. We do it so often that we often overlook the important parts of this hip hinge pattern and what it can do for us. Hip hinging is a prerequisite movement pattern for strength training exercises like the conventional deadlift, squat, and kettlebell swings. It is also a movement pattern that must be mastered and strengthened during training before an individual can progress to any type of power training. Failure to progress in this way is a direct path to preventable time-loss injuries.
Learn more about other exercises that can improve power in this informative ISSA blog post: Exercises to Improve Power
A hip hinge is a movement that utilizes the posterior chain—the back side of the body—to drive flexion and extension of the hips with a posterior weight shift. The musculature involved in the movement pattern includes the hamstrings and glutes, erector spinae, the rhomboids to aid in a neutral spine, and the core muscles for bracing the upper body.
Begin standing with a barbell or dowel gripped at shoulder width and the feet hip0width, knees stacked over the ankles. Screw the feet into the floor and drive the knees out. This is an important intricacy that engages the glutes from start to finish.
With the shoulder blades down and packed and a neutral head and thoracic spine, engage the core muscles to brace and bend from the hip joint to push the glutes posteriorly. Maintain a slight bend in the knees with the goal of keeping the shins as vertical as possible. Continue until a stretch is felt in the hamstrings ensuring the lumbar spine remains neutral and supported by the core muscles.
For a basic hip hinge, the stretch in the hamstrings indicates maximum flexion of the hip flexors and the body moves in one unit like the mouth of a Pac-man. At the end point, the lateral floor-up view of the hinge has the knees, then the hips, then the shoulders. If the butt is below the knees, this is a squat, not a hinge!
Squeeze the glutes and begin hip extension until the neutral start position is achieved to complete the hip hinge pattern. Resist the urge to hyperextend the hips forward. Simply squeeze the glutes instead. If someone struggles to maintain a neutral thoracic or lumbar spine, use a dowel held with one hand behind the neck and one below the glutes. The dowel should lay directly on the spine and maintain contact with the back of the head, thoracic spine, and tailbone during the entire range of motion.
There is a multitude of things that can impair a hip hinge movement pattern. First, muscular imbalances from injury, repetitious movement, or poor posture will surely decrease flexibility and range of motion. Second, tight hip flexors are often an overlooked cause of movement dysfunction through the hips. People who sit for hours a day or are otherwise in a constant state of hip flexion need to place a focus on flexibility training to open the hip flexors, stretch the quadriceps, and open the hip joint with lateral or full range of motion. Third, the lack of flexibility extends beyond the hips and into the hamstrings and glutes. Tightness in the hamstrings and glutes are often a major cause of poor hip and spine mobility, as well as knee and back pain.
Understanding the things that can impair the hip hinge movement makes it easier to understand how to improve and even perfect it.
The first step, as with corrective exercise techniques, is the flexibility aspect. Flexibility is the range of motion one has in a joint or series of joints. The length and elasticity of the muscles of the body dictate flexibility and it is unique to each person. As we age, the elasticity of muscle fibers changes, so flexibility training becomes even more important to prevent movement dysfunction.
Overactive muscles require stretching to attain the ideal fiber tension and length for movement. For those with tight hip flexors, stretches like the runner's lunge and prone cobra stretch will work to release them. Self-myofascial release (SMR) is also an ideal technique for addressing overactive muscles. SMR utilizes autogenic inhibition to relax tissues that form adhesions. Tools like foam rollers, fascia wands, and mobility balls target knots. In the case of a hip hinge, use SMR on the hip flexors, adductors, the tensor fascia latae (TFL), quadriceps, and the Iliotibial Band (IT band) for anyone with an existing anterior tilt in the pelvis or tightness through the hips and knees.
On the opposite side of SMR, the opposing muscles are typically the weakened or underactive muscles. Strengthening will be required for the glutes, hamstrings, piriformis, and the core musculature. Exercises like the hip bridge, hamstring curls, and step ups will target the posterior chain for strengthening. Perfecting a plank is also key for better posture and injury prevention and it is a key for the hip hinge as well!
After flexibility, SMR, and strengthening, the next step in a progression to perfect the hip hinge is to practice it. The addition of a dowel down the back during the movement with no additional load will help the lifter ensure a neutral head, neck, and spine are maintained through the movement. The unloaded hip hinge can also be performed in front of a wall with the aim of pushing the glues back far enough to touch the wall and achieve the hamstring stretch. The start position for this variation is with the heels about 10 to 12 inches in front of a wall and facing away.
As resistance is added, there are exercises that can be completed to master the range of motion. The Romanian deadlift is a perfect example. The Romanian deadlift (RDL) is like a straight-leg deadlift, but it requires the slight bend in the knees as found in the hip hinge form. The RDL focuses on the eccentric part of the movement—that is the way down towards the ground—which is often an undertrained aspect of a deadlift. Most athletes or lifters will allow gravity to bring the bar to the floor and, often, allow it to bounce to begin the concentric contraction instead of controlling the movement down.
If you've never done an RDL or would like to get better at it, check out this ISSA blog post on training the posterior chain.
There is an additional progression to a single-leg hip hinge that some lifters may make. The single-leg hinge requires the same mechanics and the hips and torso must remain square to the floor during the movement. Of course, the movement should be mastered on both legs (as one side is always stronger than the other!) before load is added unilaterally or bilaterally.
There is a lot that goes into the hip hinge movement. It is vital to determine what impairments someone has that are preventing the proper range of motion and flexibility to address them before moving to strengthen a hip hinge and all the movements that stem from it.
Keep in mind that structural impairments and severe impairments require a referral to a physical therapist or orthopedic specialist. However, this foundational movement is an important stepping stone to more dynamic power, speed, and agility movements for sport and a healthy and functional lifestyle.
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