Mar 2, 2022

How to Release Tight Hip Flexors: The Best Tools to Use

How to Release Tight Hip Flexors: The Best Tools to Use

In recent years there has been increasing awareness of the importance of the hip flexor muscles and how to care for them. It feels like we learn something new about tight hip flexors and their impact on the rest of the body every other day!

There are many different tools, balls, and devices meant to help you release tightness in your hip flexors at home, all by yourself. There’s clearly a desire for muscle release tools like this, and there’s certainly a need. How can you tell which tools are best at actually releasing hip flexor muscles, though? Our guide to muscle release tools will help you get started!

Which hip flexor muscles do I need to release?

First, we need to understand which muscles we’re actually referring to when we say “hip flexors.” The main muscles that flex the hip include:

  • Iliopsoas
  • Rectus femoris
  • Sartorius
  • Tensor fascia lata (TFL)
  • Pectineus

Of the hip flexors listed above, the iliopsoas is the one that stands above the rest and has the most significant potential impact on the body. Not only is the iliopsoas the body’s largest and strongest hip flexor, but it also functions as a mover or stabilizer for the lumbar spine, sacroiliac joints, pelvis, and hips. The iliopsoas is also the only muscle that connects the upper and lower body together, making it a very important muscle that has the potential to impact the alignment and function of the entire body when tight.

When it comes to releasing the iliopsoas, it’s important to note that it is actually composed of two separate muscles: the iliacus and the psoas. When releasing the hip flexors, you want to be sure to address BOTH of these muscles to achieve the most effective and longest-lasting results. Releasing one, but not the other may produce some nice relief in the short-run, but don’t be surprised when that tightness feeling comes back sooner than you’d like.

How do I release my hip flexors?

When we say the hip flexors need to be “released” what we are referring to is that the psoas and iliacus muscles are holding tension, where the muscles are remaining at least partially contracted, even when not being used (at rest). This is tension tightness – think of like a muscle knot or trigger point – cannot simply be stretched away. Stretching helps to improve motion tightness, but does not produce the neurological change in how the brain chooses to contract or relax the muscle. It simply helps the muscle stretch into a greater range of motion than it could before. The contracture of the muscle still exists, and that’s why your hip flexors may feel tight again later in the day.

The best way to get your psoas and iliacus muscles to finally relax is through the application of prolonged and consistent pressure placed directly on the muscles. The amount of time needed to feel a muscle begin to release is generally at least 30-90 seconds, but it can be longer. Precise pressure is more effective than broader pressure, as you can really zone in on those tighter areas within the muscle tissues. While broader pressure may hit a larger portion of the muscle at once, the amount of pressure being applied to any one section of the muscle is much less and therefore not as effective.

What is the best hip flexor release tool?

As someone with tight hip flexors that once experienced chronic pain because of tension in these muscles, believe me when I tell you I’ve tried every tool out there. Before I get into what the specific tools do, though, we need to understand where the iliacus and psoas are in the body, as their location affects how we access them.

anatomy illustration of the psoas and iliacus hip flexor muscles

Psoas – situated relatively deep within the pelvis, where you’d need to work through several inches of tissue in the belly and abdominal area; best accessed with perpendicular pressure

Iliacus – lines the inside surface of the pelvic bone (or ilium) on the sides of your pelvis, where you’d need to work through those same layers of tissue; best accessed with angular pressure

Is a lacrosse ball (or tennis ball) the best tool to release my hip flexors?

A lacrosse ball (or tennis ball) is something you might have lying around at home and perhaps you’ve already given it a try to release your hip flexors. A ball is an object that is going to apply perpendicular pressure to a muscle across a broader surface area.

Given this, a ball may be able to press into the psoas, but not the iliacus which requires angular pressure. However, because the psoas muscle is located deeper within the pelvis, the smaller ball will press into the general region but likely won’t get deep enough to provide enough pressure to the psoas muscle for an effective release.

lacrosse ball infographic too small to reach the psoas muscle

But you can just move the ball lower…right? Not so fast…

While you may be able to put a ball that size just underneath the ASIS of the pelvis and hit a tiny sliver of the iliopsoas, in that location it is more of a tendon (no longer a muscle) where it attaches to the lesser trochanter of the femur. Tendons cannot be released in the way a muscle can. You must release the muscles that attach to the tendons to reduce the tension felt on them.

Go ahead and try it to see for yourself. While you might feel some initial benefit simply because doing something feels better than nothing (perhaps a little placebo effect), the tightness will likely come back very soon because you aren’t addressing the tightness that still exists in the rest of the psoas and iliacus muscles.

Additionally, the positioning of the ball just beneath the ASIS is beginning to approach the hip crease region (or the inguinal line). Here, there are many more nerves, blood vessels, and arteries that you’d be better off avoiding putting too much pressure on which could cause irritation, numbness, throbbing, tingling, etc.

Is a softball (or similar) the best tool to release my hip flexors?

A softball (or a similar larger ball like the Hip Release Ball) is definitely an improvement over the lacrosse ball or tennis ball. Because of the increased height of these balls, you can get through enough of the body tissue to be able to apply perpendicular pressure to the psoas muscle.

The larger surface area of the bigger ball also means that you can apply broad pressure (as opposed to precise pressure) into the general psoas region. Because of its round shape, any kind of ball will be unable to effectively target the iliacus muscle, providing minimal, broad, and indirect pressure (if any at all).

The relief felt when using a softball or another ball similar in size will be better than using a lacrosse ball or tennis ball because you can place more pressure on the psoas, but the results may be shorter-term in nature since the iliacus (the other half of the iliopsoas) remains unaddressed.

Is a foam roller the best tool to release my hip flexors?

Given the bulkiness and odd shape of a foam roller, paired with the harder-to-reach location of the psoas and iliacus muscles requiring precise and direct pressure for the best release, this is not a great option to release the iliopsoas.

Foam rollers are much more effective at applying broader pressure to larger muscles near the surface of the body. You’d be better off using your foam roller to target some of your quadriceps, hamstring, calf, and lat muscles (to name a few).

Is the Pso-Rite the best tool to release my hip flexors?

The Pso-Rite was one of the first tools specifically created to try to help people release their tight hip flexor muscles. The shape and height of the tool makes it good at applying perpendicular pressure into the psoas muscle.

The design of the two prongs provides more precise and more direct pressure when compared to a ball, making it more effective at releasing the psoas than the aforementioned lacrosse balls, softballs, etc. You can use both prongs of the Pso-Rite at the same time (assuming that its fixed width fits the anatomy of your body), or you can use one prong at a time.

While the Pso-Rite is definitely better than a ball at releasing the psoas muscle, we must remember that it is important to also release tightness in the iliacus muscle. After all, these muscles work together to perform similar functions for the hips and pelvis, so tightness in one will almost certainly affect the other.

Since the prongs of the Pso-Rite cannot angle in towards the inside surface of the ilium bone (this is where the iliacus muscle is), the iliacus muscle remains unaddressed and the hip flexor tightness may return a lot faster than we’d like it to.

Is the Hip Hook the best tool to release my hip flexors?

The Hip Hook is one of the newer tools on the market designed specifically for releasing the hip flexor muscles. Created by Christine Koth, a physical therapist who perfected manual techniques for releasing the psoas and iliacus with her own hands, the Hip Hook mimics the shape of a practitioner’s thumbs and has the ability to rotate and press into the muscles from different angles.

The height and shape of the Hip Hook makes it really good at applying perpendicular pressure into the psoas muscle when the platform of the tool is flat on the ground as you lay over it. Then, when you press down on the handle of the Hip Hook, it is able to rotate on its pivot piece and be able to apply angular pressure into the iliacus muscle on the inside surface of the pelvis. The patented design of the Hip Hook makes it the only tool capable of pressing directly into this previously inaccessible spot when using a self-release tool.

The height of the tip on the Hip Hook is around the same height as a softball, yet not as tall as the prongs on the Pso-Rite. By relaxing your core when lying over the tool, the Hip Hook is able to get deep enough to apply a firm amount of pressure to your psoas and iliacus muscles. The narrower thumb-like tip allows for greater precision and more direct pressure when compared to other tools like the Pso-Rite or any kind of ball.

With enough patience and practice using the Hip Hook, you’ll be able to maneuver it to different locations within your pelvis to get an effective release of tension in both your psoas and iliacus muscles, leading to better and longer-lasting results.

Is a massage gun the best tool to release my hip flexors?

Among the many tools out there to help relieve tight muscles, we must not leave out the massage guns. You may have heard of the Theragun or the Hypervolt, just to name a few. These tools use either vibration or percussion therapy to promote circulation to an area of the body and reduce tightness.

Both smaller muscles and larger ones can be targeted by using the interchangeable tips of different shapes and sizes that come with the massage guns. However, the best results with a massage gun are likely going to be achieved when addressing muscles that are closer to the surface of your body.

The psoas and the iliacus muscles are situated too deep within the pelvis for a massage gun to effectively reach. Additionally, the vibration and percussion that these tools use would not allow you to apply the prolonged and consistent pressure directly on the hip flexor muscles to experience the most therapeutic release of tension.

With that being said, massage guns can be super effective for use in other areas of the body. For example, they can be great for targeting muscles on the back side of the pelvis like the glutes and outer hips, or even in the lower back for the quadratus lumborum (or QL) muscles. There are many more locations that you can use the massage guns, but the glutes and lower back are areas commonly tight along with the hip flexors that the massage guns do a great job with.

The best tool to release tight hip flexors is the Hip Hook

Of all of the tools we considered above, the Hip Hook stands out above the rest. The Hip Hook checks all of the boxes when looking at what is needed for the most effective release of tension in the hip flexors.

  • Tall enough to reach the psoas muscle deeper within the pelvis
  • The ability to apply pressure to reach both the psoas and iliacus muscles
  • Has a tip that provides direct and precise pressure to tight spots within the muscles
  • Has a sturdy base when lying over the tool to provide consistent and prolonged pressure for a long enough duration for the muscle to release
woman using the Hip Hook mobility tool