How to Get Lasting Results from a Hip Flexor Stretch
Most people think that simply stretching their hip flexors will solve their pain and tightness. We have a different angle. To get the best and longest-lasting results from a hip flexor stretch, we believe that adding in muscle release techniques, plus strength and mobility exercises, will take your routine to the next level.
Why do I have tight hip flexors?
It is extremely common to have tight hip flexors.
Take a moment to think about how much time you spend sitting down each day, on average. Between working at your desk, studying or attending class, driving your car, relaxing at home on the couch, eating meals, you can see how the hours add up quickly. And that’s just for one day!
Despite the health risks for sedentary behavior, many people spend up to 70% of their waking hours in a seated position each day. Here’s the math: that equates to about 11 hours of sitting each day (assuming that you sleep 8 hours each night).
Throw in the additional stay-at-home restrictions that many of us have experienced this year related to COVID-19, and the amount of time we spend sitting and not moving our bodies each day has further increased.
Sitting shortens our hip flexor muscles relative to their natural length when we are standing. When stuck in this shortened position for extended periods of time, the likelihood of developing tight hip flexors increases, especially as you repeat this pattern day after day.
Additionally, there are many other activities that we do on a daily basis that may contribute to tight hip flexors. When we walk or go for a run, our hip flexors are constantly being used to move one leg in front of the other. These muscles are very active when we are working out, helping to stabilize the low back and hips when doing exercises like squats, deadlifts, and lunges. Many sports involve a lot of hip flexion, such as cycling, kickboxing, and gymnastics.
Taking all of this into account, you can see how overworked your hip flexors may be and why it is so important to take care of these muscles with some TLC.
How can tight hip flexors impact the body?
Tight hip flexors can have a big impact on how the ENTIRE body functions.
Let’s begin to paint the picture by talking about the pelvis, the core, and how a tight hip flexor affects the way these structures of the body are aligned.
The pelvis is situated at the center of the body, making up a very important piece of your core. Yes, we are referring to the same “core” that many people assume simply consists of the abdominal muscles. Your core consists of much more than that!
Think of your core as a 3-D box with 6 sides:
- Front - rectus abdominis and transverse abdominals
- Back - spinal erectors, quadratus lumborum (QL), and other back muscles
- Sides - internal obliques and external obliques
- Top - diaphragm
- Bottom - pelvic floor muscles
The pelvis is a very important piece within this 3-D box, connecting the upper and lower body together. Looking deeper inside of the core and pelvis, there are two very important muscles that play a big role in supporting your body’s alignment – the iliacus and the psoas.
As depicted in the image, tightness and imbalances in the iliacus and psoas muscles twists the pelvis and twists the core. Due to its connection with the upper and lower body, this has a chain reaction effect above and below.
The pelvis connects to the spine, which twists and affects the alignment of the rib cage, shoulders, and neck. The pelvis also connects to the hips, where the way the femur moves within the hip socket is changed and affects the ways the knees, feet, and ankles work.
Now that you’re aware of the potential effects that tight hip flexors can have on your body, here are some helpful tips to keep your hip flexors (and the rest of your entire body) as happy as possible so your whole body can feel good.
Tips for getting the best hip flexor stretch
1. Gain an understanding of what the different hip flexor muscles are and where they are located.
Without first having a general understanding of which muscles in your body are hip flexors and where they are located, it is going to be more challenging to achieve the best hip flexor stretch possible to target the areas that are tightest.
The hip flexor muscle group includes (but is not limited to) the following:
Psoas Major - Connects to the lower thoracic and lumbar vertebrae (T12 through L5) and also to the lesser trochanter (inside of the femur near the groin region).
Iliacus - Runs along the inside surface of the pelvic bone, connecting to the top edge of the tailbone (at the SI joint) and also to the lesser trochanter.
NOTE: The psoas major and the iliacus muscles both cross the hip joint, where they join together and form what is known as the iliopsoas tendon.
Rectus Femoris - Also part of the quadriceps muscle group, this muscle connects to the anterior inferior iliac spine (lower part on the pelvic bone, or ilium), just above the acetabulum (hip socket), as well as down the leg where the quadriceps tendon inserts into the base of the patella (kneecap).
Tensor Fascia Latae (or TFL) - Connects to the anterior superior iliac spine (ASIS) and also the deep fascia of the iliotibial band (IT band). This muscle is right about where your pants pocket would be if you were wearing a pair of athletic shorts.
Pectineus - Connects to the pubic bone and the inside of the femur (thigh bone).
[Read More from Aletha: Deep Dive into the Anatomy of the Hip Flexor Muscles]
2. Pick an appropriate hip flexor stretch to effectively target the correct muscle.
There are many different stretches for tight hip flexors to choose from. So how do you know which one is the right one for you?
With your new understanding of the different muscles that make up the hip flexor muscle group and where they are located in the body, you may begin to see how you’ll need to perform stretches that target your tight hip flexors from multiple angles.
This helps you to focus on stretching each individual hip flexor muscle and give them the specific attention that each may need. This will be up to you to explore what your own body needs and determine which of these will be the best hip flexor stretches to help you achieve the results you are looking for.
[Read More from Aletha: The Best Hip Flexor Stretches for Tight Hips]
3. Perform the hip flexor stretches with proper form and technique.
After you’ve picked the best hip flexor stretch needed to target the right muscle in your body, it is time to get down onto the floor or on your yoga mat to perform the exercise.
The effectiveness of the hip flexor stretch is largely affected by using proper form and technique, which includes a focus on taking nice, big, deep breaths. This really helps to target the correct muscles and help the body relax, where the brain sends signals to the targeted tissues to let go of tension and lengthen.
4. Establish a consistent hip flexor stretching routine and stick to it.
You’ve gained an understanding of your hip flexors. You’ve picked the right stretch to use to target the correct muscle. You’ve performed the hip flexor stretch correctly and remembered to breathe. You are now feeling pretty good. That’s great!
So, what next?
If you’re a fan of feeling great and free of pain, this one time that you stretched likely isn’t going to help you long-term. Instead, setting up a regular routine to do some stretches for tight hip flexors or stretches for the rest of your body is a better idea to help you achieve this goal.
The routine that you set for yourself can be simple and easy. Perhaps you aim for 10-15 minutes of stretching your hip flexors each day (or every other day). You can do multiple sessions per day, splitting the time you stretch between the morning and afternoon. Maybe you even want to stretch out before bed, helping you fall asleep quickly and wake up feeling refreshed.
Routines are great and can help you stay feeling good over a long period of time. Find one that works for you and stick with it. Your hips and your body will thank you for it!
Other tips to make your hip flexor stretches more effective
If stretching your tight hip flexors alone isn’t enough to provide lasting relief or if you are really looking to take your stretching results to the next level, consider these additional tips to include in your routine to see how it makes you feel.
1. Add hip flexor muscle release techniques to your routine.
If your muscles aren’t relieved of tightness after performing your hip flexor stretches, it could be a sign that tension is being held in the muscles in the form of muscle knots. Applying direct and prolonged pressure (for about 30-90 seconds) to these areas first can be more effective at getting the muscle to release tension than simply stretching alone.
If you don’t have the luxury of having a roommate who happens to be a massage therapist or have the ability to see a practitioner in person on a regular basis, using a muscle release tool can be helpful. However, using the right tool for the different muscles to achieve the best results is an important factor to consider.
Muscles like the TFL, rectus femoris, and pectineus are closer to the outside surface of the body, making them much easier to access and target. Using something like a lacrosse ball (or a slightly larger ball) or a foam roller generally works for these muscles.
When looking to apply direct pressure to the deeper hip flexor muscles, like the psoas and the iliacus, the lacrosse ball and foam roller don’t have the ability to get deep enough to access these muscles and also don’t have the precision to target the correct location.
The Hip Hook is a muscle release tool designed specifically to get into the hard-to-reach psoas and iliacus muscles to deliver the best possible release of tension, helping your hips and body feel great.
2. Add muscle activation and strengthening exercises to your routine.
When your muscles and joints feel “tight” it is very common to think that these areas need to be stretched in order to make them better. While stretching may provide some relief in the short-term, these muscles may tighten back up over the next few days.
Why does this happen?
The muscles in your body are meant to control your joints to create movement and also to stabilize your joints to keep them safe. When you sit for longer periods of time, you don’t use or challenge your muscles.
With this inactivity, your hip muscles “turn off” and become weaker. This can then lead the brain to send signals to tighten these muscles up as a form of protection, essentially creating stability by holding tension because the muscles themselves do not have the strength to do so.
The saying “use it or you lose it” is definitely applicable here.
Getting some activation with hip flexor strengthening exercises can help increase the amount of blood flow and activity within the muscles, helping to build strength and increase the effectiveness of your hip flexor stretches over time. Additionally, targeting the other muscles around your hips and the muscles in your core with strength exercises can be a really good idea.
Try some of these hip strengthening exercises out and see how it makes your body feel.
3. Add direct hip mobility training to your routine.
Hip mobility exercises are another way that we can strengthen the hips and improve the active range of motion through which we can control our hip joints. This is not to be confused with stretching, which simply takes the hip through its passive range of motion.
These can be some really amazing hip mobility exercises that you can try to start converting your passive range of motion into an active range of motion, improving the function of your hips and improving the way that you feel.
Want to deepen your knowledge and your stretch?
You’ll get answers to your questions about tight hip flexors, how they affect the functioning of your entire body, and plenty of stretches and exercises to keep you out of trouble in the book “Tight Hip, Twisted Core - The Key To Unresolved Pain” by Christine Koth, MPT.
Frequently asked questions about tight hip flexors
What is the main function of the psoas?
The psoas muscle connects the upper and lower halves of the body. Its main functions are to stabilize the lower back and flex the hip. Other functions of the psoas include external rotation of the hip, as well as extension and lateral flexion of the lumbar spine.
What is the main function of the iliacus?
The primary function of the iliacus is to stabilize the hip joint and the sacroiliac joint (SI joint). This muscle also assists in hip flexion and external rotation of the hip.
Are the psoas and iliacus the only hip flexors in the body?
No, although these two muscles (which make up the iliopsoas) are often considered to be the most important and the strongest hip flexors in the body, there are many other smaller muscles that contribute to the motion of hip flexion.
What are hip flexors?
The hip flexors are a group of muscles in your body that assist in hip flexion, the movement of bringing the knee closer to the chest. This muscle group includes the iliacus, psoas, rectus femoris, tensor fascia latae, pectineus, sartorius, adductor brevis, adductor longus, adductor magnus, gracilis, and even part of the gluteus medius.
How do I fix my tight hip flexors?
Tight hip flexors can be improved through a combination of muscle release, stretching, strengthening, and mobility exercises. Establishing a routine that you can perform consistently over time is likely going to lead to the best results.