Table of Contents
The hip flexors aren't big on anyone’s list of priorities at most gyms. But they’re pretty important. They’re a thin, tendinous muscle that, as the name suggests, flex the hips. Although throughout this article we’ll take a functional approach and treat the hip flexors as if the were one thing – we’ll deal with them as what they do, not that they are – there are technically three hip flexors.
The Psoas muscles attach the inside of the femur (the lesser trochanter, in case you’re interested) at the top; the other end is attached to the five lumbar vertebrae and the last thoracic vertebra. The Iliacus joins the Psoas, joining the interior of the pelvis to the femur. Finally the Sartorius attaches the front of the pelvis (again, anatomy buffs, that’s the anterior superior iliac spine) to the medial side of the knee. However they work together, and throughout the article I’ll just say ‘hip flexors,’ meaning all or any of these muscles.
The big issue is that the hip flexors, as a group, connect the legs to the spine. By sitting too much we develop poor posture and increasingly lose our ability to fully extend our hip flexors. As a consequence most people’s hip flexors are too tight and too weak.
Once you’ve gotten back some flexibility you need to start building some strength there too, and you’ll be surprised how much low back and knee pain you’ll see the back of once your hip flexors are closer to how they should be.
We’ll go over three levels of hip flexor training, aimed at the sedentary person returning to exercise, the more active person and the advanced or athletic person. In each case, we’ll describe the main exercise and a progression from it.
For the sedentary person:
Static hip flexor stretch:
Begin with one leg in front, the shin vertical and toes pointing forward. Put the other leg behind you with both the knee and the upper part of the instep (where your shoelaces are) on the floor. Try to keep the back leg in a straight line and keep your hips level and stable. Don’t let them rock back or forward, or have one higher than the other. Raise the hand corresponding to your back leg directly in front of your shoulder with the arm outstretched and slowly bring it overhead, moving your whole pelvis forward evenly as you do. You should feel a stretch over the front of the pelvis on your back leg, running into your lower back.
To progress from this:
Try doing the same movement with your back leg elevated on a Swiss ball, or even a pouffe or large cushion. Press down with the back leg as you move through the stretch to get some activation and strength benefits.
For the active person:
Tennis Ball Glute Bridge
Lie on your back with both legs bent, the heels close to your glutes. Raise one leg, bent, and put a tennis ball between the leg and your body. You’re going to use isometric tension to hold the tennis ball there by clenching it in place. At the same time, you’ll use the other leg to power a bridge, driving your hips up. You want your body to form a straight line in the top position between the shoulders and the knees. Try to feel a strong contraction in your glutes at the top of the movement.
To progress from this:
Try elevating both feet, or adding a weight across your hips. A weight plate works well, so does a sandbag or kettlebell.