Dropping into hip flexor stretches every time you feel tightness in the front of your hips? Even though your intentions are good, you could be making the problem worse.
Read on to learn how poor form when you do your hip flexor stretches can cause pain not just in your hips but all over your body – and how to properly perform them to improve your hip flexibility.
What are the Hip Flexors?
There are a lot of elements in action during the movements of your hips.
The prime movers of hip flexion are your iliopsoas and rectus femoris.
Your iliopsoas is actually two muscles – the iliacus and the psoas -which both insert on the lesser trochanter of your femur.
Your iliacus is a fan-shaped muscle that runs from the iliac crest along the top of your pelvis.
The psoas originates higher up your torso – connecting to your last thoracic vertebrae and your lumbar vertebrae .
Your rectus femoris is a big quadriceps muscle that runs all the way down the front of your thigh.
When your iliopsoas and rectus femoris muscles contract, you can perform complicated movements that involve flexing your hip.
More Joints, More (Potential) Problems
Both your psoas and your rectus femoris are unique in that they’re two joint muscles, making their roles both complex and crucial to how we function.
Your psoas crosses both your spine and your hip, and your rectus femoris crosses your hip and your knee.
Contraction of these muscles has different effects on each joint they cross.
When your psoas contracts fully, you get extension in your lumbar spine and flexion at your hip.
When your psoas relaxes and lengthens completely, you get flexion in your lumbar spine and extension at your hip.
It’s because of this connection between the psoas and the lumbar spine that many people with tight hips overcompensate and end up killing their low backs by going into excessive lumbar extension.
But more on that later…
When your rectus femoris fully contracts, you get flexion at your hip and extension at your knee.
When it fully lengthens, you get extension at your hip and flexion at your knee.
So basically, contraction/lengthening of these two muscles produce opposite effects at each of the joints they cross. If there’s flexion at one, there’s extension at the other.
Because of the complicated biomechanics of your hip flexors, their movements and positioning must be strengthened to improve range of motion in your hip.
Actually, these hamstring stretches for flexibility are great for this – they strengthen your rectus femoris while it’s in a fully contracted position.
But first, let’s talk about how tightness in these muscles and poor form when attempting to stretch them can cause issues throughout your body.
5 Ways Tight Hips & Poor Form With Hip Flexor Stretches Hurt You
Tightness in your hip flexors is kind of like a kink in the middle of a garden hose.
The problem might be coming from one place, but it’s going to cause problems all along the length of the hose – and prevent it from functioning effectively.
Similarly, problems with hip flexor mobility can pretty much cause problems from head to toe.
And often, when attempting to stretch the hip flexors, we use form that only exacerbates these problems by exaggerating an already bad alignment.
The effects of tight hip flexors and bad form used during hip flexor stretches are felt throughout the body, but let’s start at the pelvis.
1. Kyphosis from Anterior Pelvic Tilt
When the iliopsoas and rectus femoris are tight, it can cause anterior pelvic tilt, which can lead to kyphosis – an exaggerated outward curve of the thoracic spine.
This kyphotic curve causes upper back pain, uncomfortable stiffness and a hunchback. No thank you.
2. Lordosis from Anterior Pelvic Tilt
Anterior pelvic tilt can also cause lordosis, an exaggerated inward curve of the lumbar spine .
Lumbar lordosis, or swayback, can lead to severe lower back pain and hinder your mobility .
3. Stenosis from Excessive Lumbar Extension
We learned earlier that your lumbar spine extends as your psoas muscle contracts. If your psoas is chronically tightened and contracted, it can cause excessive extension of the lumbar spine.
This improper alignment can result in extra wear and tear on the vertebrae of the spine, leading to a condition called lumbar spinal stenosis.
In stenosis, the spinal canal narrows, which can increase pressure on spinal nerves, causing pain and weakness that radiates down the low back, butt and legs .
4. Medial Knee Pain from Internal Hip Rotation
Tight hip flexors can also lead to chronic internal rotation of the hips.
As the hips and as a result, the femur, rotate inwardly, pressure can develop on the inside of the knee, causing medial knee pain.
Internal hip rotation has also been associated with anterior knee pain and overall weakness of the hip muscles . Basically, it’s bad news all around.
5. Plantar Fasciitis from Internal Hip Rotation
And the issues don’t stop at the knee. This improper, internally rotated hip alignment also causes problems further down the kinetic chain.
The tibia of the lower leg can also rotate inwardly along with the hips and femur. This causes excess pressure on the arch of the foot – a situation that can lead to painful issues like plantar fasciitis .
How Stretching Exaggerates These Issues
When it comes to stretching the hip flexors, the most common stretch is the ½ kneeling stretch, which looks like this:
Now, take a look at her lumbar spine… What do you notice?
It’s easy to spot the excessive lumbar extension, and if you look at the hip, it’s basically in neutral.
This is the big mistake people make with this hip flexor stretch – the position of the lumbar spine isn’t controlled, so instead of lengthening the hip flexor, the lumbar vertebrae are jammed even more into extension than a tight psoas already does.
And if you’re being a good student and doing this stretch regularly, this pattern will be reinforced and could be furthering the problems noted above.
This is because the lumbar spine will be trained for mobility – which is opposite to its function (stability) and the hip flexors will remain locked up, which is at odds with their function (mobility).
The key to fixing this is to perform a posterior pelvic tilt before going into the stretch… and keeping it there.
Do this and you likely won’t be able to go as deep into the stretch, but you’ll be targeting the iliopsoas and training this proper movement pattern of hip mobility and lumbar spine stability
Here’s a great technique that will help you do this as well as mobilize your hip joint capsule and hip internal rotation:
- Set up a band on a stable support at about knee height
- Step through the band with your right leg
- Get into a lunge position with your right knee on the ground and your left knee bent in front of you at 90 degrees
- Situate the band around your right glute and get your right hip in extension
- Bend forward slightly to flex the right hip before squeezing your glute to drive forward into hip extension
- Hold for 5 seconds as you maintain glute contraction and upright posture
- Make sure the ball of your left foot stays planted and that your left knee is slightly abducted away from the center
- Relax for 10 seconds to feel a stretch in your hip flexor
- Then, activate your legs to feel as if you were scissoring your legs together (pulling your right knee forward and left foot back, but without actually moving them) to activate the psoas
- Hold this activation for 5 seconds and again check in with your posture and alignment
- Release and relax into the stretch again for 10 seconds
- Kick your right foot out at an angle away from your body to create internal rotation of the femur
- Turn the left foot in just a little bit
- Repeat the process in this new position – bend forward into hip flexion before squeezing your glute to drive forward into hip extension
- Hold for 5 seconds with active glutes
- Relax into the stretch for 10 seconds
- Activate your psoas as you scissor your legs together and hold for 5 seconds
- Relax and release into the stretch for 10 seconds
(Note: this part is an advanced option and you might not have the flexibility for it yet. That’s fine, just work your way up to it!)
- Reset into the initial, straight alignment position
- Bend over if needed to grab the right ankle with the right hand
- Use both hands to pull the right heel up towards the glute
- Pull the shoulder blades together and think about lengthening the spine on inhales and relaxing on exhales
- Squeeze the glutes and hold for 5 seconds
- Relax for 10 seconds deepening the stretch by pulling the heel closer towards the butt if possible
- Then, kick the ankle into the hands, activating the quads, and hold for 5 seconds
- Relax for 10 seconds and stretch
Remember to repeat the entire technique on the other leg, move slowly and to BREATHE throughout the process.
This exercise will not only stretch the psoas, it will ALSO strengthen it as well as strengthening the glutes.
Sandwiching in periods of stretching among the strength building (and remembering to breathe throughout the whole technique) allows your neuromuscular system to better relax and see that you’ve got strength and control in this range, making it less likely to reflexively tighten back up once your stretching session is over.
Put it all together and you’ll end up with more effective, safer and longer-lasting mobility gains.
And you’ll avoid those 5 nasty problems that poor form with hip flexor stretches and tight hips can cause.