The problem of tight hip flexors is fast becoming an epidemic. As we spend more time in front of our screens it means we are sitting for long periods of time. When we are in a seated position for much of the day, our hips will become tight and inflexible. So for anyone who spends all day at a 9-5 job sitting at their desk and then comes home to do more sitting down in front of the TV for the rest of the night, they are likely to be suffering from having tight hip flexor muscles.
In this post I’ll cover what the hip flexors are, how they become tight and some of the symptoms of tight hip flexors. Once i’ve covered that, we’ll move on to learning how to stretch them and also strengthen them.
What Are the Hip Flexors?
Notice the ‘s’ at the end of the word hip flexor in the title above. There is a common misconception, or laziness when people talk about the hip flexors in that we forget to note that the hip flexor isn’t one muscle, but actually is made up of five muscles connecting the thigh bone to the pelvis.
- Tensor Fascia Latae
- Iliopsoas (iliacus and psoas combined as one)
- Rectus Fermoris
- Adductor (inner groin)
These are the muscles that when flexed cause ‘hip flexion,’ which is where you raise your knee upwards when standing. On the other hand, with the femur stationary, the hip flexors contract and the pelvis is tilted forward and the butt backwards.
The hip flexors primarily help:
- Lift the knee and bring it up and towards the abdomen when in a standing position.
- Movement of your leg from side to side and front to back.
- Moving the knees towards the chest when sitting down, jumping, running or peddling.
I addressed the point earlier that tight hip flexors are typically caused by too much sitting. This is because when you are in a seated position, the legs are at a 90-degree angle, rather than their extended 180- degree full range of motion. Staying too long in this position shortens the hip flexor muscles’ length and causes it to become used to the shortened length. Overtime the hip flexors will become short and tight.
The implications of this is that when a muscle is shortened it lacks strength that a normal length muscle can generate. There are many other implications of tight hip flexors which we will discuss.
Symptoms of Tight Hip Flexors
The first symptom of tight hip flexors (and I realise I am putting myself up for Nobel Prize nomination when I say this) are a feeling of chronic tightness in the hip area. It’s that uncomfortable feeling in the hip and you may even feel some ‘pinching’ in that area. It may even be the case that you’ve had tight hip flexors for so long that you don’t notice the feeling unless you focus on the sensations in that area,(I know this was true in my case).
Short and tight hip muscles also reduce the motion range throughout the joint, they weaken the glutes, and also tilt the pelvis, which causes excessive spinal curvature and lower back aches. This is known as the dreaded anterior pelvic tilt that is starting to become a very common posture problem.
On top of that, hip muscles that are tight just hurt!
Foam Rolling & Stretching the 4 Hip Flexors
Before you start stretching your hip flexors it is important to loosen the four main muscle groups by foam rolling them. If you haven’t got a foam roller, you can use any other myofascial release tools that you have. Once the muscle is loosened, then the next step is to stretch it whilst it is loose and has some give to it.
This section will cover how to foam roll and stretch each of the main hip flexors. Remember to stretch them requires different stretches because they are a group of muscles.
1) Hip Flexor 1 – The Tensor Fascial Latae (TFL)
The TFL is located at around 45 degree angle on the front of your hip. It’s a thick muscle that runs on the outside of your thigh near the very top. By the way it’s a short muscle around 4 inches so to release it and stretch it will require some precision.
To foam roll it, you will want to place your hip onto a foam roller then rotate to a 45 degree angle to hit it. Since it is a small muscle you do not need to roll down the length of your thigh but only up and down a few inches at a time.
Rolling on each side for 30 seconds should loosen them up. Watch the video above to learn how to roll out the TFL the right way.
Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
To stretch the TFL:
- Move into a similar position to a single leg lunge with the trailing leg resting on the floor.
- Then shift your weight back. Your front leg should be in alignment with the trailing leg.
- To keep your balance you may want to rest on a bench. Once in position you lean towards the bench.
- Slowly shift forward until you feel a stretch in your TFL. You should feel a stretch in the TFL of the back leg that is resting on the floor.
To learn how to do this stretch I recommend watching the video explanation above. You can do this stretch on each side for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
Standing TFL Hip Flexor Stretch
In this stretch, place one hand on a wall so that it supports your weight. Draw the leg nearest to the wall behind your leading leg. You should feel the stretch in the TFL in the back leg. Make sure to push your hips forward and in towards the wall. Hold it for 30 seconds to a minute and then switch over to the other side.
2) Hip Flexor 2 – The Iliopsoas
This muscle is hard to release and stretch because we have so little access to the muscle since it doesn’t run on the surface of our skin. It attaches itself and runs from the back of the lumbar spine and reaches through to the front of your leg bone.
If you do research on the net of how to increase flexibility in the iliopsoas, you’ll likely come across a variety of ways to do it. In other words there doesn’t appear to be a consensus on the best way to release it.
One of the better videos I’ve found on the subject is shown above. I recommend you give it a quick watch if you want to learn how to stretch this hip flexor.
Hip Stretch and Mobility Drill
Below shows a hip flexor stretch that includes a move to help mobilise the hips.
First squat down, with your toes straight ahead and sit down low. Keeping your torso upright slide to the side (or underneath a bar).
When you reach the opposite side, rotate your torso like in the picture below, and raise your arms above your head. Lean out to the side and you should feel stretch in the hip.
Once you’re here, you can move back into the squat position and do the same on the otherside.For a video demonstration of how to do the stretch. Watch the video below.
Generally this muscle is hard to release so you may want to focus your efforts on the other tight muscles a little more than this one.
The video above shows two additional PSOAS stretches.
3) Hip Flexor 3 – Rectus Femoris
The Rectus femoris is probably the easiest hip flexor muscle to hit as it runs right down the centre of your thigh from your hip to your knee. You won’t need any complicated tools just a plain old foam roller should work fine. Watch the video below to learn how to foam roll and release the Rectus Femoris.
To stretch this hip flexor you will need a bench of some kind that you can place the top of the foot that you want to stretch on. Support yourself up with the other leg and use it to push your butt back towards the bench. You want to slowly move your butt toward the heel of the upturned foot. You should feel the stretch on the other leg. Keep your lower back flat, core engaged and butt squeezed.
By engaging the glutes, you can stretch the psoas muscles, which is greatly important for people who normally sit a lot or experience frequent back pain.
- Bend the left knee and then lean forward. Bend until you feel the thigh coming into contact with the back of your calf. Use the left foot to support the body weight while keeping the back straight.
- Hold the stretch for a short time, while breathing comfortably. You will feel a stretch in the upper right thigh.
- Inhale and return to the starting position. Push off the left foot, and keep the abdominals tight at the upper body until it becomes vertical.
- Repeat this with your left knee on the mat and the right leg extended making a 90-degree angle.
You Must Do this Hip Flexor Stretch with Proper Form
You want to make sure you have proper form in this classic kneeling hip flexor stretch. You must keep your pelvis stable and not allow your lower back to arch otherwise you won’t get a good stretch in the hip flexor. Watch the video for common mistakes that are made with this stretch.
4) Hip Flexor 4 – Adductors
The adductors are responsible for bringing your leg from the outside and in towards the mid-line. They run down the inside groin area down towards your knee.
To foam roll the adductors lie on your front and put one leg over the roller so the foam roller can run down the inside of your leg. Slowly roll from the top of the knee all the way to the top of the groin.
Frog Pose Stretch
Any time the legs are pulled apart from another is most likely to hit the adductor muscles and cause them to stretch. The most common way to stretch the adductors is by using the frog stretch.
The frog pose has several benefits, from physical, to mental and spiritual, including:
- It opens the hip joints, which reduces strain on the knees
- It strengthens the lower back as it opens the hips
- Get on the floor onto your hands and knees. Gradually move the knees outwards and to the side. Align the ankles and the feet with your knees so that they are lined up straight.
- Move the elbows and forearms towards the floor. While sliding downwards, keep the palms flat on the floor. Then, slowly exhale and push the hips backwards. Keep on pushing the hips to the back until you feel stretching in the hips and the inner thighs.
- Return to Table Pose. Start by bringing the hips forward in rocking motion. Then push up on the forearms and palms to bring yourself to the initial table pose again.
The butterfly stretch is another awesome exercise for opening up the hips, adductors and thighs to improve flexibility.
- Sit on the floor with your both legs straightened out to the front. Keep the legs in front, and then sit straight up to elongate the spine.
- Bring your feet soles together. It might be easier bringing one in first, and then the other so as to meet it. Make sure you’re seated upright, with your head above the spine.
- Bring the heels as close to the body as possible. The knees need to bend point outwards. Hold on to the ankles and pull the feet towards your pelvis. Then get as closer as possible.
- Lean forward. And then make sure the back stays straight. You can use the elbows to push gently on the thighs for a deep stretch.
- Hold on to the pose for a few seconds. Stay still in the pose, and do not even slightly bounce up and down. When you start feeling fain, especially in the knees, stop with the stretch.
- Relax yourself and then repeat the stretch. To make this really effective, you would want to repeat the stretch. Hold on to the position for thirty seconds for two to four times, which depends on your tightness, comfort and flexibility.
Other Effective Hip Flexor Stretches
Here is a list of other useful stretches that open up tight hips, as well as stretching variations of the hip flexors.
This stretch will help lengthen the PSOAS hip flexor, however it has many other benefits too. By doing this stretch you’ll also stretch out the glutes, groin and piriformis. If you suffer from knee problems you may want to try a different stretch.
Happy Baby Pose
The happy baby pose is particularly useful for stretching the inner groin. Not only that but it’s fairly easy and relaxing too!
This stretch targets much of the hips, including the hamstrings and groin area.
Half Kneeling Hip Flexor & Quad Stretch
This stretch is much like some of the stretches we have already seen, except this one has a quad stretch too.
How to Avoid Tight Hip Flexors
The best way to avoid having tight hip flexors is to stop putting them in positions where they become shortened and tight. There is no point doing stretches if you do not address the root cause in the first place.
Additionally, there are simple things one can do daily to help reduce the risk of tight hip flexors.
If you sit at a desk for long periods of time, try getting up and moving around at frequent intervals. You can take breaks from sitting by going out for a run.
Furthermore to avoid pain in the hip flexors, warm yourself up properly before any physical activity, and regularly stretch when finishing each workout. The hips will thank you for this!
The muscles do not get tight without cause, and it’s often because they’re compensating for some weakness elsewhere or are constantly placed in a shortened position.
Seek assessment by a therapist or a movement specialist to identify the weak point. Frequent causes may include some weakness in your posterior chain, poor alignment and motor control, and inadequate core stability, or a combination of them all.
Hips don’t lie, but they may really sidetrack your training should they fall out of whack.