Stiff hips are a common complaint among runners.
Repetitive flexing of your hip during the running cycle can cause these muscles to become overworked, sore, and stiff.
In extreme cases, it may result in an injury, cutting your run short. Even mild cases can leave you hobbling out of bed the day after a long run, muttering under your breath about how this didn’t use to happen.
In this article, we’ll look at what the up-to-date science says about the common causes of tight hips and offer a number of exercises and examples of how to stretch hip flexors aimed at correcting the issue.
We’ll cover the following:
- Why Are My Hips So Tight?
- Hip Flexor Anatomy
- Tight Hips Or Weak Hips?
- How to Fix Tight Hips: Exercises
- How To Stretch Hip Flexors
Strong and flexible hip flexors are important for running performance, so let’s get to it!
Why are my hips so tight?
Sitting down all day leaves the hip flexors in a shortened position for a long period of time, making the hip flexors muscles tight. This cause is likely related to lifestyle.
Additionally, as we run, the hip flexors play a crucial role in raising the knees and driving the leg forward. As your foot strikes the ground, the hip flexors contract to lift the knee and stabilize the pelvis.
Therefore, it is easy to overtrain the hip flexor muscle, risking overuse and fatigue.
It’s important to differentiate between tight hip flexors and overworked hip flexors. Often what we think of as tension and tightness is fatigue and overuse.
Understanding which mechanism is at play is key to accurately remedying the problem.
To determine if tight or weak hip flexors are contributing to pain or discomfort, it is important to assess their functionality. We’ll delve further into the causes later, but first, let’s get a better idea of the hip flexor anatomy.
Hip Flexor Anatomy
The hip flexors are a group of five muscles located at the front of the hip joint. The primary action of the hip flexors is to flex the hip joint, bringing the leg upper leg towards the torso.
The hip flexor muscle group is made up of the iliacus and psoas, also known as the iliopsoas, pectineus, rectus femoris, and sartorius.
The psoas major originates from the lumbar portion of the spine; it combines with the iliacus to form the iliopsoas, which attaches to the femur. The iliopsoas is the primary hip flexor.
The rectus femoris is one of the four muscles that make up the quadriceps muscle group in the front of the thigh. It originates from the pelvis and extends down to attach to the kneecap and shin bone. The rectus femoris contributes to hip flexion and knee extension.
The sartorius, the longest muscle in the body, crosses the hip and the knee joints. It functions to flex the hip and secondarily to adduct the thigh and externally rotate the leg.
The pectineus muscle is a short, triangular muscle located in the front of the hip joint. It originates from the pelvis and attaches to the femur. The pectineus contributes to both hip flexion and hip adduction.
Tight Hips Or weak Hips?
Muscles often feel tight because they are overworked. This is usually a result of a mismatch between the volume and intensity of our training sessions and our body’s ability to deal with the load.
It could be that you recently increased your running volume too fast with too much uphill and not enough rest.
Often, when a muscle feels tight, it hasn’t actually changed in length. Instead, when the hip flexors are over overworked, they send a signal to the brain to let it know.
While it might make intuitive sense that you need to stretch a “tight” muscle, and stretching may feel good, the best way of stopping that feeling is to make your hip flexors stronger.
When asking the question, “How to release tight hips,” the answer is often to strengthen them.
Many studies have supported introducing a progressive strengthening program. In the long term, it is shown to be effective in reducing the risk of injury.
Below is a test you can try to assess hip flexor strength.
Hip Flexor Strength Test:
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
- Lift one knee up towards the chest and hold it there.
- Release your hands from the knee and hold the leg up, relying on your hip flexor strength to maintain the knee’s position.
- A successful test requires that the knee does not drop when the hands are released. A minimum of a 10-second hold indicates sufficient strength.
- If balance is a concern, use one hand to hold onto something while hugging the knee with the free hand.
- Repeat the test on both sides.
This test is just a quick check to assess hip flexor strength. If you are suffering from discomfort, it is always recommended that you seek the advice of a medical professional.
Check below for some exercises you can utilize to strengthen the hip flexors.
The hips aren’t necessarily always tight due to fatigue. Sometimes a lack of flexibility and range of motion is to blame.
In order to keep your hip flexors loose, be sure to get up and move throughout the day, especially if you work in an office.
This test, known as the Thomas test, is a basic assessment, not a definitive diagnosis.
- Lie flat on a surface with legs extended.
- Bend one knee, bringing it toward your chest and holding it in place with your hands.
- Keep the other leg straight along the surface.
- Ensure your lower back maintains contact with the surface.
- Slowly release your hold on the bent knee, allowing it to lower toward the surface.
- Observe the position of the extended leg.
If the extended leg remains on the surface, hip flexor flexibility is good. If the leg lifts or stays raised, it indicates tight hip flexor muscles.
How to fix tight hips: Exercises
Most hip flexor ailments are successfully treated with conservative physical therapy management. Therefore exercises and stretches play a big part!
Here are four exercises:
#1: Mountain Climbers
- Start in a high plank position, hands shoulder-width apart, body straight.
- Engage your core for stability.
- Lift right knee toward chest, maintaining the plank position.
- Quickly switch legs, returning the right leg while bringing the left knee toward the chest.
- Continue alternating legs in dynamic running motion.
- Keep a steady pace, level hips, and a straight back.
- Maintain controlled breathing throughout.
Try for three sets of 60 seconds and work your way up!
#2: Leg Raise
- Lie on your back with your legs extended and arms by your sides.
- Engage core muscles and lift both legs straight up until perpendicular to the floor.
- Hold briefly at the top.
- Lower legs back down in a controlled manner.
Repeat 10-30 times for three sets.
#3: Hip Thrust
Although not specifically focused on the hip flexors, a hip thrust is a great compound movement for the glutes, hamstrings, and hips.
- Sit on the ground with your back against a bench and the barbell across your hips.
- Place feet flat on the floor, slightly wider than hip-width apart, knees bent at 90 degrees.
- Engage the core, and drive through heels to lift hips and barbell.
- Lift until the body forms a straight line from knees to shoulders.
- Hold at the top and maintain stability.
- Lower your hips back down in a controlled manner.
Repeat for three sets of 15 repetitions.
#4: Psoas March
- Stand straight with feet hip-width apart with a resistance band wrapped around your feet.
- Lift your knee toward your chest while balancing on your other leg.
- Lower foot back down.
- Alternate with the other leg, lifting the knee toward the chest and lowering it back down.
- Continue alternating legs in a marching motion.
Repeat for three sets of 20 repetitions.
How To Stretch Hip Flexors
Now, let’s take a look at how to stretch hip flexors with the following three hip flexor stretches:
#1: Tight Hip Stretches – Kneeling Lunge
- Assume a lunge position with the left leg forward at 90 degrees and the right knee on the ground.
- Engage the core, maintain a straight back, and choose hand placement (hips, front knee, or ground).
- Shift body and left knee forward while keeping the upper body straight.
Hold for three sets of 30-60 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
#2: Hip Flexor Stretches – Reverse Pigeon Pose
- Lie on your back with your legs extended.
- Bend the knees, keeping feet hip-width apart.
- Cross your right ankle above your left knee.
- Gently pull the left leg towards the chest.
- Clasp your hands around your left leg to deepen the stretch.
Hold for three sets of 30-60 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
#3: Tight Hip Stretches -Butterfly Stretch
- Sit cross-legged, with the soles of your feet facing each other.
- Hold your ankles and allow your knees to fall toward the floor.
- Use your elbows, if needed, to gently push the knees towards the ground.
- Keep your back straight, and engage your core.
- Hinge at the hips, bend forward and extend your arms in front of you.
Hold for three sets of 60 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
The best way to prevent yourself from being a victim of tight hips is to look after them. This should be done with both a progressive strengthening and stretching routine alongside your running.
For more tips on how to strengthen your body, check out: Psoas Muscle Exercises.