Common Complaints: The Hip Flexors
One of the most common complaints I hear from athletes is that they have “tight hips.” On further review, I generally discover the culprit is the mystical hip flexor which is actually a group of muscles that allow the hip to flex and extend. Basically, the hip flexors allow the hip to draw the knee towards the chest. When the hip flexors are tight, doing a simple child’s pose will feel like wearing pants that are three sizes too small.
The hips are a complex piece of bodily equipment, the problematic hip flexors are primarily three muscles that make up the iliopsoas group; the psoas major, psoas minor, and the iliacus. Other important muscles of the leg make up the secondary hip flexors, but when I hear hip flexor complaints, the iliopsosas is usually the culprit.
These muscles attach the leg bone to the low spine, but because the area which is generally painful and tight is the iliopsoas tendon (the section that attaches to the bone), you will often hear it referred to as the “hip flexor tendon.” Tendons do not have the same elasticity as muscles, so when stretching, bear in mind you will not get a lot of length out of this area and you will need to hold the poses for a few minutes to relieve tightness.
Some yoga poses which I find helpful for hip flexor tightness include lunges, pigeon, upright frog, bow, and supported bridge. I make no secret of my love for pigeon pose and have covered it fairly extensively in other posts such as The Fast and the Flexible, Part 1. I have also covered lunges in The Fast and the Flexible, Part 3, and would recommend a long lunge set using all three versions with focus on sinking the back leg towards the floor. Also try giving the following poses a try.
Stand at the top of your mat with your toes angled out so that the balls of your feet on the floor while your heels remain on the mat. With me so far? Bend your knees slightly and bring the palms of your hands together. Place your elbows on the insides of the knees and flatten out your back. This may be where you stop, but for those ready to venture on, you will start to allow your hips to sink down.
The key here is to keep your heels firmly on the mat, if they start to lift, back out a bit, take a few breaths and test it again. It may take several tries before you obtain the flexibility in your ankles to get all the way down. Under no circumstances should you force your way into this pose, you will hurt yourself and frankly that is simply counter-productive.
And here you are, in the elegant and ever so dignified Upright Frog pose. Try to stay here for 45 -60 seconds, taking deep breaths to ease the discomfort.
Bow pose is great for opening the entire front side of the body, it works especially well for stretching the front of the hip. Lie on the floor on your belly, bring you feet towards your backside grasping the outside of the ankles and flexing the feet. As you inhale, gently lift the feet holding on with the hands causing the chest to peel up off the floor. Take several deep breaths rising slightly on the inhale, sinking on the exhale. Hold for 30-45 seconds, repeat a second time after a short break.
If a full bow pose is a bit daunting right out of the gate, try half bow. Lie on your belly, place your right arm so your forearm is parallel to the front of the mat. Reach back with the left hand and grasp the left ankle, flex the foot and start to lift the leg up off the mat. Press into the front forearm gently lifting the chest from the mat. Hold for 60 seconds and repeat on the other leg.
For as much as my love for pigeon pose knows no bounds, my dislike of bridge is also well known. Don’t get me wrong, bridge is a useful and beneficial pose, I just don’t happen to like it. But supported bridge, well that’s another story, this is a pose I can get behind. What is so great about supported bridge is that it is a passive stretch that requires absolutely no work on your part, sound good? Then lets do it.
You will need a yoga block, if you don’t have one, stack up some books and wrap them with a towel so they stay together. Lie on your back, knees up, feet hip distance apart. Lift the hips and slide the block under your sacrum (the base of the spine). You will have to play around with the placement of the block until you find a comfortable spot, then settle in for a few minutes and let the hip flexors passively release.
A good sequence of these poses would be lunge series on one side, upright frog in the middle, lunge series on the other side, bow pose two times, then end with a couple of minutes of supported bridge.
I have a couple of other non-yoga suggestions to help release this area. The first is the dreaded foam roller, yes that little torture device. Sure they look innocent, little short fat pool noodles in soothing pastel colors but don’t be fooled. They are ruthless, but very effective. For hip flexors, lay on your belly and place the roller at the middle of the front thigh. Slowly roll over the front of hip and back again several times. It won’t be pleasant, but it does work.
My second, and far more pleasant option involves you and your couch. That’s right, the couch. Lay down on the couch on your back, drop one leg off, bending the knee, dropping it toward the floor. Stretch the arms up over head and let the stretch slowly and comfortably develop in the front of the bent leg. Stay here for as long as you like, just be sure to switch sides occasionally.
Tara Kestner is a registered yoga teacher in Sylvania, Ohio and owner of Next Level Yoga, Ltd. She specializes in designing programs which help athletes improve their performance, prevent injuries, and promote recovery.