Hip joint extension is an absolute pre-requisite for safe and efficient movement. This is not negotiable. We need it to achieve proper upright posture, and to walk, run, and climb stairs. But when the hip flexors are tight it restricts the hip and creates compensatory movement patterns that can wreak havoc on our musculoskeletal system.
Given the abundance of tight hip flexors seen in our clinics, we need to have some effective go-to stretches and home exercises to deal with this issue. But here’s the problem…
The hip flexors are one of the most common areas to be stretched incorrectly. And when this happens, not only is it ineffective in addressing the dysfunction, but in many cases can overload the lower back and further ingrain inefficient and potentially damaging movement patterns.
So in this article let’s discuss some of the best ways to properly stretch the hip flexors and improve the critical hip extension movement pattern.
The Critical Requirement With Every Hip Extension Stretch
The human body has an amazing capacity to compensate for dysfunctional muscles and/or joints. These compensations alter how stress is distributed across the musculoskeletal system, often leading to tissue damage. Correcting these compensatory patterns is a primary goal of care. This is where corrective exercise comes in.
But here’s the thing. The body’s capacity to get around things that don’t work is not limited to functional activities like walking, running, or climbing stairs. These patterns will also permeate into corrective exercises unless we take specific actions to actually correct the pattern of dysfunction.
Now here’s the key thing to understand about the hip. When the hip flexors are tight they block the hip from fully extending. But the body still needs to stand, walk, and climb stairs. So this loss of hip extension needs to be made up somewhere else. This typically occurs through the lumbar spine and pelvis. Instead of extending at the hip, the body will position the thigh behind the body by extending the lumbar spine and tilting the pelvis anteriorly.
The body’s capacity to get around things that don’t work is not limited to functional activities like walking, running, or climbing stairs. These patterns will also permeate into corrective exercises unless we take specific actions to actually correct the pattern of dysfunction
So here’s the critical take home point. Simply performing a hip flexor stretch will not automatically correct this issue. We need to prevent the compensation. If we don’t, the body will simply default to the sloppy movement pattern and extend the lumbar spine. We need to focus on correcting the pattern, not just stretching the muscle.
Controlling the Pelvis for a Better Stretch
The key to stretching the hip flexors is to control the position of the pelvis during the stretch. Remember, lumbar extension is associated with an anterior pelvic tilt. So this first step in any hip flexor stretch is to perform a posterior pelvic tilt. This posterior tilt will counteract the anterior tilt force that is generated as the hip flexors are pulled tight.
And in addition to improving the flexibility of the hip flexors, it also helps train the body to move through the hip while holding the lumbo-pelvic spine stable.
While may people are familiar with pelvic tilt exercises, it is not uncommon for some people to find this difficult. Especially with low back pain patients. But this sagittal plane pelvic control is critical to the movement. Some people will need to spend some time mastering these pelvic tilts before they are ready for a actual hip stretch.
Now that we know the principles, let take a look at a few of the most effective stretches and exercises to correct the hip extension pattern.
Kneeling Lunge Stretch
The Kneeling Lunge Stretch is a classic hip flexor stretch that will target the iliopsoas as well as the rectus femoris muscles. When done correctly this can be one of the most effective exercises to improve hip extension mobility. As described above, the key with this and every other hip flexor stretch (and really with any mobility exercise) is to make sure the movement is coming from the right place. In this case, from the hip.
This stretch is more effective when performing multiple repetitions utilizing shorter holds for 1-2 seconds. This more closely mimics how the hip flexors stretch with real life activities.
Here’s how to do it.
- From a kneeling position perform a posterior pelvic tilt
- While holding this pelvic tilt, slide your hips forward until you feel a light stretch on the front of your train hip/thigh
- There should be no pain or pressure in the lower back
- Hold the stretch for 1-2 seconds then slide back to release
- Perform 10-15 repetitions (focus on holding the pelvis stable for the entire stretch)
Standing Hip Extension Stretch
This is one of my go-to hip flexor stretches that more specifically targets the single joint hip flexors. I like it for a few reasons. First, it’s done in an upright position that closely mimics the late stance phase of gait. This makes it very functional. Second, because it’s done in a standing position it can be easily done multiple times throughout the day. You don’t need to worry about getting down of the floor or having a pad to support the knee.
The key to this stretch is in the initial set up. In addition to the posterior pelvic tilt, the key with this stretch is to keep the pelvis and feet facing forward. (There can be a tendency to for the pelvis to turn towards trail leg).
Also, you must begin with the trail leg flexed so the thigh is in line with the trunk (i.e., the hip starts in a neutral position). Once your set-up in the right position you straighten the knee. Due to the closed-chain position of the leg as the knee extends it pulls the thigh back into extension.
Just like the Kneeling Lunge Stretch, performing 10-15 repetitions of 1-2 seconds holds will be most effective.
Hip Extension with Band Exercise
This Hip Extension with Band exercise is not really a stretch in the classic sense. It is more of an active mobility exercise. This exercise will be less effective in increasing the actual flexibility of the hip flexors. But it is excellent to promote what I refer to as functional flexibility. While the previous two stretches will make the hip more flexible, this exercise will teach the body how to use this increased flexibility during gait. We are teaching the body to move through the hip with a stable core under greater load.
Here’s how to do it.
- Begin in a standing position with a resistance band secured to your foot. The other end of the band can be secured in a door in front of you.
- A chair can be used to help with balance if needed
- Perform a posterior pelvic tilt and brace your abdominal muscles. You must maintain this tilt for the entire exercise to keep your pelvis and lower back stable.
- Now squeeze your glute and pull your leg back. Focus on isolating the motion from the hip joint.
- Hold the leg back for 1-2 seconds then bring the leg forward again.
- Perform 2 sets of 10 reps per leg.