If you follow any fitness accounts on social media, you have likely come across multiple posts on the dangers of “tight” hip flexors.
According to these posts, hip flexor tightness is the cause of virtually all postural and movement-related issues. Their prescription is generally three sets of 60 seconds of static stretching, which they believe will loosen the hip flexor muscles and correct the issue at hand.
The problem with this thinking is that it does not take the true function of the hip flexors into consideration. Secondly, if the hip flexors are truly tight, this static stretching will not address the underlying cause of the tightness.
What do the hip flexors actually do?
The hip flexors, which are actually a group of multiple muscles, originate on the lower back and hip girdle and run down to the inside of the femur. They have two very important roles in the body—core stability and gait.
Together, these muscles add support to the lower back and hips. When functioning properly, these hip flexor muscles help keep the back and hips “connected,” preventing excessive rounding or arching of the back and anterior or posterior tilting of the hips. When they are not functioning properly, it can have a cascading effect of reduced power and an increase of injury in regions above and below the hips.
The second, and most obvious, role of the hip flexors is hip flexion. Any time you take a step or walk up a set of stairs, your hip flexors pick up your leg. When these muscles aren’t functioning properly, people will often compensate with other muscles of the hips and leg to produce hip flexion. This may work in the short-term, but will lead to reduced performance and an increase in the likelihood of injury over the long term.
Why strengthening your hip flexors is often better than stretching them
The problem with constantly stretching the hip flexors is that it weakens the muscles and hurts their performance. Granted, a muscle that is too short doesn’t function well, either, but that’s rarely the case for these hip flexor muscles. Instead of stretching them, we should be looking to strengthen these muscles. Strong hip flexors can improve speed, explosiveness and even increase your Squat max. A simple test can help you examine whether your hip flexors may need strengthening:
If you know your hip flexors do need strengthening, there are a number of excellent exercises (including the one shown in the video player above) that can do the trick.
If the hip flexor muscles are truly tight, we should first look into the cause of the tightness before deciding that stretching them is our best option. Nine times out of 10, tightness in the hip flexors has nothing to do with the hip flexor muscles themselves. Most often, there is some sort of compensation going on. The body will always protect itself, so if one muscle is not functioning properly, others have to pick up the slack. For example, weak core muscles can cause the hip flexors to be chronically “turned on” in order to help the body stabilize itself. In these situations, simply activating some key core muscles can cause an instant relaxation of the hip flexors.
While stretching “tight” hip flexors has become a common practice in our society, strengthening the hip flexors and the muscles that can cause them to feel tight is often the smarter approach and one that results in improved sports performance.