Hips are powerhouses. Optimal, strong, powerful hips enable us to be faster runners, more efficient cyclists, more explosive jumpers, more easeful yoga practitioners, and more gainful strength trainers.
Hips are also complex. Hips get tight. Hips get wonky, and we try band-aids to make them feel better: constant stretching, foam rolling, massaging–but they don’t get better because band-aids are…well, just band-aids. Short term fixes usually aren’t sustainable.
Hips require some “root cause” work.
Check out these three main main reasons that hips get wonky and how you can begin implementing helpful strategies to put the hop back in your hip:
1. Hips are where emotional stress hides out and gets trapped
The stress is very well hidden because our hips are less represented in the brain than other body parts. Wait…what?
Some science: This strange looking human (below) is a visual representation of the density of neurons in our motor and sensory areas in our brain. Pretty wild, right? These areas control how specifically we can move and how rich our sensory experience is in each of these areas.
From the image, we see that the areas in our body with the richest motor and sensory representation are our face, mouth, hands, tongue, and to a lesser extent, our feet. These areas are very well-defined in the brain because they are essential to basic survival: eating, drinking, and food foraging. The rest of the body, for example, the trunk and hips, are less well-defined, with less dense motor and sensory neurons. Because of this, we literally don’t feel our hips as well as we do our hands, mouth, etc., and as a result, it’s harder to know how to control our hips. But if we use mindful awareness, along with exercises like these in this free video, we can help our brain create more neuron density.
Given that the hips can act as a storage vessel for stress and trauma, the first place to look for working with tight hips is…yep, you guessed it… identifying sources of stress in your life, and then doing an internal check-in on your actual stress levels. How? Set a timer for 3 minutes, sit comfortably, and tune in to your heartbeat. If it’s difficult to sense, or if it feels scary, you may need to take a closer look at the potential stressors in your life.
Doing a body scan is a useful way to connect with your body. It can take you out of the narrative/story that might be feeding your stress, thereby making your stress harder to shake. Try this 7-minute practice with our TPM instructor, Cara Senicola, DPT.
2. Hips suffer when you have a sub-optimal functioning core.
This could be you if you do core exercises and feel like your hips flexors are on fire, or your neck and back are paying the price. If your core isn’t doing its absolute best to stabilize your trunk, rib cage and pelvis, it has to recruit someone else. And often that someone else is the hip flexors. Now the hips are working double duty.
A strong responsive core takes the pressure off the spine and hip joints, and keeps the pelvis stable. Since the pelvis holds the hip socket, a stable pelvis then provides a stable platform for the hip socket. In turn, a stable hip socket lets the ball of the hip move freely into flexion, extension, aBduction and aDduction, internal and external rotation and circumduction (in a circle). That’s a win-win for all of our functional activities in life. A happy hip.
But it’s worth repeating that when your core is weak, the rest of your body weakens and gets put under greater strain. Your muscular and skeletal health is compromised, and the job is left open for someone else to take over. Too often that burden falls on the muscles around the hip–mainly the iliopsoas, tensor fasciae latae (TFL) and quadratus lumborum (QL). Watch this excerpt from our Physiyoga training of Emily discuss what happens when these muscles start to assume the job of the core.
If you are a runner, cyclist, or professional sitter, you may have a tendency to hip (pelvic) hike. (This was explained in the videos) Our hips work best when the pelvis moves very little during hip movement. Sometimes we develop habits of hiking the pelvis instead of flexing the hip (can occur after injury). Instead of just moving the hip, we actually hike the side of the pelvis up toward our shoulder. This is also known as a lack of pelvic hip dissociation, where the pelvis and hip are moving as one piece, instead of the pelvis staying relatively stable (as the socket) and the hip moving freely.
For performance, this is less than ideal because you lose power and optimal movement efficiency. Watch this video for further explanation. As a sitter, a hip hike can perpetuate a nagging ache in your hip.
Avoid doing core exercises that bother your hips. Scale your core exercises back to something a little easier and focus on controlling your pelvis in space, keeping it stable while you move your legs. Our lower abdominal 6-part program breaks this down step-by-step where you retrain control of your abs and allow the hip flexors to take a much needed break.
3. Hips pay the price when the glutes and hip rotator cuff aren’t holding the ball in the hip socket.
Keeping in mind that the core controls the hip socket, the other piece to the puzzle is how well the ball is held in the socket. When the ball is freely allowed to migrate forward (which happens when we hike a lot or our hip flexors are acting as core compensators) we can experience a pinching, grippiness, achiness, or soreness in the front of the hip. After you downtrain(read more about downtrain and uptrain here)the hip flexor muscles, you have to save your work by uptraining the hip rotator cuff muscles lest you find yourself back to square one. These six muscles (superior and inferior gemellus, obdurator internus, externus, piriformis, quadratus femoris) work together as a team to pull the hip ball back into the socket and keep it there while we move our hip into flexion and extension. Holding the hip ball centered in the socket continuously helps the hip flexors calm down, and builds movement efficiency in how the pelvis and hips move. This results not only in fewer aches and pain over time but increased power in cycling, running, jumping, and lifting: the proverbial ball is in the right court. 🙂
Here’s a good way to start the process off with a release of the hip flexors and an uptrain of the hip rotator cuff to spread the load.
Just to sum it all up:
Instead of spending all your time tending to tight hips by stretching and massaging/releasing, spend at least 50 percent of that time working on root causes. Commit to adding small amounts of mindfulness, as well as core and hip rotator cuff work, into your life.
Start with small mindfulness breaks, especially when your hips start talking back to you. Even a one-minute scan focusing on your inhale and exhale (moving in and out of your nose) will make a difference. When you connect and tune into your body this way, you’re putting the stress cycle on pause. Every little bit helps.
You don’t need to do a new special core routine either. Simply take the lessons you learned in the lower abdominal program and apply them to every core exercise routine you do!
Finally, your hip rotator cuff can get primed and activated before each run, spin, yoga class or lift by doing just a few really focused, isolated clamshell exercises. We’ve been there. It works