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We need an appropriate balance between strength and mobility in our hips. This is true if we want to squat or deadlift more weight, jump higher or sprint faster. A world-renowned philosopher by the name of Coolio may have said it best: "You can't have da' hop if ya don't have da' hip!" It's no surprise that athletes in sports like Olympic lifting, powerlifting and sprinting have amazing overall development in both flexibility and strength of the hip musculature.
We see tons of injuries to the hamstrings and lower back, but rarely encounter any sort of injury to the glutes. The fact of the matter is that most athletes are tight in the hamstrings, lower back and hip flexors. This collection of problems is related to a lack of strength and motor control in the gluteal muscles. When the hip flexors (antagonists to the gluteus maximus) are overactive, the gluteus maximus becomes weak via a mechanism known as reciprocal inhibition.
Furthermore, when our "butt" muscles aren't up to the task, the hamstrings and erector spinae muscles are forced to work overtime to compensate. This is known as synergistic dominance. This unfortunate cycle often results in injury, or at the very least, sub-optimal levels of performance.
Now before we go on, let's clarify one thing: the hip is a joint, not a muscle. So when we say "hip musculature," to what muscles are we actually referring? Also, what are their specific roles? Keep reading to find out!
Note: If long strings of big muscley words bore you to tears, you can skip this next section and go right to the sexy exercises.
The primary hip flexors of the body are the psoas major and minor, and the iliacus and rectus femoris. Their role is bringing the femur (upper leg) closer to the trunk. The tensor fascia latae (TFL) is a synergist in hip flexion that also tends to be tight in individuals with shortening/tightness of the other hip flexors. The tensor fascia latae is also a refreshing beverage served at Starbucks.
The primary hip extensors are the gluteus maximus and the three hamstring muscles (long head of biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus). These can be confusing because the gluteus maximus is often lengthened and inhibited due to shortening of the hip flexors, while the hamstrings are often shortened and tight.
It's often easier to think of movements rather than muscle groups. If one extensor muscle group is weak (such as the gluteus maximus), the others (such as the hamstrings and erector spinae) will be forced to compensate. The sumo-deadlifters out there will greatly appreciate the fact that the adductor magnus also contributes to hip extension.
Finally, it's important to note that the lumbar erector spinae musculature isn't technically classified as a hip extensor group as it has no direct attachment to the lower extremities. These muscles actually have points of attachment on the spine and pelvis, so the movement that occurs when they shorten in closed-chain motion is simply lumbar extension.
Excessive lumbar extension (pronounced arch, or excessive lordotic curve) is a risk factor for injuries to the lumbar spine and sacrum. In fact, the L5-S1 and L4-L5 intervertebral discs are the first and second most commonly injured on the entire spine, respectively. If you see someone trying to lockout a deadlift, but instead of pushing their hips forward and standing tall, they go "sway-back," it's because their glutes are weak and they need to compensate for this shortcoming in hip extension with dangerously excessive lumbar extension. What's worse, even the most ignorant powerlifting judge should know to red-light this lift, as the lockout never really took place!
Hip External (Lateral) Rotators
This group includes the gluteus maximus, piriformis, obturator internus and externus, gemelli superior and inferior, quadratus femoris, long head of biceps femoris, gluteus medius (posterior fibers only), sartorius (as it flexes the hip and knee), and portions of the adductor complex (depending on the amount of hip flexion present). These muscles are extremely important in decelerating the internal rotation of the femurs that occurs at heel strike of the gait cycle.
Hip Internal (Medial) Rotators
This group consists of the tensor fascia latae (TFL), gluteus minimus, gluteus medius (anterior fibers), semitendinosus and semimembranosus. Some of the hip adductors may contribute to internal rotation of the femur, once again depending on the amount of hip flexion present.
Don't worry, there won't be a pop quiz at the end of this article over the hip rotators! Whether it's the internal rotators or external rotators of the hip, the fact of the matter is that most of us don't have adequate flexibility in these muscle groups.
The three hip abductors are the TFL, gluteus minimus, and gluteus medius. More often than not, you'll find people with a tight TFL and dormant gluteus medius and minimus on both sides. One of our goals in this series is to work to correct this unfortunate trend.
As Eric described in Construction by Adduction, the hip adductors include the adductor magnus, adductor brevis, adductor longus, pectineus and gracilis. The lower fibers of the gluteus maximus also contribute in some instances.
What follows is a collection of some of the tools we use to re-educate and improve function in the hips, lower back and hamstrings. In a properly functioning body, the glutes should be one of the primary developers of strength and power in the body. However, when the glutes aren't doing their jobs, the hamstrings and lower back are forced to compensate and take on ever increasing levels of stress. This program is a multi-faceted attack on your body; we'll stretch the tight, strengthen the weak, and basically re-write your body's operating system to make it work in a more efficient and fluent manner.
When using the program, it's essential to perform it in the sequence given below:
- Dynamic Flexibility: This will not only warm you up, it'll also improve the active range of motion (ROM) of the hip musculature with which we're dealing.
- Motor Control: Especially in the first stages of training, it's important to perform motor control exercises prior to strength training. This will get those lazy glute muscles "fired up" and more responsive to the training that follows.
- Strength Training: Once we have the glutes "fired up," we need to perform key exercises through a full ROM.
- Static Flexibility: After completing the most challenging aspects of the training session, we'll perform a combination of old-school and new-school stretches to facilitate restoration of the muscles' resting length and improve your overall flexibility.
If you examined a large number of strength athletes, you'd probably notice two issues that are the most prevalent:
- Tight/overactive hip flexors, ITB, biceps femoris, adductors and piriformis.
- Weakened/inhibited hip extensors (specifically the gluteus maximus), gluteus medius and minimus, and possibly medial hamstrings.
To address both of these issues, we need a warm-up that not only lengthens and inhibits the tight/overactive muscles, but also recruits and "fires up" the under-active muscles. Don't worry so much about working on Muscle X or Y; just focus on the movements and the muscles will take care of themselves. Below are just a few of the drills we use to get our athletes' hips loosened up and firing properly:
Quadruped Hip Mobility
This is the most basic of all the hip mobility exercises. Assume an "all-4's" position with the hands underneath the shoulders and the knees underneath the hips. Now we're going to do our best impression of your dog when it has to go pee.
Start off by flexing the hip (bringing the knee to the chest), and then lift it to the outside (abduction). Push back (extend) from this position, and then come back around to the starting position (adduction). Performing this mobility drill is often referred to as "doing fire hydrants" for obvious reasons.
These drills are extremely simple and great for loosening up the hip musculature. The great thing about these drills is that you can perform them virtually anywhere, and a power rack is an excellent place to start. In the beginning, we recommend that you err on the side of caution when placing the bar because you might look like a fool if you end up tripping and busting your face!
For the over drills, set the pin on one side of a power rack at approximately knee height. Stand a few inches away from the pin with your shoulders parallel to it. From here, lift your knee up as high as possible and then step laterally over the pin. Perform the same movement with the opposite leg so that your body is now on the opposite side. Repeat in the opposite direction.
For the under drills, start with the bar at approximately chest height. Again, stand a few inches away from the pin with the shoulders parallel to it. Sit back and down as if performing a deep squat. Next, perform a lunge to the opposite side, making sure to keep the toes pointing straight ahead, the feet flat on the floor, and the chest up. Don't let your posture go down the crapper here! Shift the weight to the lead leg and perform the lunge underneath the pin. Stand up on the opposite side and then repeat in the opposite direction.
Hurdle exercises are another great way to develop mobility in the hip muscles. Begin by placing several hurdles in a row and standing off to one side. Step with one leg while simultaneously lifting the opposite knee as high as possible and turning the lower leg out. Step over the hurdle and go down the line and back with the same leg.
Obviously, once you've performed all the reps for one side, you'll repeat on the opposite side. Once you've done this a few times, the exercise will probably become fairly easy for you and you can pick up the pace. Key points to remember on this are to keep your shoulders square the entire time and try not to "hike" your hip to get over the hurdle. Make all the movement around your hips.
Another option for this exercise works both legs simultaneously. Instead of standing off to the side, you'll stand directly in the middle of the first hurdle. The performance is the same, except instead of performing all the reps on one side you'll alternate legs at each hurdle.
Reverse Lunge with Twist
From a standing position, perform a reverse lunge by taking an exaggerated stride backwards. Sink into a full lunge position while simultaneously reaching over the shoulder on the side of the front leg. This will really increase the intensity of the stretch, but you can actually crank the intensity up even further by squeezing the glute of the back leg. As we discussed before, reciprocal inhibition is probably stopping your glutes from firing. However, by firing them at the desired times, we can increase the stretch of the antagonists (the hip flexors, in this case).
This exercise has been used in performance facilities for years, but I'm not sure many people understand the benefits of trying to increase their functional ROM in a basic movement such as squatting.
From a starting position, bend over and grab your toes. Hopefully you can get down that far; if not, start off by placing your toes on a 2x6 and keeping your heels on the ground. Once you've grabbed the bottom of your toes, pull yourself down into a deep squat position. This may be hard, but really try to force good posture here: the head and chest should be up and the spine neutral or slightly arched. Next, return to the starting position where you're in the toe-touch position and repeat for several reps, trying to get deeper each time. Throughout the movement, keep the fingers wrapped around the toes.
Another (and more difficult) alternative is similar to the motion of a deep overhead squat. Start off in the same manner, but after pulling yourself into the deep squat position raise the arms overhead as if you're in the bottom of an overhead squat. The key benefit of adding this motion is that you have to force the extension in your thoracic spine, something that proves to be difficult for many lifters. Stand up to the starting position and repeat.
Now that we've loosened up the muscles in your hips, hamstrings and lower back, it's time to focus on improving the recruitment of the gluteal muscles themselves. Below are several exercises you can incorporate either at the beginning or end of your workout to improve gluteal function.
Lie facedown on the ground with the legs straight and together while the arms are extended to the side at 90- degree angles to the body. Initiate the movement by squeezing the glute and swinging the one leg back and over the opposite leg and your torso. Touch the toe to the ground and then return to the starting position.
Really focus on keeping the opposite hip and shoulders down while performing this exercise. Remember that our primary goal here is to get our glute muscles firing better, not seeing how far we can wrench our spine to increase the ROM! Nonetheless, once your dynamic flexibility comes around, you may very well be able to touch your foot to the opposite hand.
Mini Band Side-Steps
Side-steps are an excellent exercise to develop the hip abduction function of the glute medius and minimus. Begin by wrapping a mini band around the legs just above your kneecaps. Initiate the movement by swinging your leg out to the side, leading with the heel. Keep the chest and toes pointed forward throughout with your hips and knees slightly bent. Return facing the same direction, leading with the opposite leg.
When you're performing these, make sure to keep tension on the band at all times and don't let the trailing leg drag (pick it up off the floor). For variety, you can wrap the bands around the ankles instead of the thighs.
Another variation that has more real-world applicability is to perform 8-10 reps and then, with the band still wrapped above your knees, perform 8-10 body weight squats. Make sure to force the knees out to the side hard throughout the movement. This variation will strengthen your hip abductors and improve your squatting technique. You can also try forward and backward "monster walks" (exaggerated steps to 30-degrees where you push out against the bands) and "ice-skaters" (the same, but the angle is about 45-degrees to the sides against the bands).
Just don't even think about hopping on one of those obstetrician hip abductor machines; they're terrible for you for a variety of reasons that go beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that a fixed line of motion for abduction – especially in a position of significant hip flexion – will put you on the fast track to dysfunction in the hips and lower back. Plus, you'll look like a Sally.
This doozy of an exercise comes from Craig Liebenson. We're sometimes leery of teaching it as most people struggle to do it correctly! If you're having problems with this, stick to performing the side-steps described above.
Begin by standing on one leg. Next, drop the opposite hip and let the hip on the side that's balancing poke out. Hold for a second and then "correct" back to starting position. One thing you want to make sure to do is keep your torso as level as possible. If your torso is all over the place, you're probably using your quadratus lumborum (QL) instead of your gluteus medius and minimus. This is definitely not a good practice, as most people have overactive QLs already.
Finally, don't rotate the body while performing this exercise; the movement should be purely side-to-side. The feedback afforded by a mirror can be very helpful as you work to get the proper feeling of the movement.
Floor Bridge Progressions
Now that we've discussed several exercises for the glute medius and minimus muscles, it's time to shift our attention to the gluteus maximus. The floor bridge is the most commonly used exercise for teaching motor control in the gluteus maximus, and for good reason: it works!
Start with the head, back and butt flat on the floor and the legs bent to 90-degrees. Initiate the movement by squeezing the butt, driving through the heels, and lifting the hips off the floor. This should be a slow and controlled movement where you only go as high as your glutes are willing to take you. If you try to force the ROM, you'll only be taking the stress of your glutes and shifting the load to your lumbar extensors.
Keep the tension on the glutes and lower to a point just above the ground, repeating for the necessary number of reps. We're sure that some of you will progress fairly quickly, so we've included several more challenging exercises to keep you interested and progressing.
The next step in our road to gluteal excellence is the single-leg bridge. To perform the single-leg bridge you'll begin in the same starting position, only now one foot will be on the ground while the other will be hovering just above it. Again, squeeze the butt, drive the heels through the floor, and lift up as high as your glutes will take you.
These exercises aren't meant to be easy; they're meant to make you better! Focus on using the proper muscles and leave your ego for the heavy weights. The same rules as above apply: squeeze the glutes and go up as high as they'll take you, then come down to a point just above the ground. Maintain tension at all times!
Now that you've got the first two progressions down, let's go to the final version in our floor bridge arsenal. This last version is very similar to the previous version, only now we're ensuring that you can't cheat with added lumbar extension.
Take a tennis ball or rolled-up towel and place it on your lower abdomen. Flex the hip on the non-working side and pull your upper thigh in so that it pins the towel against your abdomen. From here, perform the single-leg bridge just as you did before. By flexing the hip, we're making sure that you can't use lumbar extension to force yourself up, so if you've been cheating on the previous versions, this one will have no mercy on you!
If you get bored with the floor versions, you can also experiment with performing these on a ball, off a bench, on the floor with bands around your knees, with added weight, etc. The possibilities are endless, so use some creativity and keep your training fresh.
The birddog is another excellent exercise for improving gluteal function and motor control. To begin, start on all fours with the hands under the shoulders and knees underneath the hips. Brace the stomach like you're about to be punched and squeeze the glute that you're about to move.
With the glute tight, think about "pushing" your leg straight back with the heel leading. Hold at the extended position, and then return to the starting position with the leg hovering above the ground (not resting on it). Make sure you keep the active glute and stomach tight throughout; this will keep the hips square and steady, thus maintaining the focus on the glutes. Also, you should be looking at the floor with the chin tucked the entire time.
If you've mastered the first birddog, the second one will add some difficulty as you take your points of balance on the floor from three to two. The starting position is the same as before and you'll tense your body in the same fashion. However, as you push your leg away, also lift your opposite arm and raise it in front of you. The goal is to keep everything tight and the hips steady throughout. Make sure to use your muscles and not momentum to complete the reps!
Now, if you've done these exercises for a while, I'm sure you'll realize that one side is stronger or more "free-flowing" than the other. We've seen the same thing in both a clinical and athletic settings. Most people have a dominant hand, and this dominant hand leads to one muscle sling or serape being stronger and more dominant in comparison to the other. A serape is basically a functional line that allows fluent and efficient movement between muscle pairs (think of the one lat and the contralateral gluteus maximus, erector spinae, and hamstrings working together in the sprinting motion, and you'll get the idea).
Therefore, if you're right-handed, your serape between your right lat and left glute will be stronger and more easily recruited than the opposite, especially if you have a background in a unilateral sport such as baseball or tennis. One would think that daily functions would utilize both serapes evenly, as you take the same number of steps on each side when you walk or compete in running-based athletics. However, when you always reach for something with your dominant side, or use a mouse on one side at your computer all the time, things can be thrown out of whack. For this reason, you may need to perform extra reps on the weaker side to restore muscle balance and function.
That concludes the dynamic flexibility and motor control portions of this corrective program. Give these exercises a shot before your next few lower body-training sessions and notice the extra mobility in the hips and strength in the glutes. Next week, we'll introduce some strength training and stretching initiatives for your rump.
Until then, get your butt in gear!