Photo credit: Maria Revelj, Bingin Beach, Bali
If you’re an athlete, you get tight hips. If you’re a lazy bones who sits too much, you get tight hips. In fact, it seems almost impossible to escape tight hips. Unless of course, you’re a yogi. Not only do we have a whole category of poses called Hip Openers, but these poses have you covered from every angle—the quads and hip flexors, groin and adductors, and external rotators and glutes.
What causes tight hips?
Your body is an efficiency machine. It adapts to what you do most often and, unfortunately, not to what you do that is best for your long-term physical health. So as you get older, you lose the ability to get into positions and perform movements that you have systematically neglected.
Here are some ways this can affect the hips:
- Chronic contraction. We sit for an average of 10 hours day—at work, on the bike, when we’re travelling, eating and relaxing in front of the TV. Sitting chronically shortens the hip flexors—the muscles that connect your torso to the tops of your thighs—and over time, you lose access to your full range of motion.
- Limited range of motion. The hips are designed for movement in all directions—forward and back, side to side and to rotate in and out. Unfortunately, what you do most of the time—walking, sitting and riding your bike—requires limited range of motion other than in the sagittal plane (forward and back).
- Overuse. You repeat the same movement patterns over and over and this overly stresses specific muscles.
- Weak glutes. As the hip flexors tighten from contraction and overuse, the opposing muscles—the glutes—respond by relaxing and deactivating. This process, known as reciprocal inhibition, is designed to protect the hip flexors from tearing.
- Muscular imbalances. Muscular imbalances pull the pelvis out of alignment which sets up dysfunction not only in the hips but also up and down the kinetic chain.
- Pain. Muscular imbalances also lead to compensation patterns, when when repeated over and over, stress synergistic muscles, eventually causing chronic pain.
These 5 factors create the perfect storm for tight and inflexible hips. You therefore need to counterbalance your lifestyle habits and training program with targeted hip flexibility and mobility work.
How can tight hips cause pain?
When the muscles and connective tissue around the hip joints get short and tight, they pull the pelvis into an anterior tilt causing an excessive arch at the lower back. This can cause compression pain in the lower back as well as pain further up the spine between the shoulder blades.
Tight hips in combination with weak glutes can also cause knee and foot pain, as other muscles, including the IT Band and hamstrings, have to compensate. This puts excessive stress on joints, ligaments and tendons further down the kinetic chain.
Essentially, muscular imbalances lead to compensation patterns which when repeated over and over stress synergistic muscles and cause chronic pain.
How can tight hips limit performance?
To excel in your sport, you need the ability to access full range of movement at your hips, combined with sufficient strength and stability in and around your hip joints. Here are some of the ways tight hips can negatively affect your performance:
- Inadequate hip mobility and corresponding weak glutes prevent you from generating maximum power and speed.
- Tight hips reduce your control and agility as you’re not able to transfer your weight as smoothly and efficiently.
- Tight muscles impair movement efficiency which increases fatigue.
- Some sports, like snowboarding and surfing, require considerable lateral and rotational mobility, at speed.
- Tight muscles and a lack of suppleness can cause discomfort and pain in the synergistic structures.
- Restricted movement increases your risk of injury.
3 types of hip openers
One of the main reasons that yoga is so effective at loosening up tight hips is that, unlike conventional stretching, in yoga we stretch the hips from multiple different angles. When you start to tune in, you will probably find that you are flexible in some ranges of motion and less in others, so you can focus on the areas that need most attention.
If you struggle to get into any of these poses, try one of the alternatives until you have sufficient flexibility and mobility to move up to the next level. This is going to look different for all of you. For example, some of you drop easily into Pigeon but struggle with Dead Pigeon, which for many athletes is an easier pose. Just see what works for you and, of course, feel free to ask me any questions.
There are 3 different types of hip openers—hip flexor, groin and outer hip stretches. You should aim to incorporate all of them into your mobility program, especially as you may find that you are tight only in some areas and have good flexibility in others. Hold each of the poses below for 5-10 deep breaths on each side, in and out through your nose.
Click on the links for full instructions and modifications.
Hip flexor stretches
- Be patient and consistent. Loosening up tight hips may take time. Depending on your level of flexibility, you can work on improving your hip mobility for 15 minutes, 3-5 times a week.
- Force is a substitution for intelligence always. (Moshe Feldenkrais) Focus on feeling and easing your way into the poses, rather than on trying to force your hips to open.
- Use your breath. Slow down your breath and use it as a guide for how deep you should go into each of the stretches. Breathe and release. Catch yourself anytime you find yourself holding your breath and holding onto tightness.
- Pay attention to your alignment. Practice in front of a mirror if you can and pay close attention to alignment cues.
- Be mindful. Notice how your body feels in the stretches. Notice where your asymmetries are and which areas you need to work on.
I have just released a brand new series of 15 x 15-minute videos designed to loosen up tight hips, increase hip mobility and build stability and strength in the hip joints. Here is the link: yogafortighthips
thingThere are 5 different types of sequence in this series:
- The MOBILITY sequences are relatively fast-paced and are designed to loosen up the hips. They are best practiced in the morning or early on in the day.
- The BALANCE and STRENGTH sequences are the most challenging physically and are designed to build strength and stability in and around the hip joints. They are also best practiced in the morning or early on in the day.
- The FLEXIBILITY sequences are slow and steady and are designed to strategically increase flexibility in the hip muscles. They are best practiced in the early evening when your muscles are warm and pliable and you're winding down.
- The RELAXATION sequences are gentle and restorative and are best practiced in the evening to prepare your body for sleep.
Let me know if you have any questions about hip opening poses—modifications, variations, applications—or anything else you're struggling with.