Stretching Those Hip Flexors
A friend of mine was asking me about hip flexors last night. Seems like a good time to repost some stretching advice for those pesky hip flexors. (This was originally posted last August in two separate posts.)
We stretch our quads and our hamstrings, try to figure out ways to stretch out our backs, but too few of us even think about the tiny muscles of our hips. And that is a shame. Think about how much time we all spend sitting - at our desks, in our cars, on the train, in front of the TV. When we sit, the hip flexors tighten; that's how we bend at the hip. If we don't work to stretch those muscles, they remain tight.
Why does that matter? Take a look at where those muscles attach to the bone: the spine and the thigh. When any muscle remains tight, it over-stretches the muscles that work in opposition to it and creates imbalance. In the case of the hip flexors (psoas, iliacus, piriformis, tensor fasciae latae), that means the back and legs. And over time that leads to pain.
How many people do you know with lower back pain? Most people assume that lower back pain means their lower back muscles are tight. In fact, most of the time, it's the opposite - those muscles are over-stretched because of tightness in the psoas and iliacus. This is so important to understand! - For students, truck drivers, people with long commutes, folks sitting at a desk all day, or my music colleagues.
Stretching. Seems pretty simple, right? Your muscles are tight, stretch them. Well, proper stretching will help. Stretch improperly, though, and you might end up injured and in worse shape than you started.
The most important rule for stretching is always stretch in a smooth, gentle manner - never sharp, bouncing, or jerky movements. Stretch just to the point of a little pull in the muscles, not to the point of sharp pain. Then hold that stretch for at least 10 seconds (more if you feel like it). Gently release.
Keep breathing while you do this, too. It's surprising how many people hold their breath while stretching. Holding your breath actually causes your body to tighten slightly - not what you want when you are trying to stretch.
A good, simple stretch for the hip flexors is to sit in a chair. Cross one leg over the other, ankle resting on opposite knee. Keep your back straight and hinge forward slightly from the hips. As you lean forward, you should feel a good stretch in the hip of the bent leg. If your hip flexors are very tight, just sitting straight with your ankle crossed over the other knee might be enough of a stretch.
Also, when you do get a break or get out of the car, try simply leaning backwards. Stand up, stretch your arms overhead (or place them on your lower back if you want a little extra support), and gently stretch backwards. Think of your body forming a "C" (or think of the shape of a banana).
Tight muscles, even small muscles, can wreak havoc on our bodies. They attach to bones and interact with other muscles, so the problem doesn't just stay with that one, small muscle. As an example, my hip flexors have gotten pretty tight lately (playing opera, too much time in the car, and lots & lots of bending over weeding). Suddenly, I've been feeling pain again in my knee (lateral collateral ligament - LCL) from last winter's skiing injury. Knee pain from tight hips? Sure. Both the psoas and iliacus attach to the femur (the large bone of the thigh). At the other end of the femur, so do the ligaments of the knee. Excessive tightness in the hip flexors affects the muscles of the thigh, which in turn affect the knee.
Our muscles and tendons are all connected to other muscles and tendons. The effect of tightness in one gets passed down the line. This is why it's so important to stretch properly to regain full range of motion after any surgery. It may not be noticeable at first, but, over time, tightness in the chest, shoulder, knee, foot, or anywhere, can result in far-flung problems.
So, whether from surgery or just daily life, pay attention to muscle tightness. And since so much of all of our daily lives affect our hip flexors, remember to give them a little attention, too.
- BY Julie | 11.20.2010
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