First, I have to apologize for misleading you with the title. And for the record, the words stretching and hypermobile should never be used in the same sentence. That was just to lure you into reading this article. Muwhahaha….
Anyway, I haven’t written the following to teach you crazy stretches that will magically cure your chronic hip flexor tightness. Nor will I promise that I can help take your flexibility to the Svetlana level. Safely. With all ligaments still intact…
So I’ve lied to you.
Rather, this article is geared towards the already hypermobile– dancers, gymnasts, yogis and other bendy folks- with several years of stretching under their belts.
You might find that you often feel “tight”, especially in your hips, hamstrings and inner thigh areas. Despite your flexibility and constant stretching, you probably don’t make any real progress in relieving this “tightness”.
I’ve actually written about this before, on why you should probably stop stretching your hamstrings. Today’s message is similar.
They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. That said, are you ready to try a new approach to relieving your seemingly tight hip flexors?
Why are your hips tight-feeling and why won’t stretching fix it??
I doubt that you, the bendy person in question, need to stretch as much as you think you do.
In this article, I’m going to share with you what might be a new concept towards relieving hip flexor tightness, and that will help to prevent the injuries that could potentially manifest by trying to stretch your pain and tightness away.
Are you ready for a paradigm shift?
Simply stretching you hip flexors more (often and intensely) won’t make them any less tight
From one bendy person to another (or to a teacher of bendy people), allow me to explain why stretching your hip flexors hasn’t been helping your “tight” hips. It might even be making things worse.
If you are naturally hypermobile, or have been stretching into extreme ranges of motion, like the splits, for years, then it’s safe to say you have a significant amount of joint laxity.
Ligaments, which attach your bones to other bones, are part of what determines a joint’s range of motion, and, due to the need for extreme ranges of motion at the hip in dance, gymnastics and yoga, the ligaments at the front of your pelvis in particular get quite stretched out. Turnout especially has a way of doing really unpleasant things to the joint.
The thing about ligaments is that they can only stretch to about 104% of their original laxity, after which point they will never return to their same length again. Ever.
Ligaments are not like muscles, in that they do not have that same elastic stretchiness to them. Ligaments have a higher proportion of collagen, and less blood flow, meaning that they don’t stretch as well, and don’t heal as well after they’ve been overstretched (past 104%, remember).
Dance, gymnastics, and yoga most definitely make you want to push your ligaments farther than 104% their original laxity. It just feels so good!
As stated on the IADMS website (on the topic of why long duration static stretching to the hip area is not a great idea for dancers):
Prolonged stretch is very similar to static stretch, in that the stretch is held without moving. However, it is held for a significantly longer period of time, several minutes instead of seconds. These stretches are used by medical professionals for very specific and serious medical pathologies and are not appropriate for dancers. They elongate anatomical structures that are supposed to stabilize the joints, i.e. ligaments and joint capsules. Dancers should avoid these stretches as they can lead to loss of stability and serious injury
Dancers frequently use these stretches (either intentionally or unintentionally) when they sit on the floor between classes or while doing homework, maintaining their legs in various stretch positions for long periods of time. For example, lying forward while in second position for extended periods places undue compression of the hip labrum, potentially contributing to future injury.
Truth. My labrum(s) hate me.
Why should you care?
Cause I said so. Just kidding. I know if you’ve made it to this point in the article, you’ve been reading for a while and you’re about ready to quit and look at funny cat pictures. But for your own safety, I urge you to read on.
Think now about the front of your hips- If the ligament support there has been compromised, what’s left holding the joint together? Other than blind faith, your anterior hip now must rely on muscles for it’s ligament support- your psoas and other hip flexors.
What can also happen is, because the iliofemoral ligament becomes more relaxed in anterior tilt, dancers tend to compensate by tilting the pelvis to feel less restriction in the ligament and get their leg up higher in arabesque. But the line doesn’t look quite right, you won’t be as strong, and you might hurt your back.
In both cases your psoas starts acting more like a ligament. This is not ideal. Your psoas is a muscle, not a ligament. I hope I’m getting redundant.
While the psoas does provide some stability to the hip and spine posturally, it also has the very important role as prime mover in lifting your leg up high over your head, and other cool things like that.
Trouble getting your leg to 90 degrees? Your psoas isn’t working properly.
With the ligaments not optimally supporting your spine and pelvis, your psoas is now under excess tension in it’s new role of providing stability to the hip and spine, so obviously it won’t be able to lift your leg as high as you want to.
And no wonder it feels kind of tight, eh? (important note: as a Canadian I say “eh” a lot. Deal with it)
And now a new question arises- should you even try to stretch the hip flexors if they are all that’s holding your hip together?
Just because it’s tight, does that automatically mean you should stretch it?
In this case, maybe not.
By stretching one of the only muscles providing support to your hip joint, you might be compromising the stability, and increasing your likelihood for injury.
But it’s a catch 22, because when the psoas become excessively tight, it will pull the pelvis out of place and can cause pain. You’re at risk for things like painful snapping hip, labral tears, and other unpleasant things of that nature.
Are you confused enough now?
Your psoas is too short, and needs to be released, but don’t stretch it because it will make things worse…. So what should you do?
NOTE: for those who are not hypermobile, and are working on improving their hip flexibility, and actually NEED to, then this applies less to you, but might be good to know as you continue on your journey to flexibility.
Here’s my approach: Train your A-A-A-B-S. This is my version of training ‘dem aaabs, baby.
The trouble is we often go about this all wrong- We start by doing strengthening exercises, and we hold our breath while doing them. We have little awareness of what our alignment should be, because we haven’t taken the time to get a proper assessment.
So let’s apply this approach to reducing the tension on the psoas.
Assessment, alignment and awareness. How can you self-assess if your hip flexors might be short and tight? Does your lower back arch excessively? Does your ribcage tend to flare out and up? Do you breathe shallow breaths? Do you have trouble keeping your booty aligned underneath your ribcage? Do you look like this?:
An anteriorally tilted pelvic alignment is common in dancers, which is indicative of chronic tightness in the psoas (among other things), poor breathing, abdominal weakness, and a general lack of awareness of the body’s optimal alignment.
Not only is this position probably going to make your hips feel tight, but being anteriorally tilted at the pelvis makes it difficult to perform many dance exercises compared to when at neutral.
Because in anterior tilt the psoas is shortened and the hip extensors (glutes and hammies) are lengthened, it puts both muscles in a mechanical disadvantage in term of their maximal strength compared to when in neutral alignment, when muscles at both sides of the joint are resting at mid-range (where they are strongest).
An important first step in relieving tight hip flexors is to therefore locate neutral pelvic alignment, and try to use it as often as possible. In dance, and in life. More on neutral spine another time though.
Breathing. Dancers, for the most part, are chronic breath-holders. It’s no use trying to learn a new alignment if you can’t make it stick, and breath is the key. Breathing allows you to live, and likewise, breathing allows you to be fully present and retain the benefits of each exercise
It would be worth your while to take 5 minutes as part of your warm-up to work on breathing while maintaining neutral pelvis.
An exercise that was given to me was to spend 5 minutes a day breathing- 30 second inhalations and 30 second exhalations. If you do the math, that’s only 5 full breaths in 5 minutes. I think the best I got was 20 seconds, and that was still pretty intense.
When I lose touch with my breath, I notice my nagging low back/SI joint/hamstring injuries like to flare up.
Try that exercise out. It takes focus, but is worth the effort. I promise.
Strengthening. In the case of a chronic, short psoas, your best bet is to strengthen your abdominals, glutes and other important postural muscles like the hamstrings, adductors, and upper back.
And just because the psoas is short and tight, doesn’t mean it’s strong, so spend some time strengthening your hip flexors too.
As stated by Donna Krasnow (and friends) from the article, Effective Use of Turnou:tBiomechanical, Neuromuscular, and Behavioral Considerations
Proper pelvic alignment in dancers requires that the abdominal muscles and the hip flexor muscles cooperate. Strong abdominal muscles cannot level the anterior pelvic brim when the hip flexors are tight nor can stretched hip flexors prevent anterior pelvic tilt if the abdominal muscles are too weak.
As you are working in a better alignment, and have a strong core able to support your pelvis, the psoas will eventually be able to take a load off, and will be receptive to soft tissue work and stretching.
So to sum up, lengthening the hip flexors in necessary for dancers, who are often stuck with an ateriorally tilted pelvis, but only in concert with proper awareness of neutral alignment, and strengthening of the supporting structures of the pelvis. Got it?
I hope that made sense.
And note that this isn’t a one-time quick fix. You must continue to maintain this balance for as long as you want to keep your body pain-free.
I find that as soon as I stop paying attention to my pelvic alignment (ghetto booty-ing a little too much), and breathing, and neglect my maintenance core and glute exercises, my lower back starts to ache.
It’s also important to confirm which muscles of the hip flexor group are actually tight, as there are few of them:
- rectus femoris
- adductor magnus (anterior postion)
- tensor fascia latae (TFL)
A good assessment is therefore key to the overcoming hip flexor “tightness” as quickly as possible.
Anyway, that’s enough words for one blog post, I think. And sitting at my computer is making my back sore. Let me know what experiences you’ve had with tight hips.