Hip Flexor “Stretching” for the Hypermobile

Hip Flexor “Stretching” for the Hypermobile

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.

Take care of these guys! The ligaments at the front or your pelvis.

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.

Assess

Alignment

Awareness

Breathe

Strengthen

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.

Well, shit.

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:

  • psoas
  • iliacus
  • rectus femoris
  • adductor magnus (anterior postion)
  • sartorius
  • 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.

Stop Stretching Your Hamstrings So Much

Stop Stretching Your Hamstrings So Much

A few days ago I had an interesting conversation with a client of mine about body awareness. Specifically, on the importance of listening to your body when it tells you you’re in pain.

Pain exists for a reason- To guide you. To teach you. To give you some very important information. Your nerve endings can’t talk so they have to resort to being annoying to get your attention. Annoying to the point of being total jerks.

Communicating with jerks is a good skill to develop, and in much the same way, having good communication with your body is important. Body awareness- the ability to interpret what your body is telling you.

It’s your choice, and your responsibility, to listen to your body’s signals, and interpret their meaning. I highly recommend you do.

Like the one time I tried hot yoga and felt like vomiting and passing out simultaneously. The (only moderately fanatical) teacher, reassured me that this was just my body “detoxing” and that I should at all costs NOT leave the room before the 90 minutes was up. I’m all for not being full of toxins, but something tells me the teacher wouldn’t have appreciated me “detoxing” all over the mat. Nor would the sweaty gentleman next to me. And so, much to the instructor’s chagrin, I chose to listen to my body, which was telling me to get the hell out of there.

Detox my ass. That was horrible. I will never hot yoga again.

Is your body being a jerk?

Before you take pain killers, lather up with tiger palm, and ignore these signals, maybe consider changing the way you treat your body.

Imagine you have a pot of water boiling on the stove you want to cool down to drinking temperature, so you keep adding ice-cubes to it in hopes that will cool it down. But this is a silly, ineffective attempt- If we want the water to be a comfortable drinking temperature, you have to take the fire out from under the pot.

I see all too many people masking their pain so they can ignore it. They’re just putting ice-cubes in their pots. You can only put in so many until you run out of ice, or the pot overflows.

But, like, whatever. You can do whatever you want to do. Speaking for myself, however, when my body sends me signals of impending doom, I know better than to ignore them.

So anyway, onward to today’s real topic of discussion.

So you have tight hamstrings, do you?

Do you relate to any of the following? :

“My hamstrings are soo tight, I need to stretch them more”

*while sitting in splits* “I wish I had more flexible hamstrings”

“POP” (sound of hamstring tearing).

I’ve only been witness to one acute hamstring injury (my own) and yes, there was an unsettling popping sound. It was… unpleasant.

I would love it if you could use the information  prevent such unpleasant muscle strains and treat your hammies with the respect they deserve- You should probably STOP stretching your hamstrings so much and work on getting them a bit stiffer.

*IMPORTANT NOTE*

The following article is for dancers who are already at a pretty advanced level in their training. Advanced meaning in terms of years they’ve been dancing, technical skill level , or a combination of the two. This could include university, competitive and professional dancers, and aspiring younger recreational dancers who excel among their peers. Also to any other dancer who meets the following criteria:

  • Can already do the splits in all directions, especially if you can do over-splits
  • Can actively lift the leg up to, or past 90 degrees
  • Dances 3-4+ times per week for at least an hour
  • Competes/performs regularly several times per year
  • You’re hypermobile:

This could also apply to gymnasts, firgure skaters, circus peeps, etc.

This one’s for you guys, to keep you safe. You’re welcome.

You can stop the excessive hamstring stretching!

Just to avoid confusing, I’m definitely not saying that no dancer, ever, needs to stretch their hamstrings, because initially, you will. There are many dancers who benefit from stretching their hamstrings if they lack flexibility.

The hamstrings act to extend the hip, flex the knee, and also help to rotate the leg when the knee is flexed. Biceps femoris, the most lateral of the 3 hamstrings, is most often the hamstring injured, since it’s the only one what also laterally rotates the leg. Ohh turnout… The hamstrings are also important for dancers because of the deccelerative action they perform-The eccentric control necessary for landings from jumps, and for speed and agility.

The misconception is that because your hamstrings “feel stiff”, or “tight”, they should be stretched more. But just because a muscle feels stiff, in your specific case, this might actually be an indicator of the opposite- A need for more stiffness. An actual stiff muscle, by it’s true definition does not feel sore and tight, but feels kind of springy.

In reality, this  hamstring “tightness” is the feeling of a muscle locked long that you are over-recruiting. A weak, over-stretched, over-worked muscle tightening reflexively to protect itself from tearing.

Think about this: you’re obsessed with stretching your hammies, and then you make them perform strenuous, repetitive work, at a high volume while they’re locked in an eccentric (elongated) contraction. Not a super strong place to be.

So if the hamstring is locked in a stretched out position, and you’re jumping around all day kicking your legs over your head, AND THEN stretching them even more while you’re cold, does it really surprise you that they tend to get  cranky and damage easily?

The good news is, knowing this, you can easily prevent these sorts of overuse injuries. Here’s how:

1) Evaluate your need to stretch your hamstrings. They need to be flexible, but they also need to be strong. Act responsibly. If you’re already flexible and/or hypermobile, your needs are different than your friends’. I very rarely do any hamstring stretching with my ballet dancers. There are more productive things we can do. But if you do indeed need more flexibility, spend some time stretching them- Ideally after your day of dancing is complete, or as a separate session on a non-dance day.

Check out THIS RESOURCE on the Bowen Works website, titled “Managing Joint Hypermobility- A Guide for Dance Teachers”. Some solid info on training hypermobile dancers. This is their take on stretching (but check out  complete article when you have a chance. Important stuff for teachers, parents, and dancers to know):

Hypermobile dancers like to stretch. They find it easy and it feels good, but stretching for long periods into the end of range may lead to instability and even injury. Stability and strength should be developed as a priority. However, even in hypermobile dancers there will be areas of restriction and tightness and it is good to stretch these, whilst avoiding stretching areas where there is already excessive mobility.

Many hypermobile people are naturally attracted to dance because of their additional flexibility. However, strength and fine control are essential components to match increased flexibility and end of range movement. Additional  coaching, conditioning and physiotherapy exercises can be useful to gain strength and reinforce movement patterns.

2) Strengthen your glutes and hamstrings. Add some functional stiffness.  Both the hamstrings and the glutes extend the hip, but often we dancers use our glutes (especially the maximus) to turnout, and so the hamstrings (especially the lateral one) do all the work. Silly. And risky.

Here are some exercises to begin with, and eventually progress to:

Prone hip extension. Focus on pushing your hips into the floor and try to not allow the lower back to dip down towards the floor.

Hip bridge with foam roller. Press through the floor with your heels and imagine you are getting a stretch for your hip flexors. Do not thrust up with your spine. Squeeze the crap out of the foam roller.

Pull throughs. A very exciting exercise to do in a busy gym.

Single leg stiff legged deadlift. Ignore how shaky mine are.

And one my favourite exercise of all time, le barbell deadlift. Start with a kettlebell or dumbbell, and progress to a barbell if you’re ready to handle heavier loads (ie no injuries, you’re taught proper form, etc).

That was a personal best for me from a little while ago. I don’t dance much anymore so I decided to work on a strength goal (I don’t recommend lifting THIS heavy if you’re dancing seriously). I accidentally counted the plates wrong, which kind of screwed the whole workout flow up. I can’t count. I avoid math if at all possible. It makes for surprising workouts sometimes.

So to conclude, I urge you to consider a more conservative approach to hamstring stretching (an “as needed” approach), and develop strength in your glutes, and hamstrings. A simple strategy that will go a long way in helping to prevent injury, and improving things like jumps, alignment, and over-all level of pain you’re in on the daily.

Have you had a hamstring injury? I’d love to hear your experiences. Leave a comment below.