Hip tightness is a common problem that can affect posture, limit freedom of movement, decrease sports performance, cause pain and pose a risk for muscle sprains or tears. Some exercise routines and fitness activities actually contribute to tighter hips. Understanding the reason for inflexible muscles can help you to prevent or stretch shortened and stiff hip flexors and the surrounding muscles.
Lifestyle is a big contributor to tight hip muscles. Bending at the hips to sit at a desk hour after hour shortens hip flexors, stretches glutes and tightens hamstrings. The tight flexors and hamstrings actually make it difficult to bend forward and touch your toes, for instance. Another set of hip muscles called the external rotators can also inhibit easy forward bends if they are tight. They work together to rotate your thigh, stabilize your pelvis when you walk, stretch when you bend forward, and keep you from wobbling when you stand on one leg. Dancers, who often balance on one leg, and runners, who stress muscles tasked with stabilizing the pelvis when they run, frequently have tight external rotators. Desk jockeys, joggers and dancers all need conditioning routines with specific exercises to loosen the hips.
Stretch and Flex
Try two classic exercises to open hips and make them more flexible. The Supine Hip Flexor Stretch concentrates on your flexors and hamstrings while providing a challenge for the glutes. Lie back on a mat, legs extended, and keep your feet lightly flexed. Slide one foot placed flat on the floor towards your hip. Keep your core engaged and the opposite leg pushing into the floor as you grab the bent leg and pull it to your chest. Hold the stretch, then release and switch legs. The Kneeling Hip-Flexor Stretch targets hip flexors, rectus abdominus, quads and obliques as well as several leg muscles. Kneel on a mat, core engaged, shoulders down, and back straight. Place both hands on the right knee, maintain squared hips and lean into the right hip, pressing the left knee down for a strong stretch. Switch legs.
A yoga practice may cause or cure tight hips and hip flexors. If you spend lots of time loosening your tight hamstrings but ignore the hard-to-find hip flexors, you will create an imbalance that could keep you out of the yoga studio. This will tilt your pelvis forward, throwing off alignment in many asanas. Counter the imbalance with Virabhadrasana I, Warrior Pose I. Place your hands on your hips, fingers on pelvic bones, to keep hips balanced as you strongly place one foot forward and knee bent and the other leg straight out behind you with your foot placed at a slight angle. The rectus femoris runs from the pelvis down the quads to right below your knee. Its job is to extend and straighten the knee and flex the hip. When contracted, it can pull the hip out of alignment. Supta Virasana, Reclining Hero pose, loosens the rectus femoris by extending hips and flexing knees as you sit between your heels and lie back into a long stretch.
Dancers have as many fitness tools and tricks as shoes in their dance bags. One helpful aid for loosening tight external rotators is a simple tennis ball. Use it to roll stiffness out of the piriformis, an external rotator that connects the femur to the pelvis and spine. Sit on the floor in a relaxed turn-out and place the ball under one hip. Roll around on the ball slowly, pausing at each micro-move for about thirty seconds to allow time for the pressure of the ball to "melt" resistance and knots deep in hip and glute muscles. This basic trigger-point release stimulates circulation in the hip area, lengthening and loosening muscle fibers just like stretching does.
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .