Tighten your butt, flatten your abs but don't forget about your hip flexors if you want to look toned, trim and terrific. Hip flexors take a lot of abuse in sedentary lifestyles that keep your body hinged at the hips without any counterbalancing moves. Muscle fibers actually shorten over time, which makes them both tighter and weaker and sets you up for stiffness, back aches and lower performance in sports or in the gym.
Bend, Stretch and Strengthen
The three muscles that make up your hip flexors -- the psoas major, the psoas minor and the iliacus -- have a major role in stabilizing your lower spine, bending your torso and moving your legs. Hip flexors, especially the psoas, are main connectors between your torso and your thighs. Tight or weak flexors affect your posture, put you at risk for back injury and can even contribute to arthritis. Too much sitting encourages your hip flexors to shorten, pulling your spine out of alignment and causing you to move stiffly. Muscle fatigue -- weak hip flexors -- can lead to cramps and possible strains or tears during exercise or stressful movement like heavy lifting. Exercise that stretches and strengthens your hip flexors -- forward and backward bends at the hips -- keeps you moving gracefully and safely.
Classic Hip Flexor Stretches
Warm up and flex those flexors with basic stretches you can do almost anywhere to relieve tightness. Hit the mat for supine hip flexor stretches. Lie on your back with legs extended. Bend one knee and bring the leg towards your chest, increasing the stretch slightly by pulling your thigh towards your torso with both hands. Switch legs. Kneel on the mat with hips squared and back straight for kneeling hip flexor stretch. Bring one knee up to place your foot flat on the floor in front of you. Lean a little forward and squeeze your glutes to increase the stretch to the hip flexors of your supporting leg. Switch sides. Keep your abs engaged during these exercises to help maintain a balanced position and focus the stretch on your hips.
Pigeons, Boats and Bridges
Yoga is hip flexor-friendly with poses that help to strengthen the psoas and tone your butt as a bonus. Eka Pada Rajakapotasana II, King Pigeon Variation II, is best attempted once you have loosened tight hip flexors. Think of the kneeling lunge position of kneeling hip flexor stretch and then imagine grasping the ankle of the supporting bent leg and pulling it up behind you. That's King Pigeon Variation II. Shift your weight slightly forward off your knee to isolate your hip flexors. Navasana, Boat pose, is an isometric strengthener for your psoas muscle. Balance on your sitting bones on the mat with a straight back, legs extended and raised off the floor, feet flexed and arms extended forward, and core engaged. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, Bridge pose, lengthens and strengthens hip flexors. Lie on the mat, knees bent, feet flat on the floor, core engaged, arms at your sides and push your pelvis toward the ceiling as you raise your torso, balancing on your feet and shoulders.
Stability Ball for Hips
A wobbly stability ball is part of a solid strategy for making hip flexors stronger. The ball works multiple large and small muscles in your back, abs, hip flexors and extensors constantly as you perform exercises while trying to stay balanced. Crunches on the ball, pushups with knees or feet on the ball, squats with the ball between your back and a wall, and stability ball knee tucks all increase the elasticity and resiliency of hip flexor muscles. So does a Bridge pose with your feet on the ball, legs fully extended. Warm up before exercising tight hip flexors to avoid a pull or muscle soreness. Brisk walking will do it -- or any regular total body warm-up that is part of your normal exercise routine.
- Yoga International magazine: The Elusive Psoas
- American Council on Exercise: Supine Hip Flexor Stretch
- American Council on Exercise: Kneeling Hip-Flexor Stretch
- American Council on Exercise: Why Do Muscles Tighten Up?
- American College of Sports Medicine: Selecting and Effectively Using A Stability Ball
- MayoClinic.com: Slide show: A Guide to 10 Basic Stretches
- Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association: Psoas Major: A Case Report and Review of Its Anatomy, Biomechanics, and Clinical Implications
- American Counicil on Exercise: Are Some Yoga Poses More Harmful Than Helpful?
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 .