Hip Flexors – Reversing Tightness to Ease Discomfort
Tight hip flexors can be a royal pain in the butt (literally and figuratively). They can contribute to back pain, butt pain, hip pain, knee pain, and more. Because they span from the upper part of the lower back all the way to below the knee, they influence how a good chunk of the body moves. When they are tight, things move sub-optimally. Over time, continued incidences (or minor injuries that we don’t perceive) from suboptimal movement add up and cause injuries.
Our goal is to prevent those injuries before they occur. In order to prevent them, we have to identify if the hip flexors are tight and reverse this. Restoring optimal length to muscles allows joints to move fluidly. This, in turn, lessens your injury risk while you get after what you love to do.
Your Hip Flexors May Not be Tight
Before we jump into talking about how to determine if your hip flexors are tight, it’s important to discuss a major caveat. Most individuals feel that a muscle is tight and automatically assume the muscle is tight. It’s a fair assumption. If something feels a certain way, shouldn’t it be that way?
Unfortunately, our body is really good at tricking us. The signals that it gives us aren’t always accurate (why you can have pain in your elbow that’s caused by muscles in your shoulder). Our body gives us incorrect signals – more often than not – with hip flexors. The overwhelming majority of people we see think they have tight hip flexors when the muscles are really just weak.
Weak Muscles Tighten to Protect You
See, weak muscles will stay partially contracted (and thus create a feeling of tightness) in order to protect the body. The body’s goal is to not get injured and it perceives weak muscles as a threat to injury. It attempts to counteract this threat by keeping the muscles partially contracted. This partially contracted state is what creates the feelings of tightness.
The last thing you want to do with a muscle that is contracting to protect yourself is to stretch it. By pulling on the muscle, you’re adding threat. You’re trying to lengthen something that believes it needs to stay shortened in order to protect you. In response to stretching, those weak muscles will clench down more and more. Because of that, folks in this camp often complain that they stretch and stretch and still feel tight. The muscle just never feels like it got stretched.
If you’ve had that experience, we invite you to consider approaching your hip flexors differently. What if it’s not about tightness and it’s about weakness instead? In this case, your muscles may still test out as being tight, but they may truly be weak.
Evaluate Hip Flexor Tightness
Here’s a video that will walk you through a test to determine if your hip flexors are tight. Normally, we’d write out a description for this, but it’s a hard test to describe, so your best bet is to watch the video! Please note, YouTube does have captions, so if you aren’t in a setting where you can listen to a video, you can still watch it.
Evaluate Hip Flexor Weakness
This video will walk you through evaluating your own hip flexor weakness.
Fix Tight OR Weak Hip Flexors
Regardless of whether your hip flexors are tight or weak, the best way to fix this is to load the hip flexors throughout their full range of motion. Ideally, this load is the greatest when the muscle is the most elongated. This forces the muscle to kick itself into gear and get stronger in those positions.
The stronger a tight muscle gets, the less of a threat the body perceives and the less of a tight feeling you feel. And, the stronger a weak muscle gets, the better it is able to support the activities you want to do without putting extra load on other structures. In both cases, the better the hip flexors function, the better your movement will be, and the less of a chance of injury you will have.
There’s two main hip flexors – the rectus femoris and the iliopsoas. We’ve included our favorite strengthening exercises that help decrease feelings of tightness for both below. If you watched the full video to test and see if your hip flexors are weak, you’ll find you’ve already seen the second exercise!
Wrapping It Up
While it may feel that your hip flexors are tight, we find they are more commonly weak than tight. Weak muscles contract, which creates a feeling of tightness, in order to protect the body. Strengthening those muscles through their full range of motion builds enough stability to optimize movement and eliminate those feelings of tightness.