If you’re like most people, your hips feel tight all the time, and especially right at the top of your thighs.
They probably flare up when you do lower body exercises too, like the squat and deadlift.
Such is life with tight hip flexor muscles.
What can you do about it, though? Should you stretch? Strengthen? Something else altogether?
Well, poke around on the Internet and you’ll find a lot of conflicting opinions on what causes tight hip flexors and what to do about it.
Some people say that sitting is to blame because it shortens and weakens the muscles, others say exercise–and weightlifting in particular–is at fault, and others still say that muscle weakness is the root cause.
There isn’t much agreement about how to best fix the problem, either.
“Stretching is the key,” says one expert. “No,” counters the other, “strengthening must come first.”
And there you are in the middle, wondering whom to believe and what to do.
Well, the truth is hip flexor tightness isn’t as cut and dried as many people would have you believe. As you’ll see, causation is murky and “magic bullet” fixes are unlikely.
The good news, though, is you don’t have to know exactly why your hip flexors are acting up to figure out how to fix it, and with a little trial and error, you can do just that.
Let’s start at the top…
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4:10 – What are hip flexors?
5:38 – What causes tight hip flexors?
9:02 – What are the best stretches for tight hip flexors?
12:47 – What are the best exercises for strengthening the hip flexors?
Mentioned on the Show
Mike: [00:00:22] Hey, Mike Matthews here from Muscle For Life and Legion Athletics. And welcome, welcome to yet another episode of the Muscle For Life podcast. This one is going to be about hip flexors. What causes tight, weak hip flexors and what to do about it.
[00:00:36] So if you’re like most people, your hips probably feel tight, more or less all the time, and especially right at the top of your thighs. They probably flare up when you do lower body exercises like the squat and deadlift and such as life with tight hip flexor muscles. I know firsthand because I have been there.
[00:01:00] What can you do about those? Should you stretch? Should you strengthen? Should you do something else altogether? Well, simple questions, but if you poke around on the Internet, you will find a lot of conflicting opinions on what causes tight hip flexors and what to actually do about it. Some people say that sitting is to blame because it shortens and weakens the muscles and others say that exercise is actually to blame and weightlifting in particular. And others still say that muscle weakness is the root cause.
[00:01:33] Now, as far as what you can do about it, there isn’t much agreement there either. One expert says that stretching is the key, another one counters that strengthening has to come first before flexibility, and there you are in the middle wondering whom to believe and what to do.
[00:01:52] Well, the truth is this: hip flexor tightness is not as cut and dried as many people would have you believe. And as you will learn in this podcast, the causation is actually rather murky and magic bullet fixes are unlikely.
[00:02:08] There is good news, though, and that is you don’t have to know exactly why your hip flexors are acting up to figure out how to fix it. And with a little trial and error. You can do just that.
[00:04:09] All right, so let’s start with answering the simplest of questions: what are hip flexors? Well, the hip flexors are a group of muscles around the top of your thighs that connect your upper leg to your hip. And these muscles are involved in just about every kind of movement that involves your lower body, including exercises like the squat, deadlift, overhead press, and even the bench press.
Now, there are quite a few hip flexors, but the primary ones are the iliopsoas, the rectus femoris, the sartorius, the tensor fasciae latae, the pectineus, the adductor longus, the adductor brevis, the gracilis. So these muscles are called hip flexors because they create flexion in the hip, which is the technical term for a bending movement around the joint in a limb, such as a knee or an elbow, that decreases the angle between the bones of the limb at the joint.
That might sound a bit complex, but think of it this way: when you raise your knee, hip flexion occurs because it decreases the angle of your thigh bone relative to your hip joint. And in case you’re wondering, the opposite of flexion is extension, which occurs when you lower your knee from that flexed position to a more straight position.
[00:05:39] All right. So now let’s talk about causation. What causes type hip flexors? The scapegoat de jure for tight hip flexors is sitting. That is definitely the number one culprit these days, according to various popular mainstream experts, slash gurus.
And in fact, some people are even saying that sitting is the new smoking because it purportedly increases the risk of all kinds of disease and dysfunction, which, by the way, is a claim that research shows is probably more wrong than right.
So you don’t have to feel guilty if you spend most of your day sitting. But as far as the hip flexors go, the theory is that sitting tightens these muscles by forcing them to remain in a contracted and thus shortened position for extended periods of time.
[00:06:27] Another popular theory is that type hip flexors are caused by overuse. So the idea here is that the more you punish these muscles with intense exercise and especially weightlifting and especially heavy compound weight lifting, the more likely these muscles are to become and just remain tight. Many people also say that the tightness you feel in your hip flexors is actually caused by a combination of these factors.
[00:06:52] And all of these things sound plausible enough, but basic physiology disagrees. It indicates otherwise. For example, sitting cannot permanently or even temporarily, “shorten” your hip flexors because muscles cannot change in length. They can only become bigger or smaller.
[00:07:15] It’s also unlikely that weightlifting is to blame for tight hip flexors. Research shows that strength training generally improves muscle and tendon function and is actually often used as a tool for rehabilitating joint pains and problems. Yeah, it’s certainly possible to injure your hip flexors in the gym, but it’s unlikely that regular weight training can otherwise saddle you with perpetually tight hip flexors.
[00:07:41] Moving on down the list here, studies also show that hip flexor tightness probably is not caused by weakness either. While strengthening the hip flexor muscles can definitely relieve the feeling of tightness. Research suggests that weak muscles are not more prone to tightness than strong ones.
[00:07:59] So where does all that leave us then? What the hell really causes tight hip flexor muscles? Well, as you’ve probably guessed by now, we haven’t quite figured it out yet. Muscle pain and muscle tightness are rather mysterious phenomena in many of the things that have been long assumed to produce them have been debunked. For example, you’ve probably heard that sitting too much causes low back tightness, but a number of studies have come out in the last several years to show that this is false.
[00:08:33] The good news, though, is you don’t have to suffer through life with the condition of incurable shitty hip flexors while science tries to sort the whole mess out. With a handful of stretches and exercises, you can get relief and probably also improve your lower body workouts because impaired lower body mobility and stability are some of the more common things that get in the way of proper squatting, deadlifting, and the like.
[00:09:02] So let’s start with stretches. The best stretches for tight hip flexors. If a muscle is tight. Our first instinct is to stretch it. And while stretching can definitely benefit our body in many ways – and I myself do ten or fifteen minutes of stretching every day, I just work through a number of yoga poses. And if you want to learn more about that, just Google “Muscle For Life yoga” and an article will come up that I wrote on it that gives my little routine.
And so while stretching is definitely good, it is not a panacea for muscle tightness. It may or may not help depending on what’s actually causing the problem. That’s why I’m recommending that we keep it simple and you just try things and see how it goes. That approach is best with stretching tight muscles and tight hip flexors in particular.
So I’m going to give you a few stretches and I’d recommend that you do one of them several times per day for several days and see if it helps, see if it makes your hip flexors feel looser and less aggravated. And if it does make a note and then moves on to the next stretch and after trying all of them continue doing those that helped.
[00:10:05] So the first stretch is called a kneeling hip flexor stretch. It’s one of the best stretches for targeting the hip flexors and work on that stretch for two to three minutes per stretching session. You can just Google it or so try it on YouTube for a form video, it’s very simple.
[00:10:22] The next stretch that you should check out and try is the psoas quad stretch. This is a stretch for this psoas muscle, which is a powerful pelvic muscle that plays a key role in hip flexion. And when the psoas is tight, it is common to experience low back discomfort and it makes heavy squatting more or less impossible.
I’ve been there myself, have had a very tight psoas, particularly on my left side. I’ll get it now and then and I’d say these days I’m still working to manage psoas tightness. And the yoga routine I do every day definitely helps, but when I get massages I always have them work on the psoas which is very uncomfortable.
But that’s something that my body is just prone to, particularly on the left side. So you perform this psoas stretch by assuming the position and then driving your knee into the ground, and leaning forward into a deep stretch and then releasing. Again, do it for two, three minutes per leg, per stretching session, and look for a video on YouTube and how to do it. It’s very simple.
[00:11:23] The next stretch is the walking knee hug. It’s called it’s another simple but effective hip flexor stretch that might help loosen up your hips. It also targets your glutes, which are often tight. If you are training hard in the gym, and especially if you’re doing a lot of lower bodywork, I recommend you do ten to twelve knee hugs per leg per stretching session, holding the top position for one or two seconds each time.
And of course, just throw that title walking knee hug or that search query into YouTube. And I believe there’s a video that Bret Contreras has that shows how to do it.
[00:12:00] The next stretch is the rocking psoas stretch and this is another psoas stretch that has a number of variations. I recommend you play around with it and find what works best for you or what is most convenient. Again, work on it for two, three minutes per leg, per stretching session.
[00:12:18] The next stretch is the rectus femoris stretch and this one targets one of the largest hip flexors in your body. The rectus femoris, which is one of the quadriceps muscles. As before, work on this guy for two or three minutes per leg, per stretching session.
[00:12:33] The sixth stretch is the scorpion stretch. Sounds pretty cool. Looks pretty cool too, actually. And it’s a fantastic stretch for your hip flexors, your glutes, and your lower back. I recommend doing four to five reps per side, per stretching session.
[00:14:21] All right, so now let’s talk about strengthening. The best exercises for strengthening the hip flexors. So, you know by now that eliminating hip flexor tightness is not an exact science, you just got to try out various things and see what works, and strengthening your hip flexors is one of those things.
As with stretching, you’re not going to know for sure whether or not it’s going to help unless you do it, but if nothing else, it will improve your joint health, it will generally reduce muscle-related pains, it will reduce overall muscular pain, and it might just give you a great set of legs and a great bootie as well.
[00:14:55] Now, there are many exercises out there that you could do for your hip flexors, but a small handful are the ones that stand head and shoulders above the rest. Incorporate these exercises into your lower body workouts and get stronger on them. And there is a fair chance that your hip flexors will start feeling better and better.
[00:15:16] So the first exercise is the barbell back squat. If you’re not doing at least some form of squatting regularly, your lower body is missing out. And out of all the squat variations, you can do the plain old barbell back squat is hard to beat. It has earned the reputation as the single most effective exercise you can do for building a solid, strong, lower body because, well, it is. And it goes further than that, though, because really the barbell backs what is a whole-body exercise that involves every major muscle group, really, but your chest.
[00:15:51] And if you want to learn how to do it correctly, head over to YouTube and look for Layne Norton’s “How to Squat” tutorial. He did it with bodybuilding.com and it’s great, it’s very in-depth. And I’m just going to highlight a few things here that you want to pay attention to that you will see in the video.
Lane’s thighs are slightly below parallel to the ground at the bottom of the squat, putting his butt slightly below his knees. His knees are slightly in front of his toes at the bottom. His head position remains neutral. Looking at a point on the ground, maybe six to eight feet away, his spine remains neutral as well, never arching or rounding. And his chest stays up, forcing the shoulders back. Those are some of the key elements to safe and effective squatting.
[00:16:41] All right. The hip flexor exercise number two is the barbell front squat. So this is a variation of the back squat, the barbell squat, that emphasizes the quadriceps and the core a bit more than the back squat and requires less flexibility. The front squat also creates less compression of the spine and less torque in the knees, which makes it particularly useful for those with back or knee injuries or limitations.
And mechanically speaking, it’s very similar to the back squat. You just hold the bar differently. If you want to see a good tutorial on it, head over to YouTube and search for “front squat” you’ll find a good video tutorial from, I believe his name is Johnny Candito, strong weightlifter, YouTuber dude who has good information.
[00:17:27] All right. The next hip flexor exercise is the lunge. And this is a simple but effective leg exercise that everyone can benefit from. It builds strength, muscle, and balance. It also builds stability in the hips which is very important. And because it’s a single-leg movement, it can help address muscular imbalances as well.
As far as how to do it, if you head over to YouTube and search for “how to lunge”, you’ll find plenty of videos. Scott Herman has a good simple tutorial. And you can lunge with dumbbells or with a barbell. The barbell lunge is a bit more difficult, but it does allow you to use heavier weights.
And if you are a strong person who is trying to progress on the exercise, it can help. Because there’s a point where holding heavier and heavier dumbbells for lunges just gets harder and harder. It gets awkward, more difficult to just stay balanced. And also it just fries your grip. So there’s a point where it makes sense to switch over to the barbell.
[00:18:25] All right. The next hip flexor exercise, the next exercise that is good for strengthening your hip flexors, is the leg press. And many people consider leg press an inferior version of the squat and say that you shouldn’t be leg pressing, you should just be squatting. And I disagree. The leg press not only requires less technical skill than the squat, making it more newbie-friendly and it requires less from stabilizing muscles, which allows you to load heavier weights.
It’s also a fantastic exercise for building hip strength, particularly due to its large range of motion. There are different types of leg press machines out there. I prefer an angled machine. And in terms of how to do it again, just head over to YouTube and search “how to leg press”. Scott Herman has a few tutorials online that show how to do it on the angled and the flat. Those are the most common types of machines that you’ll find.
[00:19:20] The next exercise, the next hip flexor exercises, is the Bulgarian split squat. And at least in the gyms that I’ve been in over the last few years, it’s rare to see someone actually doing Bulgarian split squats. And that’s a shame because unbeknownst to many, the split squat is a fantastic unilateral leg exercise and is particularly effective for training your hamstrings, hip flexors, and your glutes.
And that’s why it’s gaining popularity among high-level strength and conditioning coaches, but that hasn’t quite trickled down into the mainstream just yet. If you all learn how to do it, head over YouTube and search for “Contreras split squat” and you’ll find a video that Bret put out on how to do it.
[00:20:04] Next exercise, number six, the barbell step up. And this exercise looks pretty simple. It doesn’t look like much, but it is a great single-leg exercise for working your hip flexors among your many other leg muscles. And as with the lunge, the dumbbell step up is the place to start. And as you get stronger, eventually, you know, you need to increase the rate of the weight over time, you can graduate to the barbell step up and you can find simple video tutorials on YouTube of both.
[00:20:34] All right. So that was short and sweet. It felt short at least, but everything I wanted to share. So the bottom line here is when your hip flexors are tight, it sucks. They never stop nagging you. Again, I know firsthand. You feel them when you lay down. You feel them when you sit. You feel them and you stand. You feel when you walk and work out. And it can get in the way if you are serious about your lower body training. I have had to back off on squats.
[00:21:01] I remember one time I did back off on squats for about a month because my hip flexors were just too sore and too tight to allow me to progress. I remember this is when I first broke into the 315 range on back squat and for whatever reason, it just blasted my hip flexors.
And after a couple weeks at that weight, I had to then back off to, if I remember correctly, it was 275 or so, for several weeks. And even that was difficult. I may even had to go down to like 255 just because it hurt. And trying to fix the problem can be equally frustrating because there are so many conflicting opinions on what actually causes hip flexor tightness and what you can do about it.
[00:21:41] Fortunately, you can likely get relief by following the simple plan outlined in this podcast, which is: do one stretch several times per day for several days and note if it helped. Do the same with the rest of the stretches and keep doing those regularly, that did help. And then do exercises that strengthen your hip flexors.
And if you want an added bonus, check out that article that I wrote on my little yoga routine, because there’s some good lower body stuff in there that could help as well. Again, Google “Muscle For Life yoga” and it’ll come up.
What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
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