One of the most common challenges we see in our population today is hip flexor dominance. The cause of this can be from a corrupted movement pattern or from simply being sedentary. If you’re not up and actively moving around for 8-10 hours a day, then you’re sedentary.
Most of us are… Most of us spend way to much time in hip and torso flexion (my back is hurting just from sitting here to type this) and the body just naturally assumes that this is how it’s supposed to be and shortens up in front. Sitting around all day, every day, doesn’t guarantee tight hip flexors, but they do tend to go hand in hand.
What are hip flexors? Hip flexors are located on the front top part of your thigh in the pelvic area. This area of the body that allows you to flex your hips and bend your knees to your hips. They are important to keep the posterior pelvic muscles in balance.
For issues involving movement patterns, the answer lies within FMS. However, since the actual process of proper muscle timing sequences and re-patterning are beyond the scope of this article, we’ll deal with the second issue.
The hip flexors are unbelievably powerful muscles and once they start taking control, they become complete and total tyrants. The obvious signs and symptoms are, a belt buckle that points towards the ground on a person that’s not obese and feet that point out rather than forward.
These are often accompanied by low back pain and the infamous back hyperextension kettlebell swing. The proud owner of this type of swing is usually completely oblivious to their inability to extend the hips and proudly jut their head forward with a complementary “chicken neck” to complete the movement.
The odd thing is that with only a few thousand of these low back and neck based swings under their belt that some people have decided the “RKC” swing is hurtful. Compound it all with a total misapplication of tension and you’ve got a recipe for PAIN.
Nothing makes a bigger difference in the swing than that wonderful moment when a newbie with tight hip flexors loosens them up and experiences full hip extension for the first time.
Obviously, the best way to start is by stretching the hip flexors and strengthening the abs. The challenge is making it stick. This brings us back to the FMS and re-patterning world.
I know I promised to leave that alone, but being an FMS guy, I can’t totally separate it from my RKC training. Stretching alone is great, but you can’t honestly believe that spending 2 minutes in the RKC hip flexor stretch will counteract 20 years of sitting at a desk can you? That’s why it’s very important to immediately put to use any new mobility you’ve gained. Although there are many ways to go about this, I still think that the simplest way to do it is exactly the way we teach at the RKC. Stretch those hip flexors and do a set of swings. It’s not a complete and total guarantee, but for those who aren’t living in a “high threshold” strategy (for more on this see Brett Jones’ excellent article “ab matters”) it has a good history of success.
Now sometimes, those pesky flexors insist on staying tight. And for a lot of people, it’s a continual process of stretching. If this is the case with you, that’s is a pretty good indication that it’s a movement pattern issue. Find a certified FMS, or better yet, a CK-FMS instructor to help you.
Now, if you’re an impatient type like me, and unable or unwilling to seek out assistance, you can pretty much force the hip flexors to “submit” to the abs. This involves some physical discomfort and discipline, but if you’re up to the challenge, the following drill can make a huge difference in your performance and the health of your spine. This drill is not for everyone. Specifically it is for (but not only for) those who are strong and mobile, but remain hip flexor dominant. An example would be someone with a 400 lb. squat and no problem touching their toes either seated or standing, but scores a 1 on their active straight leg raise.
Like a lot of what I do, the following sequence is a combination of things I learned from Pavel and Gray. It begins with a drill from the book “Bullet Proof Abs” (the Ballet Leg Thrust) but has an FMS active straight leg raise drop influence.
This is not an exact duplication of either Pavel or Gray’s drills, but an aggressive hybrid of the two that my athlete’s love to hate. I’ve taken the liberty of naming it the “Ballet Leg Drop”. It is fairly difficult to describe, so if this article leaves you confused, you can view a clip of this drill here
Begin by lying on your back and assuming what I refer to as the “dead cockroach position”. The dead cockroach is a 90 degree bend of the legs at both the hips and knees and the arms straight with the hands pointed towards the ceiling. The thighs and arms should be vertical and parallel to each other. From there perform a back-pressure (sometimes called a “reverse”) crunch. Press your low back into the floor. You should feel the abs contract and “shorten”. If your abs are strong enough, you might actually have your hips and shoulders leave the floor. That’s a fine stand alone ab drill as long as the arms and thighs remain parallel. But if their angle changes, you just did a crunch instead of flattening and shortening the midsection. If you insist on doing crunches, stop reading this immediately and find someone to hold your head in a bucket of soy milk until you lose the desire to do crunches.
Video – Reverse Crunch
Now, hold the back-pressure position without raising the head, hips, or shoulders. Straighten one leg so that it points directly to the ceiling while keeping the thighs parallel and vertical. Slowly lower one leg to the floor. Do not allow the knee to bend or the leg to drift outside the body. Do not allow the low back to lose contact with the floor. If it does, you are trying to achieve a range of motion that you haven’t earned yet. Placing a Gray Cook or Jump Stretch Band in the small of the back gives excellent feedback for cheaters. Return to the starting position.
Don’t cut it short. Keep flexing the hip until the working thigh is parallel to the stationary one. It may take a few reps, sessions, or weeks, to get your foot to the floor and back, with a straight knee, while maintaining contact with the low back and floor. If you are like the above example, the results should be immediate if you don’t quit like a sissy. You’ll know what I mean by sissy as soon as you try it and want to quit like one. That is, unless you’re that rare person whose life isn’t ruled by their hip flexors. Congrats to you. Find someone that is, show them this drill and insert evil laughter where appropriate.
Switch legs every rep to minimize fatigue and note asymmetry. Obviously, if there is one, work it until both sides are even before increasing the range on the “good” side. When you have earned the full range of motion on each hip, have a go with both legs straight. It tends to add a little something in the quad of the stationary leg.
Another thing to be aware of, is the stationary hip. Try not to allow it to move. That hip flexor will probably try and maintain control even when it’s not supposed to be doing anything. It may try and increase or decrease the angle of the hip. Don’t let it. Keep it as relaxed as possible with the knee (or foot) pointed straight up. It’s amusing to watch the contortions of someone with an extreme case of hip flexor dominitis. They’ll squirm, lift, and twist every part of their body in an attempt to continue to live off of their dysfunction. When the drill is done properly, the entire body remains motionless accept for the working hip.
For people that have been victims of their hip flexors for a long time, this will probably be the most intense ab workout they can imagine. If that’s you, embrace the ab cramps and allow them time to get stronger before you quit because this drill is “just stupid”. Which is a scientific term used for anything I can’t do.
Now, the work doesn’t stop here. It’s important to remember that this is simply movement prep or warm up. This series simply lets you check on your abs and hips before training. Once those abs have turned on and the hip flexors have quieted down it’s time to deadlift, swing, and squat. For the FMS crowd, go to appropriate half or tall kneeling drills.
It’s not a bad idea to throw this in at the end of a heavy session to make sure that your training was dialed in and didn’t make your hip flexors overactive. But most people will have the best results by starting with this drill and following or super-setting with a working set of something like swings. Just remember not to confuse the flattening of the lumbar curve on the Ballet Leg Drop with a properly neutral spine on swings. Keep in mind the difference in an unloaded drill and a loaded skill as it applies to body mechanics.
Enjoy the pain of correcting dysfunction and you can enjoy living life without pain.
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