Hip flexor stretches – no, no, no

Is it a good idea to stretch tight hip flexors or are there other ways to release them? Stretching did not work for me and in this post I will explain why this is and show you one of my favourite hip-flexor release exercises.

Digression:

Can I just take this opportunity to explain that for the purpose of this post, I am distinguishing a “stretch” from other exercises in that a “stretch” is held for about 30 seconds. So when I am talking about the “stretches” that I was doing, I was holding a static position for a minimum of half a minute.

For years, I suffered from tight hip flexors as many dancers do. Now this is not to imply in any way that I am or ever was a dancer – I merely took ballet lessons from the age of six until 18 and never got paid for it. (I continue to take a commercial jazz class at Pineapple Studios, but that is another story). No, I use the title “dancer” in the loosest, possible sense as anybody who has seen me on a dance floor after a few glasses of champagne could attest to.

But I diverge. To get back to the point, for many, many years I suffered from very tight hip flexors. For those who are not anatomically literate, the hip flexors are the muscles that are responsible for flexing (or bending) the thigh bone at the hip joint. These include the iliopsoas, rectus femoris, sartorius, pectineus and tensor fasciae latae (not to be confused with a popular, very milky, coffee-based drink) along with adductor longus and adductor brevis.

Confession:

I am not an expert in anatomy – I CAN tell my ass from my elbow, but may mix up my sartorius and pectineus. If I sounded knowledgeable in the paragraph above that’s because I googled it (God I love google).  There are some Pilates teachers out there who have an incredibly in-depth knowledge of the human body and what it is all called, but I am not one of them. I try, don’t get me wrong,  but a combination of a really bad memory and then chemotherapy for 6 months (leaving me with chemo brain) has conspired against me. However, what I lack in anatomical finesse I make up in having a very well-trained eye for movement. I look at the body as a whole and from watching a client I can easily pick out faulty movement patterns and know what to do to put it right – I just may not be able to put a name to all of the bits responsible.

My tight hip flexors became evident when I was at university and suffered from a bout of bursitis in my right hip. One of the exercises that my physio gave to me was the good old, tried and tested but not necessarily proven standing thigh stretch. If there was any doubt remaining, my tight hip flexors were confirmed after two separate knee surgeries (an ACL reconstruction* and follow-up surgery) when again, I was given the same old standing thigh stretch.

standing thigh stretch

*How did I rupture my ACL in the first place? Being quite a quite fit person at the time you’d think it was through playing football or dancing or something, wouldn’t you? But no, not me, I’m Just Jen and in my true style managed to fall down some stairs after a night of too much dancing and vodkas which, can I just point out, was over 20 years ago when I was still young and impressionable.

At this point, however, I was also given variations on the standing thigh stretch including a kneeling thigh stretch. Woo hoo! Now we were getting somewhere.

kneeling lunge

Then I started my matwork Pilates teacher-training and learned how to do the side-lying thigh stretch

side lying thigh stretchand eventually the” lying on my front and pulling my foot towards my bottom” thigh stretch (it must have a better name than that).

front-lying thigh stretchNeither of which are Pilates exercises as such but were taught to us anyway. And one teacher showed me an even more intense thigh stretch using a wall.

At this point I also began rolling my thighs and ITB (the outside of the thigh) up and down on a foam roller out of desperation and found that I got a strange kind of enjoyment from the deeply-bruised and battered feeling that this created. After all, “no pain, no gain” right? (Wrong! And don’t even get me started on rolling the ITB  – that’s a whole other post which will be coming soon).

So, for years, I suffered from very tight hip flexors which presented themselves to me in a number of ways including constant tightness and pain in the front of my thigh, pinching in my sacroiliac joints and occasionally lower back pain. The front of my thighs sometimes felt like a brick. And, for years, I stretched and stretched and rolled the front of my thighs in every position and every way that I possibly could. And for years, I had to continue to stretch and stretch and roll the front of my thighs in every way that I possibly could as despite the continual stretching, my thighs were still like a brick. WTF? (Please excuse my language)

It wasn’t until I began my Pilates studio equipment training that the tightness gradually subsided. And once the tightness began to subside, I stopped stretching. And, funny enough, once I stopped the stretching, the tightness subsided even more. So this led me to question – “is it a good idea to stretch the hip flexors or is there a better way to achieve hip flexor release”?

And this is where Pilates comes into it. For Pilates is about movement. In Pilates you would not or should not hold a stretch for 30 seconds. If you wanted to stretch the front of the thighs, you would contract the muscle on the opposing side (in this case the hamstrings), thereby strengthening one set of muscles and lengthening the other. Stretches might feel nice and being a not-quite-dancer I used to love the feeling of a good old thigh stretch, but if you are not making any other changes in a postural or movement sense then once you stop the stretching the muscles are going to tighten up again.

So for me, what eventually led to a release of my hip flexors was a strengthening of my hip extensors (mainly my hamstrings) and overall balance to the muscles around the hip. This was achieved through exercises like footwork on the reformer and standing one leg press on the chair. And, at the same time I stopped stretching and stopped rolling my ITB. For me, stretches (and ITB rolling) just DID NOT WORK!

But more recently, I have discovered a wonderful routine using the leg straps on the tower that not only helps to release the hip flexors but also is terrific for relieving tension and tightness in the lower back, sacroiliac joints and even abdominals (yes, it is possible to have overly tight abdominal muscles and quite common in Pilates instructors like me and this will feature in an upcoming post). The exercise series I am about to describe has become my go-to exercise. I do it before every session and have used it with many clients (including those with severe back pain, sacroiliac pain and, of course, tight hip flexors) with terrific results. The exercise is very gentle so is suitable for nearly everybody and seems deceptively mild ie. when doing it you may feel that you are not doing anything but the positive results are often felt the next day and sometimes immediately upon standing.

 

Exercise: Thigh strap hip-flexor release series on the tower

(I can’t help thinking that it should have a better name. If anybody would like to suggest one then please leave a comment).

Equipment needed: Tower or Cadillac and foot straps.
Springs: Yellow.

Set-up: Attach the springs to the top, centre of the tower. Leave the push-through bar dangling with no springs attached.

Starting position

starting position

  1. Lie on your back with your head towards the tower.
  2. Place the straps around your thighs.
  3. Begin with your knees directly above your hips, allowing the straps to support your legs, knees can be bent up to a right angle or completely released so your feet are dangling.
  4. You can have your arms resting by your side or reaching back and holding onto the tower but I prefer to have them reaching towards the ceiling with palms facing each other.

Toe taps

toe taps

  1. On an out breath, tap your toes of one foot to the bench and then float them back up again. Focus on pressing the back of your thigh into the strap, rather than leading with your foot.
  2. Breathe in to repeat with the other foot.
  3. Repeat up to 10 times.

Thigh circles

thigh circles

  1. Start with your legs glued together. On an out breath, tap your toes of both feet to the bench.
  2. Keep your feet together and open your knees.
  3. With knees open breathe in and bring your knees back up above your hips and then close your legs. Effectively doing a circle with the thighs.
  4. Repeat up to 5 times and then reverse.

Variation: turn your legs in when pressing down into the straps (so have your knees together and feet apart). When coming back up turn your legs out (have your feet together and knees apart). This gives a lovely massage to the SI joints and lower back.

Leg slide

leg slide

  1. Tap your toes of one foot to the bench as in “toe taps”.
  2. Breathe out to slide the foot along the bench, straightening your knee and trying to press your thigh down to rest on the bench (which I am failing to do in this photo). Flex your foot, pressing your heel away from you and make sure to keep your foot in line with your hip.
  3. Breathe in to hold.
  4. Breathe out to slide your foot back towards you and then float your leg back to your starting position.
  5. Repeat other side.
  6. Repeat whole thing up to 10 times.

Variation with 2 arms

Adding the arms to the exercise gives an extra feeling of length through the whole of the body

leg slide with arms

  1. Hold onto the push-through bar with both hands.
  2. As you straighten your leg along the bench, press the bar behind you to straighten your arms as much as possible.
  3. Bring the bar back when you bring your leg back.

Variation with 1 arm

  1. Opposites: Hold the push-through bar with your right hand only and press the bar behind you as you straighten the opposite (left) leg along the bench. Repeat on the other side.
  2. Same: Hold the push-through bar with your right hand only and press the bar behind you as you straighten the same-side (right) leg along the bench. Repeat on the other side.

Bridging with feet in straps

This is a strange exercise that I came up with one day while doing the Frog with feet in straps. It may sound bizarre but it feels really, really nice on the front of the thighs.

Contra-indication: be careful doing this with anybody with knee or SI joint problems.

  1. Place the straps around your feet.
  2. Bend your knees into the “frog” position (feet together and knees apart just above your hips).bridging start
  3. Keeping the bend at the knees, lower your feet to rest on the bench close to your tailbone. The sides of your feet should stay glued together.bridging feet down
  4. Breathe out to lift your pelvic floor, draw your tummy towards your spine and tilt your pelvis so that your lower back imprints into the bench. Then peel your tailbone off and lift into a bridge position. Be careful not to over-arch your lower back, focus on dropping the back of your ribs to the bench and lifting your bottom.bridging
  5. Hold for the in-breath.
  6. Breathe out to roll your spine back to the mat, one vertebrae at a time.
  7. Repeat up to 10 times.

Variation: after 2 or 3 bridges I like to float my knees back up to the frog position above my hips and then lower them again to repeat the whole thing

And here’s the whole series on video…

https://www.facebook.com/pilates4scoliosis/videos/1922503238061647/

 

So those are the exercises – I hope you enjoy them and I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences trying them.

 

Your in fitness and cake,

 

Xoxo

 

Just Jen