#9 - Cracking the Mobility Code - "Why are my Hip Flexors so Tight?"
This post is for any age group.
Concerning the hip flexors, I have seen, performed and taught every conceivable method of releasing them from tightness.
As a flexibility specialist, I stretched thousands of patients and athletes using the most popular muscle and fascial release techniques. I got so proficient with these stretch techniques, I taught seminars to other doctors and therapists. Active Isolated Stretching, Post Isometric Release Technique, Soft Tissue Release Technique (very similar to Active Release).
As a neuromuscular therapist, I performed soft tissue techniques to release muscles from strain and tightness. I learned how to perform manual Trigger Point Therapy from a few masters.
As a performance enhancement specialist, I integrated PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) stretching and neuromuscular therapy with dynamic exercise for reestablishing normal movement patterns for the muscles and fascia we worked on.
This was all in an effort to release the hip flexors from strain and tightness for two main reasons:
1) to create more stability in the lower back and pelvis;
2) to create more mobility in the hips and the thoracic spine.
We have been in the habit of looking at certain muscles like the hip flexors and thinking they are too short and tight. So what is the logical thing to do with short, tight muscles?
In the past 15 years, with the help of some of the most renowned doctors, therapists, strength coaches, trainers and skills coaches, I have developed a much different view on how we should treat short, tight muscles. It has completely changed my understanding of how to treat hip flexors.
If we have short, tight hip flexors, we should ask ourselves, "WHY are they so short and tight" and "WHAT are the restrictions to these muscles performing to their highest capability"?
There are four primary hip flexors but the one we hear about most, the one that causes us the most problems is the psoas major muscle. When we hear or read about the psoas major, 99% of the problems associated are attributed to it being short and tight.
The psoas major is responsible for lifting the thigh once it gets to 90° (parallel the floor) and everything after that, about another 45%. So it would seem that if it is short and tight, it would easily be able to lift the thigh to its limit. That is actually opposite to what happens.
If it is short and tight, it will also be weak and won't be able to perform its normal function to full capacity. There are also neurological reasons it won't be able to perform, but that's a little complicated for this article.
Important to swinging and throwing athletes, the psoas major is also responsible for stabilizing the lower back, that is where it attaches to the lower spine. If the psoas major is short, tight and weak, it does a poor job of stabilizing against dynamic rotation and puts the lower back at high risk of injury. The lower back will also become tighter as a protective mechanism and will not completely release its tension until the psoas major is strengthened through its entire range of motion, among other things.
Here are three major reasons our hips flexors are so short and tight, and we can do something about all of them.
Problem #1 - There are restrictors to the movement of the psoas major. These are mainly the deep hip muscles (the deep external hip rotators) and the hamstrings.
Solution - Strengthen these muscles, don't constantly stretch them. A strong muscle is much more flexible than a weakened muscle due to constant stretching.
Problem #2 - The psoas major is WEAK because it has been constantly stretched, massaged, released, etc.
Solution - Since the psoas major is almost 100% responsible for lifting the thigh past 90° to about 135%, it needs to be strengthened against some sort of resistance through its entire range of motion.
Problem #3 - Almost everyone in our society sits for most of our non-athletic activities - driving, working at a desk, watching TV, reading, texting, etc.
Solution - If we sit as part of our lifestyle, we will probably not change that. What we CAN do is to super strengthen our glutes, hamstrings and the deep external hip rotators. Those are the opposite muscles to the sitting muscles and they will help to release them as soon as we stand up and start moving.
Problem #4 - If the hip flexors are unequal in the balance of strength, they will not be able to lift the thigh symmetrically. If the psoas major is weak, a muscle called the TFL (tensor fascia lata) will pull the hip and thigh outward and will create very complicated problems that are difficult to resolve in both the hips and lower back.
Solution - Strengthen the TFL and hip in internal hip rotation against a strong rotational resistance, THEN strengthen the psoas major through its full lifting action, against resistance.
Dr. Joe LaCaze, DC, NMT, PES, CCEP, Spinal Biomechanics Instructor
Dr. Joe LaCaze is a retired chiropractor, certified neuromuscular therapist, certified performance enhancement specialist, certified chiropractic extremities practitioner, and spinal biomechanics instructor. He invented ROTEXMotion in 2007 in an effort to "do the most good, for the greatest number of people, in the shortest time possible".