Hip mobility and strength for increased athletic performance

Patrick DaleFitness Training, Mobility & RecoveryLeave a Comment

The hip is a very mobile joint. With its ball-and-socket structure, it has a large range of motion. Unfortunately, like it’s structural relative the shoulder joint, all this mobility means that the hip joint can also be unstable and is prone to injury and dysfunction.

Surrounded by some of the largest muscles in the human body, the hip is very powerful. It is capable of generating huge amounts of force. It’s involved in almost every athletic activity, from running to jumping, and from kicking to cycling. In fact, it’s hard to think of many activities that don’t involve your hip. The bench press, maybe?

Because the hip is such a crucial joint, and also prone to injury, every athlete should take steps to maximize both hip strength and mobility. Not only will this help keep you off the injury roster, but it will also help boost your performance.

Hip joint anatomy

As stated above, the hip is a ball and socket joint. However, unlike the shoulder, your hip socket, properly called your acetabulum, is much shallower. As a weight-bearing joint, the hip is inherently more stable than the shoulder but is not as mobile. The main muscles that control the hip joint are:

  • Gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus
  • Tensor fasciae latae
  • Adductor longus, brevis, and magnus
  • Pectineus
  • Gracilis 
  • Iliacus and psoas major (iliopsoas)
  • Piriformis
  • Rectus femoris
  • Sartorius
  • Semitendinosus and semimembranosus

With so many muscles affecting the hip, this ball-and-socket joint is capable of a number of movements. These movements are:

  • Flexion – swinging your leg forward
  • Extension – driving your leg backward
  • Abduction – lifting out leg out to the side
  • Adduction – drawing your leg in toward the midline of your body
  • Circumduction – a cone-shaped circular motion
  • Medial rotation – turning your leg inward
  • External rotation – turning your leg outward

Hip mobility and athletic performance

Mobility is the range of motion available at a given joint. It is affected by the muscles that surround that joint, as well as the health of the articular surfaces. Joint mobility increases with the production of synovial fluid, which is a natural lubricant. Tight hip muscles will reduce your range of motion, and limited hip mobility can have several unwanted effects.

Increased risk of acute and chronic injury

Tight muscles are more prone to acute injury than flexible muscles. A high leg kick with tight hamstrings or a deep lateral lunge with tight adductors can lead to overstretching and injury. We commonly call this type of injury a pulled muscle. Muscle pulls can be very minor, affecting just a few muscle fibres, or much more catastrophic, involving partially or even completely torn muscles.

In addition, tight muscles can affect the natural movements of the hip joint, transferring stress from one area to another. This can lead so something called “point loading,” which is where bony structures within the joint come into repeated contact. Point loading can cause chronic wear and tear and can even lead to a roughened articular surface and osteoarthritis.

Acute and chronic hip injuries can be hard to treat. With so many thick layers of muscle to work through, it can be hard to reach deep muscles for massage. It’s also quite hard to rest an injured hip, as it’s involved in many of the activities of daily living, such as walking or bending down to tie your shoelaces.

Tight hips can also affect nearby joints, specifically the lumbar or lower spine. If you can’t extend your hip properly, you are more likely to over-extend your lumbar spine instead. Tight hips are a common cause of lower back pain.

Reduced strength and power

Limited hip mobility will make performing the “big lifts” such as the squat, deadlift, clean, and snatch properly much more difficult, and also reduce the amount of weight you can lift. This could have a knock effect to your athletic performance. Moreover, these exercises are more likely to cause injury if tight hips mean you are unable to do them correctly.  

Reduced power transfer

Good hip mobility, combined with adequate core strength, is essential for transferring the power generated in your legs to your upper body and vice versa. Whether you are a thrower, puncher, kicker, runner, or jumper, the last thing you want to do is reduce your ability to transfer force up or down the kinetic chain.

Reduced range of motion leading to decreased athletic performance

Imagine trying to run, jump, or kick while wearing ankle shackles. Your stride length will be shorter and less efficient, and you won’t be able to kick as high or as powerfully. That is the same effect that tight hip muscles will have on your performance.

Tight hips will reduce your stride length leading to slower running and sprinting speeds. You won’t be able to draw your leg back or swing it as far forward to generate kicking force, and you won’t be able to step out to the side as far when lunging. Tight hip muscles can limit all aspects of lower body athletic performance.

Assessing hip mobility

Use the following tests to assess your current hip mobility. Remember to test both legs as left-to-right hip mobility issues can cause as many problems as localized tightness. Unless you have a goniometer, which is a long-armed protractor used to measure joint angles, you’ll have to eye-ball and estimate the results in the following tests.

You should have no difficulty approximating 90 degrees – a right angle. Compare your test results to that known value.

Testing hip extension

Lie on your front with your legs straight and head resting on your folded arms. Ask a training partner to lift your leg while monitoring your back and pelvis for movement. Raise your leg as high as possible. You should be able to achieve 20-30 degrees of hip extension.

https://www.drpeterdalessandro.com.au/images/hip-rehabit-img12.jpg

Testing hip flexion (1)

Lie on the floor with your legs straight. Bend one leg, hold your knee, and pull it in toward your chest. Do not allow your lower back to round. Looking at your femur, you should be able to achieve 100-120 degrees of hip flexion.

https://sandc.worldrugby.org/images/modules/77/M4.2_Figure_2.jpg

Testing hip flexion (2)

Lie on your back with your legs straight. Keeping your lower back stationary, ask your training partner to lift your straight leg as high as your flexibility allows. You should be able to achieve 80-90 degrees of hip flexion with your knee straight.

https://hybridperspective.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/pslr-l.jpg

Testing hip abduction

Lie on your back with your legs together. Ask your partner to slide one leg out and away from the midline of your body. Keep your pelvis still, moving your leg as far away as your flexibility allows. You should be able to achieve 40-45 degrees of hip abduction.

https://media.lanecc.edu/users/howardc/PTA101/101BasicEx2/image_027177.jpg

Testing hip adduction

Lie on your back with your legs together. Ask your partner to lift one leg and cross it over the other. Do not allow your pelvis to move. You should be able to achieve 20-30 degrees of hip adduction.

https://geekymedics.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/PassiveHipAdductionHE.jpg

Testing hip internal and external rotation

Lie on your back with one leg bent at the hip and knee to 90 degrees. Ask your partner to rotate your lower leg inward while keeping your pelvis and lower back stationary. Then, ask them to turn your lower leg outward. You should be able to achieve 40-45 degrees of internal and external rotation.

https://images.squarespace-cdn.com/content/548a2469e4b0a00992ae2718/1472191790158-NT4DS5Q18FAXXZGIDMNT/hip-rotation1.png?content-type=image%2Fpng

Addressing hip mobility deficits

Having completed these hip mobility assessments, you should now know which aspects of your hip mobility need addressing. The best way to improve your mobility is to stretch the affected muscles periodically through the day, and especially after training and periods of prolonged sitting.

Hold each stretch for 30-60 seconds, doing your utmost to relax and gently increase your range of motion. Do not bounce and ease off if you feel your muscles starting to burn or shake. If your muscles are especially tight, do two to four sets of each stretch per flexibility session.

Good stretches include:

1) Runners lunge for hip flexors

  1. Kneel down with your rear knee on a folded towel, cushion, or exercise mat. Step forward and into a lunge.
  2. Keeping your torso upright, and without extending your lumbar spine, allow your hips to sink forward until you can feel a stretch in the top/front rearmost leg.
  3. Hold for 30-60 seconds and then swap sides.

https://cdn-ami-drupal.heartyhosting.com/sites/muscleandfitness.com/files/styles/188×188/public/studio/953/953_A.jpg?itok=H4p26NPL

2) Supine hamstring stretch for hip extenders

  1. Lie on your back with your legs straight. Lift one leg and lasso your foot with a belt or stretch strap.
  2. Gently pull your leg upright while keeping your upper body relaxed.
  3. Hold for 30-60 seconds and then swap sides.

https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/proxy/avOzXooQs3NJGSGneont5xI0RZ3Nn5nQnA2GVvUpxmGRDFtkC4HLvwiusuVNnZrDQR9_sG0iAaWvifI60ZIlraHPntM3R45VWKDXneAA2gEm4EfTeohu0A

3) Half-kneeling side lunge for hip adductors

  1. Kneel down and extend one leg out to the side. Place your hands on the floor in front of you for support.
  2. Slide your straight leg out and away as far as your flexibility allows. Lower your hips down toward the floor. Keep your upper body stationary and your back flat throughout.
  3. Hold for 30-60 seconds and then swap sides.

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/64/7f/26/647f2682c86fb3a4e0c36a451a0f211e.jpg

4) Step over stretch for hip abductors

  1. Stand with your feet together. Cross your left foot behind your right leg. Push your hips over to the left to stretch the outside of your hip.
  2. Lean against a wall for balance if required. Raise your arms above your head to also stretch your obliques/waist muscles (optional).
  3. Hold for 30-60 seconds and then swap sides.

https://hips.hearstapps.com/womenshealth-production.s3.amazonaws.com/images/6512/charlie_brown_ldn_brunch_club_adidas_doing_best_stretches_for_knee_pain_-_standing_cross_leg_it_band_hip_stretch__medium_4x3.jpg?resize=480:*

5) Seated figure four stretch for hip internal rotators

  1. Sit on a chair and cross one ankle over your knee. Push the knee gently down toward the floor.
  2. Lean forward from your hips, without rounding your lower back, to intensify the stretch.
  3. Hold for 30-60 seconds and then swap sides.

https://cdn-prod.medicalnewstoday.com/content/images/articles/317/317920/woman-doing-a-seated-hip-stretch.jpg

6) Supine cross over stretch for hip external rotators

  1. Lie on your back with your legs bent and feet flat. 
  2. Place your left foot on your right knee. 
  3. Roll your hips over to the left to stretch your right hip.
  4. Hold for 30-60 seconds and then swap sides.

Hip strength and athletic performance

Mobility is only part of the hip performance/injury prevention equation. Strength is important too. Lack of strength will have a noticeable effect on force production and can also affect stability. Because of this, athletes from all sports should include hip-strengthening exercises in their workouts.

As you know, the hips can produce force in several different directions, and that means you need to include a variety of hip strengthening exercises in your workouts.

For some movements, standard strength exercises like squats, lunges, and deadlifts are perfectly adequate. But, for some less common movements, you’ll need to expand your library and do some more unusual exercises.

Here are some of the best hip-centric exercises, listed according to their primary hip function.

Hip extension – hip thrusts

Squats, deadlifts, lunges, and power cleans all involve lots of resisted hip extension. However, if you want to work hip extension in isolation, hip thrusts are hard to beat.

  1. Lie on your back with your legs bent and feet flat.
  2. Drive your feet into the floor and lift your hips up. Your knees, hips, and shoulders should form a straight line.
  3. Lower your butt back to the floor and repeat.
  4. Rest and hold a weight on your hips to make this exercise more challenging.

https://i.ytimg.com/vi/E74Hai0YNm0/maxresdefault.jpg

Hip flexion – band-resisted hip flexion

Tight hip flexors are all-too-common, but that doesn’t mean these muscles can’t be weak too. They play a crucial role in all running, jumping, and kicking activities. The hip flexors, Iliacus and psoas major (iliopsoas), are involved indirectly in a lot of abs exercises, but can also be trained directly using a resistance band.

  1. Lie on your back with your legs straight and your feet resting on a knee-high exercise bench or chair.
  2. Loop a mini band over your feet.
  3. Bend one leg and pull your knee in toward your chest.
  4. Extend your leg and repeat, or alternate legs are preferred.

https://barbellrehab.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/IMG_1507-1-scaled.jpg

Abduction – band-resisted side steps

Your abductors are located on the outside of your hip and thigh. They include gluteus medius and minimus as well as tensor fascia latae. Using a so-called “booty band” turns most hip extension exercises into a simultaneous hip abduction exercise. However, if you want to isolate your abductors, band-resisted side steps are an excellent choice.

  1. Put a resistance band around your legs, just above or just below your knees.
  2. Step out wide enough to put tension in the bend.
  3. Without allowing the band to slacken, step several paces to your left and then to the right. Or, if you prefer, just take one step to the left and then to the right.

https://www.runnersworldonline.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/01_side_steps_magill_96433.jpg

Adduction – cable hip adductions

The easiest way to identify and differentiate between your hip adductors and your hip abductors is to focus on the prefix of each word. The adductors ADD your leg back in toward the midline of your body. They are located on the inside of your thighs. In contrast, the ABDuctors take your legs out and away from the midline of your body. Abduction is another word for kidnaping – which involves taking someone away. Use this exercise to target your adductors.

  1. Wearing an ankle cuff, stand next to a low pulley machine. Attach the cable to the cuff.
  2. Using your nearest arm for balance, draw your leg across and in front of your stabilizing leg. Do not twist your hips.
  3. Return to the starting position and repeat.

https://i2.wp.com/www.110pounds.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Standing_Cable_Hip_Adduction.jpg

External rotation – clamshells 

External rotation and hip abduction use many of the same muscles. That said, if you play team sports that involve lots of twists and changes of direction, you may benefit from doing additional work for your external rotators.

  1. Lie on your side with your legs bent to 90 degrees and your hips stacked and square. Rest your head on your bent arm.
  2. Lift your knee and rotate it outwards as far as your mobility allows. Do not let your pelvis to roll outward. Keep your hips squared throughout.
  3. Lower your leg and repeat.
  4. You can also do this exercise with a resistance band around your knees.

https://cdn.prod.openfit.com/uploads/2017/10/clam-shell.jpg

Internal rotation – band hip internal rotation

Internal rotation and hip adduction also use many of the same muscles. If you do a lot of external rotation/hip abduction, you may need to include internal rotation in your hip conditioning workouts to prevent strength imbalances.

  1. Sit on an exercise bench or chair with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Attach a resistance band to an anchor and your ankle.
  2. Keeping your hips square, lift your foot an inch or two off the floor and then rotate your leg inward against the resistance offered by the band.
  3. Make sure you rotate your femur and don’t just adduct it. 

https://theorthopt.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/seated-hip-external-rotator.jpg?w=300&h=199

Circumduction

Circumduction is actually the result of all the hip muscles working together and in sequence. Such a complex movement is all-but-impossible to replicate with exercise. Instead, make sure you include exercises for all the other hip functions in your workout so that, by default, circumduction is covered.

Conclusion

It’s all too easy to take your hips for granted, and athletes often only pay attention to their hip function when this crucial joint goes wrong. There also tends to be an emphasis on improving hip extension strength and hip flexion flexibility, while ignoring all the other functions of the hip. Prevent hip problems before they start while increasing athletic performance by performing strengthening and stretching exercises for all available hip movements and joint actions.

The following two tabs change content below.
Patrick Dale
Patrick Dale is an ex-British Royal Marine, gym owner, and fitness qualifications tutor and assessor. In addition, Patrick is a freelance writer and also authored three fitness and exercise books, dozens of e-books, thousands of articles, and several fitness videos. He’s not just an armchair fitness expert; Patrick practices what he preaches! He has competed at a high level in several sports, including rugby, triathlon, rock climbing, trampolining, powerlifting, and, most recently, stand up paddleboarding. When not lecturing, training, researching, or writing, Patrick is busy enjoying the sunny climate of Cyprus, where he has lived for the last 20-years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *