For some of you, this may be difficult to hear. I know you like this one and it probably feels satisfyingly good…it’s just that it probably isn’t stretching what you think it’s stretching.
For some of you, what I’m about to suggest will mean an apparent slowing of the pace of your progress. In the long run however, your body will likely be happier for it.
I’m talking about a certain ‘hip flexor stretch’ that we all know and many people love. It’s not uncommon for even the more flexible folks out there to feel like their hip flexors are tight.
It looks a little something like this:
But we love that stretch!
It’s about your hips, you see.
Allow me to explain with a brief review of the anatomy of the hip joint.
Like your shoulder, your hip is a ball and socket joint: the head of your femur (thigh bone) is the ‘ball’ and the acetabulum of your pelvis is the ‘socket’. Like your shoulder, the socket is deepened by a fibrocartilage labrum.
The hip is generally more stable than the shoulder joint though. Like the shoulder, there are passive constraints—structures that provide some inherent stability to the joint. In addition to the bit of stability that the labrum adds to the picture, on the front of the hip joint, we have the iliofemoral ligament and the hip joint capsule.
When you extend your hip—walking, running, stretching your split—the head of your femur wants to translate forward (essentially out of the socket) and these structures prevent it from moving too far.
Next we have your hip flexors.
Here’s the problem
When you do this particular “hip flexor” stretch, it creates additional lumbar lordosis (arch in your lower back) and anterior pelvic tilt (meaning your pelvis tips forward). Conveniently, we can use the top of her tights as an indication of how her pelvis is tilted forward.
What this does is take tension out of your hip flexor muscles (the arching of the lower back and the tipping of the pelvis forward moves the origins of each of your hip flexors closer to their respective insertions) and places all of the stress on the passive constraints of your anterior hip
Over time, stretching these creates microinstability in your hip, which basically means the femoral head is sliding around to a slight degree inside…and a little outside…of the socket.
Your body is an incredible thing: it notices this instability and, in the spirit of being helpful, your hip flexors will tighten in order to make up for the lost stability.
What follows is the circus artist/athlete thinking ‘Oh, my hip flexors feel tight!’ and then they stretch some more.
Since the aforementioned stretch tends to involve stretching the aforementioned problems, ligaments get stretched, hip flexors reactively shorten and the circus artist/athlete says ‘My hip flexors feel so tight!’
Stretching follows and the cycle repeats itself.
The real problem is that this hip instability thing can result in additional stress on the labrum and eventually lead to tears (and/or other uncomfortable complications).
Nobody likes a labrum tear.
What to do?
First, here’s a better way to do this stretch:
- Position your knee directly under your hip. No further back than that. Seriously.
- Squeeze your glute on the down-side leg.
- Tall posture. Place your hands on your lead knee and press down. This should help you activate/brace your core.
For those who don’t feel a stretch here, that might be ok at this stage. I’m showing the starting position for this stretch. If you’re working toward a split, chances are you’ll have greater hip extension than I’m showing here.
The most important things to remember with progressing this stretch are:
- Always keep your glutes squeezed. Because of the way your glutes attach to your femur, squeezing them helps to keep the femoral head from translating forward and straining the passive contraints (and making the hip flexors think they need to do extra work).
- Keep your core engaged. This will help minimize the arching in your lower back.
Make sure you’re doing those two things every time you stretch your split, and you’re more likely to keep your hip happy in the long run.
For some people out there, you may be in deep. You’ve been stretching this way for a while and backing off is going to be hard. It may take some time for your hip flexors to get the message and settle down. Really, if your hip flexors are feeling tight all the time or your hip is feeling aggravated, I would suggest visiting your friendly neighborhood circus- or gymnastics-savvy physical therapist to get it assessed.
Train smart. Get strong. Get circus strong.
PS. This post is inspired by a similar post from Dave Tilley, which you can find here.