Hip Flexor Stretches Don’t Work – Try These 2 Exercises Instead

If hip flexor stretching is whack, what is better, Zac?

It’s super common to feel hip flexor tightness from sitting or a bazillion other things. The problem is that your traditional hip flexor stretches don’t really work…At all.

The reason why is NOT because your hip flexor muscles are this evil piece of your anatomy that hates you and cares little about your feeble attempts to stretch them.

It’s because tight hip flexors are part of a bigger movement strategy that your body uses.

And in order to get these muscles to let go, you have to teach your body a different movement behavior. One that takes into consideration ALL of the areas that influence hip flexor tension.

What are they? Well fam watch the video below and read the blog to learn!

What are the hip flexors?

Are the hip flexors simply evil muscles that exist within your body to cause you all types of pain and problems?

Uh, no fam.

The hip flexors are several muscles that act to flex the hip (aka bring your thigh closer to your abdomen. If you’ve ever sprinted, walked, went upstairs, done marching exercises, or kneed someone in the gut (wild times in Vegas), then you can be thankful you have hip flexors big fam!

For you anatomy nerds, some of the major players that complete this move include:

Some of the big dogs are right here (photo credit: Beth ohara).
  • Tensor fascia lata (TFL)
  • Psoas major
  • Iliacus
  • Rectus femoris

What other actions do the hip flexors perform?

You’ll notice that the hip flexor muscles mentioned above have attachments elsewhere besides the hip. The TFL, iliacus, and rectus femoris all have attachments at the pelvis, and the psoas attaches at the lumbar spine.

If muscles attach at a given location, that means that they influence movement at that specific area.

The hip flexors which attach at the pelvis, namely TFL and rectus femoris, assist in anteriorly tilting the pelvis. The iliacus may also perform some degree of anterior tilting, as well as closing the pelvic inlet.

The psoas major may contribute to some lumbar flexion and compressing the lumbar spine (not a bad thing, again, there are no bad muscles).

Why do hip flexors become tight?

Do hip flexors become tight because of fancy things like adverse neural programming? Shortened muscles from sitting hours on end? Mars being in retrograde?

The answer is unclear. 

It’s unlikely that there is one specific cause as to hip flexors being perceived as tight. The hip flexors will be more engaged if your body is biasing towards the aforementioned movements that these muscles performed:

  • Hip flexion
  • Anterior pelvic tilt
  • Pelvic inlet compression

All of these actions create a forward motion of the body’s center of mass.

Why someone may have a tendency more so than others towards these movement actions could be due to genetic reasons, epigenetic factors, environmental factors, etc. 

It cannot be stated enough, these muscles are not inherently bad. Muscles are stupid, yo! They are merely engaging because the body is orienting in the above manner?

Why would the body have a bias towards the above actions?

I’m glad you asked!

First off, having some degree of anterior pelvic tilt in the standing position is normal. This study demonstrated that if you are standing upright against gravity, then an anterior pelvic tilt is a useful position.

The reason why anterior pelvic tilt occurs when standing upright is because it allows the femurs to better internally rotate. When you internally rotate through the extremities, you can better apply force into the ground, ensuring that you do not fall. YOU DON’T WANT TO FALL FAM!

What becomes problematic is if this pelvic orientation is the only option you have available. When your ability to perform opposing actions at the pelvic or hips is limited, then tissue ischemia (reduced blood flow) may happen in the region of the hips flexors, contributing eventually to a sense of tightness, pain, or discomfort.

Why do traditional hip flexors stretches not work?

The biggest reason why traditional hip flexors are whack is because of two reasons:

  1. They minimally address the center of mass tendency to shift forward
  2. They only look at the femoral influence on the hip

In the case of the center of mass shifting forward, this tendency occurs not just at the hip, but the whole body. That means everything shifts forward, including the viscera (guts), ribcage, etc.

To increase the available movement beyond the anterior pelvic tilt, you must teach the body to shift the center of mass backward

Secondly, most hip flexor stretches look solely at the femoral action of the hip flexors.

In order to stretch the hip flexors, you have to take them the opposite direction of their contracted (or shortened) position, hip extension. If you drive hip extension, your hip flexor stretch will looks like this:

The two actions of this stretch: Hip extension and making me slightly throw up in my mouth

Or maybe you’ll get all reciprocally inhibited up in the spot, and tense you glutes REALLY HARD to FORCE those hip flexors to relax. TAKE THAT YOU STUPID HIP FLEXORS!!!!!

A perfect variation to do after a meal at Chipotle

Both of these versions have a major problem: they only look at the hip extension component, while neglecting the pelvic and spinal components of the hip flexors.

To truly stretch out the hip flexors, you have to perform actions at the pelvis and spine as well. If Birdman was a physical therapist, he’d say you have to put some respek on their proximal attachments.

So let’s put respek on what it takes to make a great hip flexor stretch. That includes:

  • Some hip extension
  • Slight posterior pelvic tilt
  • Full exhalation to shift the abdominal viscera posteriorly
Now that’s more like it!

PRO TIP: You do not need to stay in the above position at all times forever. This action is merely a strategy to allow more movement to become available.  

Do I even need to stretch my hip flexors?

So now you know how to actually get a good stretch of the good ole hip flexors, but do you even need to stretch these puppies?

Typically, I’ll only use interventions similar to the ones I’m about to show you if someone lacks hip extension, the position that would increase the mobility and reduce tension of the hip flexors.

There are two easy ways to see if you have enough hip extension:

  1. The half-kneeling position
  2. The Thomas Test

Let’s look at each of these positions.

The half-kneeling position

If you can get into half kneeling without issues, you probably don’t need any hip flexor stretching.

To have a boss half-kneeling, you ideally want to get close to having close to a straight line along the following markers:

  • Back leg knee
  • Back leg hip
  • Torso
  • Head
  • Slight posterior pelvic tilt

If you nail all of the above and have no pain/discomfort, then you probably don’t need to stretch your hip flexors. If you don’t, then maybe doing the moves I’m about to show you may help.

No straight lines here, fam!

If you are unsure if you are lined up nice and straight, then use the thomas test

The Thomas test

Admittedly, the Thomas Test isn’t perfect, but it’s not a terrible measure to see if you have a good amount of hip extension.

Here’s how to do it:

“The Man Who Had No Hip Extension: The Story of Zac Cupples”

Goal: Thigh parallel to ground

  1. Find a mat or elevated surface
  2. Lie on your back with knees glued to chest
  3. Keep back flat, Drop one leg off the edge of a mat
  4. Let your leg relax, and see if you are close to parallel

If you hit parallel or more, you probably don’t need to stretch your hip flexors.

Two better hip flexor stretches

Now that you’ve checked out if hip flexor stretching should even be something you pursue, and you know how to design a better hip flexor stretch, let’s look at some better ways to get your hips all loosey goosey.

Half-kneeling bent over breathing

I’ll usually start people with this particular move, as it’s at less of an end-range position than your typical hip flexor stretching, and utilizes all the components needed to create an effective stretch. 

This variation is slightly different than what I have in the main video, but will work just as well:

  1. Assume the half-kneeling position
  2. Support the arm opposite to the forward leg on a box/stepstool/yoga block
  3. SUBTLY tuck the hips
  4. Push into the box so the chest moves away from the box and abs engage (don’t overly flex the trunk)
  5. Hold position and breathe silently in through the nose, slowly and fully through the mouth

This move is especially money if you get some knee/quad discomfort in the half-kneeling position.

Half-kneeling goblet hold

Once you have mastered the above move, I like using a weighted hold in half-kneeling. I like it because it helps engage the abs a bit more than your classic hip flexor stretches, aiding in good spinal position and encouraging visceral movement posteriorly.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Assume the half kneeling position
  2. Hold a weight at about chest height
  3. Reach elbows forward + shift body backward
  4. SUBTLY tuck the hips
  5. Hold position and breathe silently in through the nose, slowly and fully through the mouth.

Sum up

It’s time to put classic hip flexor stretches to rest. They don’t work because they forget about so many actions that the hip flexors perform.

If you can encourage the other positions that would help the hip flexors relax, then finally, your hip flexors will be chillin’ more than Bob Dylan!

To summarize:

  • Hip flexors are not evil muscles, but may become more active because of the body’s attempts to remain upright
  • The hip flexors act at more than just the hip joint, and forgetting about this fact is why most conventional hip flexor stretches fail
  • Test yourself to see if hip flexor stretching is worthwhile. What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get managed
  • Utilize posterior pelvic tilting, breathing, and hip extension to get more bang for your buck with hip flexor stretching.

How do you keep your hips loose as all hell? Comment below and let the fam know!

Photo credit

Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay

6 comments

  1. This is straight money yo. I had pinpoint pain in both my hip flexors while walking earlier. This exercise eliminates the pain; even better, my breath was fuller and no longer laborious; my chest opened up and my head was holding high. Feels so good I performed the couple of exercises thrice today.

    Love it man. Thanks for the free content!!!

    I want to run an Ultra Marathon next year. I’ll be hutting up your site hard.

    ❤️ 🥋 🏃 🔥

    1. Incredible to hear!!!! Awesome response. Looking forward to hearing about your ultra marathon! 🙂

  2. Great debrief Zac. Under why do hip flexors become tight which is unclear, what do you think about lack of pelvis IR? So a compensation is to anteriorly tilt to put force into ground. (Which only then begs the question why lack of pelvis IR?). Would you agree if we get to the point of pooch belly we have reached excessive anterior pelvic tilt because of its affects on diaphragms and entire system? But why would the body “need” this? During the post when you talked about the feeling of hip flexor tightness and hip position it reminded me of another friend… the hamstring. Remember when we blew people away with repositioning the hip and strengthening the hamstrings instead of stretching them? What is your experience with stacking – so we can talk to Zac and then strengthening the hip flexors at different vectors. I have, N of 1 been working on this recently with really good personal outcomes (give it a shot). As with many things this may be partially a motor control thing. If we look at how the body reflexively responds to being pulled in different positions ie. super band around back of legs or even the back pulling us forward when we squat we respond by pushing back back right and this helps us acquire depth. So if we reverse this band position we may bias our anterior pelvic tilt position. Any thoughts on what is providing these forces normally? Gnathic, optic flow, ISA, breathing mechanics etc.? How do we get to a feed forward status? Thanks Zac, you are one of the best.

    1. Hey Mark,

      So the lack of pelvis IR would def be a reason that an anterior pelvic tilt occurs, as the orientation change can allow you to pick up some IR.

      Pooch belly is going to depend on ISA/IPA presentation. Typically, wide’s pelvic floor can’t yield enough anteriorly to promote that, so the belly is more round and high.

      What would you be using to strengthen the hip flexors so to speak? I’ve been driving hip flexion a lot more and that has been useful.

      Zac

  3. Thanks Zac, regarding hip flexor “strengthening”. Nothing special, first I always get the stack, from there I have worked with many moves. 1. standing with stack, push into wall with one hand, lift other knee up, assist knee flexion with other hand past 90 degrees or more and monitor rate, rhythm, accuracy. I look to see if I am able to hold position without perturbation, maintain height, not compensate with neck, knee going outside of foot, etc. I look for these with each EXRX. 2. Lay on floor, put light band around feet, stack, flex one side while keeping the other straight, assist flex side if needed, hold. A variation would be to start with both legs in flexed position and strengthen the other. 3. Same as above with hip thrust/bridge. Can maintain band placement or use a longer band attached to something stable for different angles. 4. Cross connect with band. 5. Standing with band around feet much like the first EXRX in marching fashion. I at this point am using 3-5 breaths duration per rep. 6. Lunge/split squat position with attention to form listed above, band around foot of back foot, flex back leg with band as high as possible and hold (fav). For me the exercises on my back didn’t feel quite right after doing them but after doing the standing versions I felt a noticeable training effect for days.

    Best,
    Mark

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