You run, swim, squat, and lunge through each training session. But the more you train, the more you notice your body is feeling tighter, your back is feeling stiffer, your movement patterns become hindered, so what do you do? Stretch….but your usual stretches are just not cutting it.
Having spent many years working with athletes of all kinds, I hear about lower back and hip flexor issues all the time. Often athletes feel tightness in their lower back and think they have a back issue. However, when your hip flexors, glutes, and hamstrings become too tight, they wreak havoc on your lower back. Let’s take a look at how these muscles work.
The “Hip Flexors” are a group of muscles that flex the hip. There are quite a few muscles that actually flex the hip, but two are specifically referred to as hip flexors. The iliopsoas group consists of the psoas and the iliacus and both attach to the femur. The psoas attaches to the lower back, whereas the iliacus attaches to your hipbone. Sitting down puts these muscles in a shortened position, and as a result, leaves them pretty tight. The psoas attaches to the lower back, and if it’s tight, it can pull your back forward. This is a common cause of back pain. A tight hip flexor may also inhibit your glute activation, which means whatever work you are doing to strengthen your glutes, may not be working effectively. Weak glutes mean you are susceptible to additional injuries and have a lack of power in simple things, such as walking up the stairs.
The piriformis muscle helps to stabilize the hip. This muscle is important for athletes who participate in running sports that require sudden changes of direction. The piriformis works along with other hip rotators to turn the hips and upper leg outward (external rotation of the hip). Strong and flexible hip rotators keep hip and knee joints properly aligned during activities and help prevent sudden twisting of the knee during quick side-to-side movements, quick turns, lunges, or squats.
The iliotibial (IT) band is a group of fibers that run along the outside of the thigh and stabilizes the entire leg during activities, such as running or stair-climbing. It begins at the hip and extends to the outer side of the shin bone (tibia), just below the knee joint. This area is exceptionally tight on most athletes and will inhibit proper form and range of motion over time. Many runners experience pain due to inflammation and irritation of a tight, inflexible IT band.
So, What Exercises Improve Your Performance?
While there are hundreds of exercises that will improve your range of motion, let’s begin with some basic Pilates-based moves that can be performed every day with very few props, no matter how “flexible” you are.
3-Way Strap Stretch – For hamstrings, IT band, and adductors
Grab a yoga or stretch strap. Lie supine (on your back) and place the strap around the ball of your right foot. Extend that leg up to the sky as straight as you can. Your left leg should be extended out in front of you flat on the floor. Your head and shoulders should be relaxed on the floor and your eyes should be at your knee.
- Hamstring Stretch – Take one hand on each strap and walk your hands up towards your ankle. Hold the strap tightly as you slide your hands back down the strap, so that you create tension in the strap. Continue sliding your hands down until your elbows rest on the floor. The distance between your shoulder to elbow and elbow to wrist should create a 90-degree angle. Make sure your shoulders are relaxed. While keeping your leg straight, exhale as you draw your leg closer into you, and inhale as you move your leg out. Take 4-6 breaths here.
- IT Band Stretch – Take both straps in your left hand (your right leg is still in the air). Cross your right leg over your body, but make sure to keep your right glute on the floor and your hips level. Your head is still neutral and eyes still toward your knee. Flexing your foot back towards your face and reaching your heel outward will increase your calf stretch. Take 4-6 breaths here.
- Adductor Stretch – Open that leg outward towards your right side and bring both straps to your right hand. Again, work to keep your hips level. Take 4-6 breaths here. Repeat on the other leg.
Lunge with Side Bend – To stretch your hip flexors
- Lunge forward with your left foot, bending your left knee 90 degrees. Press your left leg straight behind you, so that your heel is reaching towards the wall behind you and your knee is straight through the entire exercise. Essentially, you are in a split squat or “lunge” position.
- Tilt pelvis forward until you feel mild resistance in the front of the right hip.
- Raise your right arm overhead and side bend reaching to the left side, palm down over your head.
- Keep your head and torso in one line, so your body stays erect.
- Hold for 15 to 20 seconds. Return to start and repeat on opposite side.
Low Lunge – For hip flexors and hamstrings
- Remain in lunge position from above exercise with your left foot forward and your ankle, knee, and hip in a 90-degree angle. Your hands should be flat on the floor with your palms pressing down, and your fingers forward on either side of your front foot. If you are too tight to have your hands flat on the floor, elevate your palms by using one block (or even folded hand towels will work) under each palm to “raise” the floor to you, making it easier to get into this stretch. Make sure your shoulders are down and relaxed away from your ears.
- Keep your right leg in back and gently bring your knee to the floor with the top of your foot pressing into your mat.
- Inhale and lengthen your spine slightly forward and up until you feel a stretch in your right hip flexor. Exhale and shift your weight back, stretching your front leg straight until your toes pull back to your face. Keep reaching your glutes back until you feel a hamstring stretch in your front leg.
Standing Quad Stretch
- Stand with your toes forward and feet about 4” apart from one another. (You may place your palm at a wall for support, if you need it for balance.) Draw your navel to your spine and head up, so eyes are at “eye-level.”
- Bend your right knee and reach behind you to grab the top of your foot. Bring your foot as close to your glutes as possible. Make sure your body remains balanced, so you are not leaning.
- Keep your right thigh close to your left thigh. Keep your knee pointing down towards the floor. Make sure your leg stays in line, so your femur is straight up and down. As you inhale, reach the knee down towards the floor, and as you exhale draw, your foot closer to your glute. Maintain breathing and hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
Seated Figure 4-Piriformis Stretch
- Sit upright in a chair without arms with your feet flat on the floor with your ankle, knee, and hip in alignment.
- Cross your right ankle over your left knee allowing your right knee to point out to the side as your thighbone rotates in your hip socket.
- Maintaining good posture, hinge forward at your hips until you feel the gentle stretch in your right hip. Place your right elbow at the inside of your knee joint and press your thigh out and down toward the floor creating what looks like a figure 4. Your other hand is under your foot pressing it up towards the sky. This will create a counter balance for your stretch.
- Make sure your shoulders stay relaxed throughout your stretch. While breathing normally, hold this position for 30 seconds, using your exhale to increase the stretch slightly further. Repeat on the other side.
“The best athletes incorporate a comprehensive core and flexibility routine into their weekly program. As an active recovery program, this is as important to your training as your weekly strength and conditioning program. “
By: Amy Lademann
Amy is the co-founder of BEYOND MOTION and the creator of barre motion™. She is a renowned fitness expert, nutrition coach, motivational speaker, and writer. When she isn’t at the studio, you’ll find her spending time with her husband Rick, their bulldog Mu’ko – Grace, and connecting with friends.