Has someone ever told you that your pain is coming from tight hip flexors? Or maybe you think your achiness is from too much time on the couch or your favorite recliner. Whatever the case may be, you could be experiencing more than just pain and tightness in the front of your thigh.
But before we get into that, let’s talk about some of the important structures in the hip joint and how it relates to posture. Then, we’ll get into the reasoning behind why we shouldn’t put all the blame on tight hip flexor muscles and suggest an alternative theory instead.
Importance of the Hip Flexor Muscles
Three main muscles complete the hip flexor group. Together, the iliacus, iliopsoas, and the rectus femoris (part of the quads) work to bend aka “flex” the hip. The iliopsoas, commonly referred to as the psoas, is the strongest of the bunch, which is why it’s usually referenced when it comes to the hip flexor muscles. The psoas muscle is found deep in your torso and connects the spine to the thigh bone. When it contracts, the psoas allows you to bring your knee towards your chest.
While the psoas is mainly responsible for bending and straightening motions, there is a potential for it to be involved in rotational movements as well. This is due to its influence on the low spine and pelvis in which a tightened psoas muscle can potentially cause pelvic malalignment, like a lateral pelvic tilt.
Relationship Between Posture and the Hip Flexor Muscles
Seated postures, whether due to sitting at a desk or frequent travel, can significantly impact the structure of the hip flexor muscles. Your body tends to adapt to postures and movement patterns that you spend the most time in, so the more time we spend sitting, the more our psoas muscle shortens.
Shortened hip flexor muscles are not necessarily a problem. The issue arises when the muscles are unable to stretch back out, which will affect the way that they work. This can cause changes in the way you run, walk, or climb stairs. Chronic shortening of the psoas also leads to bent-over posture, ineffective glutes, and possible hip/knee/ankle pain.
Relationship to Other Areas in the Body
In terms of anatomy, men and women are not created equally. Thanks to childbearing, women are more prone to tightness in the hip flexors and weakness of other pelvic muscles. Women also have less pelvic stability due to differences in hormones. The bad news is, these differences make women’s hips work harder and therefore more prone to overuse injuries. This does not mean that men are immune to hip flexor issues, of course. The fact of the matter is that everyone is at risk for developing pain or problems with the hip flexors.
The psoas definitely gets blamed for a lot of things, like pelvic tilts, low back pain, and hip injuries. Most people believe that stretching the muscle will release it and magically fix the problem. But sadly, this is rarely the case. Like other stabilizing muscles, the psoas turns on during almost every movement to allow the bigger muscles, like the glutes or quads, to do all of the heavy lifting. But weakness in the psoas forces the larger muscles to work harder, increasing the risk for overuse injuries in other areas of the body. So, what may be labeled as tight hip flexors may actually be weak hip flexors. Related FB Plus article: The #1 Reason Why Your Hamstrings Are Tight.
Your hip flexors may feel tight because they are too weak to work properly, not because they need to be stretched. Not only that, but you can also get pain and irritation at multiple joints, such as the knees or low back. Another key point to realize is that tight hip flexors can be a consequence of poor abdominal muscle strength and/or activation. As a result, the psoas is forced to take over, eventually leading to overuse and muscle spasms.
Exercises to increase stability and strength of the deep hip muscles are the foundation to getting rid of hip tightness. Stretching may give short-term relief, but it often won’t solve the root of the problem. Therefore, stability exercises are necessary to stop the hip flexors from getting so tight in the first place. Other important treatments for tight hip flexors include glute and hamstring strengthening, soft tissue work in the abdominal area, and ab strengthening exercises.
If your psoas feels tight, then most of the time it’s due to weakness or compensation for a weakness elsewhere in the body. Either way, the result is an irritated psoas that retaliates by causing tightness and pain. Yoga and Pilates are effective ways to combine short-term stretching relief with core and hip strengthening for hip flexor tightness. Here are some of our favorite routines to get you started:
Written for Fitness Blender by Kayla C, PT, DPT
Board-Certified Neurological Clinical Specialist