You know the place at the beginning of class when the teacher asks for any requests? I would say one of the most common, if not THE most common, request is “hips.” Now, I think this is generally meant to be a request to stretch out tight hips from standing or sitting all day while working. When we think of “hips” we tend to generalize it to one muscle. Our hips are each a joint made up of two bones coming together surrounded by at least 17 muscles and tendons, 5 ligaments, and a myriad of blood vessels and nerves, including the sciatic nerve, in each hip. Eeghad! There is so much going on in one spot.
Most of the muscles that make up the hip joint connect the pelvis to the thigh bone (femur) in some way. So we can intuit hip also includes the upper leg. What, I think, many of us don’t intuit or forget is that some of the hip muscles also connect up into our spine. This is important to understand because tight or weak hip muscles can lead to back pain and tension as well as the knee. The 17 hip joint muscles are typically divided into four groups: gluteal, lateral rotator, adductor, and iliopsoas.
Some may refer to themselves as having tight hips. This could be related to many things including shorter hip muscles, weakness in some key hip muscles, and even tightness in muscles not designated as part of the hip. What? That’s right. Because our hip is a joint at our pelvis, many hip movements are also regulated by the ability of the thigh muscles and the lower torso muscles including in the back. Because all parts of our body are interconnected, when one group of muscles is struggling, another group will either take over to compensate, or struggle in conjunction. Here’s one way to experiment with this idea.
Stand with your feet hip-width and your hands on your hips. Balance on one leg and bend the other knee to 90°, use a wall to help if desired. Bend your knee as much as you can to squeeze the foot toward the buttock and keep the thigh parallel to he floor. Make sure your hips are level with each other and squared forward, and your abdominal muscles are engaged with a neutral pelvis. Keep your foot squeezing toward you buttock and begin to lower your knee without rotating it in or out. As the knee gets closer to the ground, resist the urge to arch your lower back. Once the knee begins to move behind the torso, resist letting the foot stop squeezing in. Ok, you probably have a huge hamstring cramp after that, sorry. 🙂
Hopefully you can now see how the muscles and movement of the hip are also affected by the muscles of the rest of the leg and lower torso. Once the leg got closer to the floor, the lower back likely wanted to arch. Once the leg moved behind the body, the lower back kept wanting to arch and the knee wanted to straighten. This was a test of what are called the hip flexors and extenders, sheds light on where compensation for tight quadriceps and/or weak hamstrings occurs in the low back.
What Does Tight Hips Mean?
This depends on the person and their bone structure. Everyone has differently shaped thigh and pelvis bones and where and how the thigh bone articulates (connects) to the pelvis is also different. Some people have a shallow hip joint meaning the thigh bone is more toward the front (anterior) which may allow them easier access to forward folds and may cause things like hip dysplasia because the labrum (fibrocartilage keeping the thigh bone in place) can’t fully cover the top of the thigh bone (femoral head). Or someone may have a deep hip joint meaning the thigh bone is more toward the back (posterior) which may allow them to bring the leg further behind the body and can lead to hip impingement as the femoral neck bumps up against the pelvis when the hip is flexed. Then there are the middle of the hip people, who should be wary of overdoing any particular movements.
As you can see, where your thigh bone is in relation to your pelvis can also play a role in hip tightness. This is not something we can change, this is how we are born and best to know our own limits so we don’t hurt ourselves. We can also embrace our hip structure to allow us to be awesome at running, super strong in squats, or make beautiful backbends.
It’s not all about the bones, the muscles, tendons, and ligaments also play key roles in hip mobility. It is also possible some of the tendons or ligaments have been shorted, and/or the muscles may be shortened. If it is the ligaments, there’s not much we can do about that. If it is the muscles, stretching the muscles around the hip joint can help.
The most common tightness people feel is in the hip flexors in the front of the hip and in the deeper hip muscles under the gluteals, typically the piriformis. When the hip flexors get tight, they pull the pelvis forward making a deeper arch in the low back which may also cause tension in the low back. Generally a deep externally rotated hip stretch feels awesome for these muscles.
It is difficult to tell if “tight” hips are from weakness or from inflexibility. As I mentioned, the hip flexors are the most common place where people feel tight. This can also be due to weakness and they may not be strong enough to support your activities leading them to feel sore or tight. If you haven’t run before and you go for a 5 mile run, your hip flexors are going to give it to you after because they are not strong enough yet to meet the demands of running 5 miles. In this case, strength building is important.
Similarly the internal adductor muscles that squeeze the legs toward each other, the extensor muscles that move the leg behind the torso, and the gluteal muscles also tend to weaken from sitting. These muscles are key for most of our movement, especially for those who perform athletics like walking, running, swimming, etc.
If you’re the one who asks for hips a lot in a yoga class, consider if the muscles are in need of strength building to meet the demands of sitting and/or exercise, become more aware of your range of motion to familiarize yourself with your bone structure, and get those deep stretches in that make you melt just a little bit more.