I’m very hip-centric. I understand the importance of a well functioning pair of hips. This is one of those topics that I could spend days and days studying and discussing. Alas, I realize that most readers have no such interest, but I can not stress enoough how important the hip joint is to human performance. It can be the difference between living a life free of pain or one ruled by pain. In this post I’m simply going to outline what the hip flexors are and one very common condition associated with tight hip flexors.
The hip flexor muscles are located in the front of your leg, above the thigh muscles, and they act to bring your leg up towards your trunk. Hip flexion occurs whenever you take a step while running or walking up a flight of stairs. The hip flexors are relatively small muscles yet are extremely important because of what can happen when they aren’t functioning normally.
The most important hip flexor muscles are the psoas, the iliacus, the TFL, and the rectus femoris. Three of these muscles, the illiacus, TFL, and rectus femoris originate on the pelvis while the psoas originates on the lower spine. In addition, the rectus femoris is one of the quadriceps muscles and attaches below the knee so that it also performs knee extension. The other hip flexors all attach onto the upper leg in one fashion or another.
In the image below you can see the TFL, iliacus, and psoas major. The rectus femoris is not shown.
In a normally functioning body, no one would pay much attention to any of the hip flexor muscles because they have limited trainability. It’s surprising to learn that these overlooked muscles can wreak havoc on the human body when they are short or stiff. Few people are even aware that they exist but ignorance of their existence and the role they play can cause huge problems.
The most common problem I see in regards to hip flexors is when they cause anterior (to the front) pelvic tilt. If hip flexor muscles are short or tight, they exert a downward pull on your pelvis resulting in the pelvis being tilted down in front. This downward pull and resulting excessive tilt can lead to numerous issues that result in pain and discomfort. Knee, lower back, and neck pain can all at times be attributed to anterior pelvic tilt with lower back pain the most prevalent. When the pelvis is pulled down in front, the curve in your lower back is increased. This is a recipe for lower back pain.
Hip flexor muscles often become tight due to lack of movement. Think of someone who sits in a chair all day. Their hip flexors are constantly in a flexed, and thereby shortened, position. A consistently flexed position puts the muscles in a chronically shortened state. Over time, the muscles “warp” and stay shortened. The shortened muscles then begin to exert the downward pull on the pelvis when you are standing. Hip flexor muscles can also get tight through activity. Constant activity and contraction of any muscle will lead the muscle to get tight. The more exercise you get and the more hip flexion performed, the more likely the hip flexors will end up being tight. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario.
Thankfully the remedy is the same for both scenarios. A shortened or tight muscle needs to be returned to its natural state. This can be done through foam rolling, dynamic warmups, and static stretching. I had anterior pelvic tilt due to my old IT career where I sat for 8-10 hours a day. I had chronic pain for years in my feet and various episodes of neck/upper back spasms, lower back pain, and hip pain. Once I started doing dynamic warmups, which served to return my hip flexors to a more normal length and reestablished hip range of motion, the pain diminished almost completely. I got back into a more natural alignment. It gave me a new lease on life, and I haven’t looked back since.
PS: For an overview of the hip joint check out this post.