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Developing Hip Function: A Hallmark of Athleticism

Posted Oct 07 2008 6:11pm

Quiz Time
What do the following things have in common?

  • Sitting at a desk
  • Long distance running
  • Improper squatting
  • Chondromalacia and other knee problems
  • Lower back pain

And what about these?

  • An uppercut
  • A homerun swing
  • Sprinting
  • Dunking a basketball
  • The inability to lie (Oh, you knew it was coming and I did you the favor of getting it out of the way early instead of making you anticipate)

The first group, if you didn’t gather, is things that cause (first three) or are results of (last two) weak hips. The second group is things that all involve powerful hip action.

The Hips In Action
Previously, I discussed the role of the abdominals and lower back in maintaining health and athleticism. Today, I want to look at the role of the hips in athleticism. The musculature around the hips is possibly the most important complex in the body, yet is underdeveloped in most people. You can look at a person’s movements throughout this area - their ability to open and close the hips, surrounding musculature, flexibility - and get a very good read on where they are athletically.

The hips are surrounded by large, low velocity, high power muscles. That is in contrast to the smaller, high velocity, but low power muscles of your extremities. The hips are the key to every powerful athletic movement that I can think of. A jab just isn’t a solid jab without a twist of the hips. And you can forget about throwing a solid cross or roundhouse kick without the hips. When you swing a baseball bat, the power comes from planting your feet and driving through the hips, not from the arms. Same with a golf swing. A quarterback heaving the ball 50 yards. Sprinting. Jumping. Lifting a heavy object off the floor.

Basically, strong hips enable the body to move powerfully and efficiently. Stephan at Whole Health Source summed it up very nicely with his post The Seat of Power (he should also be commended for using the word “buttocks” 9 times):

In any full-body movement, the hips are the central source of power. The strongest muscles surround the hips, and muscle strength diminishes progressively as you move further from them. A shapely buttocks is typically a strong buttocks, and a strong buttocks generally means a strong person. So if you want to decide at a glance whether a person is capable of sprinting and jumping after large prey, and then carrying it home, the buttocks is a good place to look.

So start checking out butts and you’ll be able to tell just how athletically capable a person is. Guys, “I was just checking out your athletic abilities” is unlikely to work with the ladies though. But if you find one that it does work with, she’s a keeper.

Which Muscles Comprise The Hip Joint?
Muscles of the Hip If you’re not interested in a quick anatomy lesson, skip to the next section; otherwise, read on. There are four groups of muscles - known as the Gluteals, Adductors, Iliopsoas, and Lateral Rotators - made up of a total of 18 muscles that can cause movement about the hip joint. The Gluteals are comprised of four muscles, the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and tensor fasciae latae. The medius and minimus help to move the legs away from the midline of the body (abduction) and stabilize the pelvis when one foot is off the ground, while the maximus is primarily responsible for extending the hip.

The Adductors are a group of five muscles, known as the adductor brevis, adductor longus, adductor magnus, pectineus, and gracilis. Collectively, they pull the legs towards the midline of the body, originating on the pubic bone and connecting to the femur at intervals, brevis being the shortest and magnus the longest. The pectineus aids in adduction, along with helping to turn the hip inward.

The three muscles of the Iliopsoas are the iliacus and psoas major and minor. The Iliopsoas are part of the hip flexor group, a collection of muscles responsible for moving the upper thigh towards the torso, or vice versa. The other muscles making up the hip flexors are the pectineus and adductor brevis and longus from the Adductors, the sartorius, the rectus femoris (part of the quadriceps), and the tensor fasciae latae of the Gluteals. An interesting fact: 40% of people don’t have a psoas minor.

Finally, there are six muscles known as Lateral Rotators: the externus and internus obturators, piriformis, superior and inferior gemellis, and quadratus femoris. These muscles do just as the name says; forming a fan-shape around the side of the hip, they rotate the thigh away from the midline of the body, as well as help to extend the hip.

The Hip’s Inaction
Let’s look at this from the opposite angle. We know what function strong hips perform. Basically any full-body movement involves transference of power through the hips. That can be as easy as getting up off the couch to get another bag of Doritos or as difficult as picking up a barbell loaded with three times your bodyweight. But other than diminished athletic ability, do weak hips cause any major issues?

Think of how many people you know with either knee or lower back pain. Considering that your average person has tight hip flexors and weak glutes from sitting all day, along with poor rotation in the hip joint, where do you think we should start when looking for a root cause? Do you think weak muscles in the hip complex could be causing any of that? Given that the hips are the basis of powerful athletic movements, I bet there’s quite a case to be made for them being the basis of pain in the lower extremities.

Long distance runners, many of whom do little other than run, often have weak abductors in relation to their adductors. Weak abductors are commonly implicated in runner’s knee, or chondromalacia. Tight hip flexors cause the pelvis to tilt, which leads to lower back pain. Imbalanced musculature within the hips can cause the knees to track improperly and can also lead to improper foot striking. Needless to say, the hips have a bit of importance in your ability to get around.

Are Your Hips Weak?
One tip I’ve read for diagnosing your hip flexor flexibility, or lack thereof, is to see how your pants align front to back, looking from the side. If your waistband rests lower in the front than in the rear, this is a sign of tight hip flexors and possibly weak glutes and hamstrings. The opposite, a rarity, indicates tightness in the hamstrings and glutes and weakness in the hip flexors.

Another good test is to just squat. The squat is probably the best diagnostic tool there is for seeing how a person moves. Have someone watch you and notice if you are able to maintain a proper lordotic arch below parallel of a squat. If not, you are probably tight in the hamstrings and glutes. Do your knees cave in when coming out of the bottom? Look for imbalances between your abductors and adductors.

And surely you’ve seen that “tucked tail” look where the tailbone is driven forward, basically making a flat run from lower back straight into hamstrings. It’s the classic look of the elderly gentleman with a serious case of Noassatall. It’s also a hallmark of lack of power in the gluteal muscles, the gluteus maximus being one of the strongest muscles in the body (THE strongest depending on which source you consult).

Developing The Hip Muscles
Hopefully by now you’re convinced of the importance of the hips in not just being a stud athlete, but also in just getting around in daily life. And now we’re ready to look at several ways to get the muscles of the hips firing properly.

For starters, let’s look at some things that are certainly not going to help. I can promise that the adductor and abductor machines (otherwise known as “good girl” and “bad girl” machines, respectively) that the women at the gym love are not going to get things moving the right way. Just as you wouldn’t strengthen your quads by doing leg extensions (please tell me you don’t!), we aren’t looking to isolate the hip muscles, but to use them in the manner in which they’ve evolved, i.e., together. Further, lots of running isn’t going to get it done and will likely exacerbate any issues.

Here are some exercises that I find to be excellent for developing the oh-so-important musculature around the hips. Most of you are probably already doing several or all of these on a regular basis, but for those that aren’t, why not? One thing you’ll notice is that I’m focusing predominantly on the posterior chain of the glutes and hamstrings. That’s because most people are deficient in these areas and the hip flexors are already tight enough. Properly performing these exercises is well beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that there are plenty of people out there know what to look for.

  • Low Bar Back Squat - We all know that the squat is the king of building muscle. If you are lifting for strength, you are doing squats. If you aren’t doing squats, you aren’t very serious about getting stronger. But why do I specify the low bar version specifically? The low bar squat targets the posterior chain better than the Olympic version of the squat, along with getting some effort from the Adductors. I particularly like the Westside Barbell approach for rep schemes with Dynamic Effort days of 50-60% of max weight moved as quickly as possible and Maximum Effort days to really load up the weight. This increases the strength of the posterior chain, then fires it very quickly to increase power development.
  • Deadlift - The other major muscle-building lift, the deadlift, is also great for involving the Glutes and Adductors. The hamstrings get involved here too. Notice that the hamstrings and glutes tend to work synergistically. I can’t think of any movements, other than a leg curl, that isolate either of these muscles.
  • Glute-Ham Raise - These are incredibly difficult, probably the hardest exercise for your posterior chain, but are great for building the…glutes and hamstrings. It’s entirely likely you won’t be able to do this immediately, but you can do them assisted like this.

    No excuses about lacking equipment either; they can be done on the floor with help.

  • Good Morning - Glutes, Adductors, and hamstrings again. Are you catching a pattern here?
  • Clean - Unparalleled for building power in the entire body. Let’s watch Natalie Woolfolk perform a nice Clean and Jerk.

    Notice around the 7 or 8-second mark where she rebends her knees to get under the bar, then fully extends the hips. That powerful hip extension is the key to the Clean and is the only reason people are able to heft multiples of their bodyweight from floor to chest and then overhead.

No doubt there are tons of great ways to hammer the muscles around your hips. Lunges, stiff-leg deadlifts, split squats, one-leg squats, the list goes on. But these are five that are easy enough to perform, don’t require any equipment other than a bar, and are powerfully potent in their ability to make you stronger and more powerful.

How do you diagnose muted hip function in yourself or trainees? What exercises do you do to keep these muscles strong?

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