Hip Flexors: The Samuel L. Jackson of the Body


In a previous post we outlined a list of exercises that you can do to fight the sedentary life.  Sedentary sucks.  It messes with our posture, tightening and weakening muscles that are necessary for power and performance.  One of these effected muscle groups are the hip flexors.

The hip flexors, as the name suggests, flex the hip.  Of particular note, we’ll focus on the deep hip flexors A.K.A. the illiopsoas.  The illiopsoas is interesting in that it connects the upper body to the lower, from the spine to the femur.

This meaty piece of myofibrillar machismo consists of two parts:  the psoas and the illiacus.  Of these two, the psoas originates at the lumbar spine and inserts at the femur and pelvis (psoas major at femur and minor at pelvis).  In comparison, the Illiacus connects the femur to the iliac bone.  Now, the illiopsoas also aids in regulating balance, which has humorously given it the name,“front butt,” adding to its importance in sports performance.

My weak ass hips

I’ve had weak hips for a long time.  Growing up, my grandfather commented to my mother when I was two that I was very wobbly when standing and walking.  In fact, I’d fall down A LOT when I was a kid.  Whether it was down a flight of stairs in our house or just dropping like a daisy, my hips felt very weak.

Even while dabbling in Taekwondo, finding core and hip stability were challenges for me.  However the repetitive challenging of that stability did help to strengthen those weaknesses to a degree (Hook kick memories).

mac football
Number 43 in the middle is me. Weak hips in tow.

Yet, the depth of this weakness was truly realized when I was playing football in high school.  A sport of high powered tackles and graceful transitions, playing football revealed how bad my hips really were. 

It felt like they were made of glass as I attempted to transition from backpedaling to sprints, to strafing.  Looking back, I’d always find myself bent over if not falling to the ground and getting beat by receivers.  Had I known the cause of that issue and the means of strengthening my hips, I’d have progressed further.  The constant groin tightness was a frustrating reminder of a weakness that I could not understand at the time.  .

Power for athletes

Another name that I’ve personally called the psoas (jokingly), is the Samuel L. Jackson of our musculoskeletal system.  It is powerful and if you piss it off it will come back with a vengeance.  It is indeed a BBMFer (Big Bad Mother F—er).  These muscles of the psoas are powerful in that they flex the hip.  Say if you’re doing a squat; the movement is reliant on the hip flexors to stabilize the hip by resisting posterior pelvic tilt. 

samuel l jackson hip flexors
Its not a game!

Moreover, in activities that involve knee lift, such as sprinting, the psoas and hip flexors in general, are a rate determiner of performance.  A person’s stride length and strides per unit time are at the mercy of hip flexor endurance and strength.

Rise of the Sedentary

Many strength coaches out there are upset at the rise of video games and athletes sitting too much.  Dr. Katy Bowman, a frequent voice on the Stop Chasing Pain podcast says that:

Active sedentary is a new category of people who are fit for one hour but sitting around the rest of the day…You can’t offset 10 hours of stillness with one hour of exercise.”

Sitting = very bad.  It makes you fat man.  Brain function is also strongly correlated with movement and with the reduced activity that comes with sitting for too long; your brain power is going down as well.

However, most important of all, your hip flexors are constantly flexed.  This combined with a sleeping booty that’s compressed into a choke hold between your chair and the rest of your body, and your stability goes down the toilet.  Your psoas gets irritated and you have more pain than a Pulp Fiction shootout.  Back pain and knee pain are quite common from this and you end up more messed up than ever.

What to do about it?

Dr, Perry Nickelston prescribes getting up more.  He says to, “Stand up with a slight bend in you knees and rotate from side to side twenty times several times a day.”

Also, stretching the hip flexor might be something you’ll want to look into.  Doing the couch stretch as well as frog stretch are always cool options.  These exercises open up the adductors as well as allow a relaxation of the deep hip flexors.

What about chronically tight hip flexors?

Even though lengthening the hip flexors might pose relief from tightness in that region, chronic tightness poses a different issue.

dean somerest

“…is it a simple act of stretching the muscles that’s going to solve the problem, or is it the fact that they’re pulling double duty for an unstable spine and under developed core that’s causing them to be tight in the first place? Another way to look at it, if you stretched a short and tight muscle and it regained length, it shouldn’t get tight again, should it? Whereas if the muscle wasn’t technically “tight” but rather holding excessive tone in order to keep your spine from looking more like a losing game of Jenga, stretching it will just give more opportunity for low back pain, and quickly lead to the muscle tensing up again to defend the spine.”  – Dean Sommerset

It’s not always the case that the muscle that’s giving you trouble is the one that’s the source of the issue.  You have to ask, why is that muscle tightening?   Is it protecting/compensating for something else?  Now, the hip flexor does not work in isolation.

To stabilize the spine, you’ve got the lower back erector spinae, as well as important surrounding muscles like the glutes (to stabilize the pelvis in order to balance the torso) as well as the quads that can act on the hip flexors.  As Dean Sommerset was saying above, tight hip flexors can be due to their attempting to stabilize the spine from other dysfunctions. 

Take Away

In all, the hip flexors are powerful muscles that need to be taken care of, especially in the sedentary world that most of us live in.  That doesn’t just mean the one hour of activity that we get in at the gym.   Taking care of the hip flexors includes bringing up weaknesses in the spinal and pelvic areas as well.  Don’t ignore your hip flexors or you’ll end up wobbling around a football field like myself.

For Further Reading:

Stop Chasing Pain Chairs Kill Your Ass, Your Psoas, and Your Soul

Dean Sommerset Some Reasons Why You Should Stop Stretching your Hip Flexors

Healthy Living The Hip Flexor’s Role in a Squat