Sedentary lifestyles and extended periods spent sitting weaken the hip flexors and could cause stiffness or tightness. Even people who are fairly active often fail to exercise these muscles directly.
Read on for 5 of the best stretches to loosen tight hip flexor muscles and everything else you need to know about keeping them strong, healthy, and injury-free.
Joint Flexion Vs. Extension
Flexor muscles and extensor muscles are both present at various places in the human body. Both occur in the sagittal plane, which means they are forward-backward movements. Flexion - the motion of hip flexors - occurs when the distance between bones decreases at a joint.
Bringing your leg forward in front of your body, like you would when you kick a soccer ball, is hip flexion. Extension is the opposite, and refers to the motion that causes the distance between the bones increase as the joint straightens. For example, swinging your leg behind you as you would before you kick a soccer ball, is hip extension.
Some people confuse hip flexion and extension with knee flexion and extension. That’s most likely because the shin will be behind your body with flexion of the knee but your leg wouldn’t be behind you unless you were extending the hip joint. Remember that we’re talking about the hip flexors here. Although they interact with the knee and a few of the stretches involve some degree of knee motion, the movement you should be concentrating on happens at the hip joint.
Where Are The Hip Flexors?
The hip flexor muscles are located primarily on the front of the thigh, near your quadricep. Some flexors are also located within the hips themselves, notably the iliopsoas, a group of muscles that helps move the hip joint. Your hip flexors comprise the following muscles:
Located on the face of the largest bones in your hip, the iliacus works to stabilize the hip joint, rotate the leg away from the body’s midline, and powers flexion of the hip together with the psoas muscles. Taken together, the iliacus and psoas muscles are the primary hip flexor muscles.
Stabilizing the spine and helping maintain good posture, the psoas muscles are critical for everyday movement such as running, walking, cycling, standing, and sitting. Generally, we’re speaking about the psoas major - a psoas minor and psoas tertius muscle are also present in some, but not all, people.
There is some debate over whether the iliacus and psoas muscles connect on the lesser trochanter tendon together or separately - essentially questioning whether they function as one muscle or two. While they are often referred to jointly as the iliopsoas, there are some functions that either of these two muscles performs independently of the other.
Part of the quadriceps, the rectus femoris runs across both the hip and knee joint. It stabilizes weight on the knee and extends the leg. While it does function as a hip flexor, its primary action happens at the knee joint. That being said, it’s still important for hip flexion and also aids other muscles that support your hip flexors such as the glutes.
The sartorius muscle runs from the hip down the front of the thigh to the inside of the knee. Like the rectus femoris, the sartorius is principally a knee flexor but it helps the iliopsoas with hip flexion as well. Your sartorius is particularly involved in sudden pivoting movements from a standstill position like you would see in sprinting and most sports.
Signs of Hip Flexor Tightness
The five stretches in this guide will help reduce the effects of tight hip flexors.
However, some minor symptoms typically indicate hip flexor tightness or even a hip flexor strain. Pain in the surrounding area is one common sign. Although we regularly think of our hips as a sensitive joint, they’re also an important area of weight and power transfer between the upper body and lower body.
Wide loads from the upper body are transferred to the hips, knees, and ankles by the lumbar spine and into the hips.
If you’re experiencing low back pain, tight hip flexors could be a contributing factor. Of course, targeting the exact cause of low back pain is notoriously difficult because it is so prevalent among adults.
Hip flexors may not be related to sudden low back pain although they certainly can be. Other muscles can be proximate causes of that low back pain, particularly weak glutes or tight hamstrings. In the human body, muscles take over for each other when possible to keep us working post muscle fatigue or injury. So weak hip flexors, glutes, core muscles, or hamstrings could be causing that lower back pain.
Since the rectus femoris and sartorius are both active on the knee as well as the hip joint, knee pain can also be a sign of weak hip flexors. The presence of both tightness at the hip and pain in the knee could be a sign that the hip flexor muscles are weak or injured. Hip pain or a decreased range of motion at the hip joint are the clearest and most common signs of tight hip flexors. While some serious cases could require physical therapy or other medical attention, minor hip flexor tightness could go away with the right stretches.
5 Best Hip Flexor Stretches
Research has shown that stretching your hip flexors for 120 seconds or less has a positive impact on your balance and jump performance.
Try doing one or two of these stretches to improve your athletic performance and relieve tight muscles on the front of your hip, side of your knee, or near your quadriceps.
1. Butterfly Stretch
You might remember this classic stretch from gym class. It’s great for opening up the inside of your hips, an area that isn’t easy to target with very many other exercises.
To get into the starting position and run through the stretch, follow these steps:
- Sit down on the floor (or on a yoga mat) and put your feet together so that your soles are flat against one another and you have both knees bent.
- Next, pull your feet in toward your body until they’re as close as they can comfortably be.
- Put both hands over your toes and then lean your torso forward until you feel the stretch. Hold this position for 20 seconds maximum or as long as possible.
2. Seated Straight Leg Raise
If your hip flexors are weak to start with, this exercise could be challenging. Once you get the hang of it, though, the seated straight leg raise is a great stretch that can be performed almost anywhere.
Here’s how to do a seated leg raise:
- Sit on the ground with your back straight against a wall if you need extra support. Otherwise, you can sit on a yoga mat without anything behind you.
- Bend your left leg so your left foot is flat on the ground. This will protect your lower back during the stretch.
- Pull the toes on your right foot back toward your body and then lift the right leg off the ground. Hold it for a second or two and then return to the starting position.
- Remember to do the same number of reps on the right and left leg to stretch the hip muscles on both sides of your body. Aim for 5 - 8 reps when you first start out.
3. Lunge Twists
Add a torso twist to the classic lunge exercise and you can target your hamstrings, glutes, and hip flexors at the same time. It’s also a great way to stretch out those hip flexors to whatever degree you need.
Here’s how to do lunges with a twist:
- Start from a standing position. Take a big step forward with your left foot and then bend your left knee to a 90-degree angle. To accommodate this motion, you’ll have to bend your right knee as well. It should hover just above the ground behind you.
- Make sure you keep your back straight and lean your torso forward ever so slightly to get the right form. You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings and glutes.
- For more stability, place your right hand on the outside of your left knee. Twist your torso to the left. If you can, put your left hand on the back of your right leg or on the right glute. Hold that position for a few seconds and then reverse the steps to get back into the starting position.
- Remember to do the same number of reps on the right and left sides. Also bear in mind that this stretches the hip flexors on the rear leg, not the forward leg, so you’ll feel the stretch in your hip flexors on that side.
4. Foam Roller Psoas Stretch
Although it requires a small investment in a foam roller, this psoas stretch is one of the best ways to correct lower back pain and psoas soreness after long periods sitting down.
Grab a foam roller and run through these steps to execute a flawless foam roller psoas stretch:
- Place the foam roller on the ground and position your psoas muscle on top of it. Whichever side of your body you’re trying to target, that’s the side the foam roller should be on.
- Put pressure on the foam roller with your psoas and support your upper body with your palms ahead of you and your opposite knee out to one side. You don’t need to stack your wrists like you would for a push-up, though.
- Roll back and forth on your foam roller. You should feel some tightness being relieved. Try rolling from side to side as well.
- Once you locate the precise spot, bend and unbend the knee on the side of your body where the foam roller is. The lengthening and shortening of the psoas will help stretch it out.
5. Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
Here’s a good alternative you can use in tandem with the lunge variation we discussed earlier. It could be the solution you need if you found that the lunge didn’t give you as deep a stretch as you were looking for.
Follow these steps to do a kneeling hip flexor stretch:
- Take a step forward and kneel down so that your forward knee is bent at a 90-degree angle and the back knee is touching the floor.
- As with the earlier lunge variation, this move will stretch the psoas on the rear leg, not the forward one.
- With the rear knee still on the ground, engage your core and glutes and lean forward and slightly in the direction of the forward foot. You’ll feel the stretch in that rear psoas.
- Hold the position for a few seconds. You can move back and forth if it relieves additional tension on your hip flexor muscles.
- Return to the starting position and repeat to loosen the hip flexors on the other side of your body as well.
How Often Should I Stretch My Hip Flexors?
You’re likely to find yourself wanting to stretch your hip flexors more often if you have a condition that makes them less flexible or if you spend long periods sitting down. That being said, you probably don’t want to spend as long on these stretches as you would for a more well-rounded warm-up or a whole workout routine. Remember, these are stretches - 120 seconds is fine to get your hip flexors loose, but more than that and you could be impacting your ability to run.
For long-term health, it’s better to strengthen the hip flexors rather than simply stretching them out.
Exercises like the straight leg raise and a front-loaded Bulgarian split squat are great for this purpose. Don’t forget to target your glutes and hamstrings for additional lower back support. On the whole, if you’re just experiencing the odd bout of tight hip flexors from sitting too long and you aren’t doing much long-distance running or sports, you can run through a couple of the stretches in this guide whenever you have a few minutes of free time. If that doesn’t help, you may need a personal trainer or physical therapist to find the source of the pain or tightness you’re experiencing.
Relieve Tight Hip Flexors For Better Performance
Hip flexors aren’t only for walking and running. They also play a role in other exercises. Whether you’re trying to put on some serious muscle mass or just want to make sure you’re reasonably fit, stretching out your hip flexors regularly is a good habit to build.
You’ll be able to run and walk better and might even find relief from acute low back pain, depending on its cause. Use the stretches in this guide to loosen up tight hip flexors for better hip function and a reduced risk of injury at the hip joint.