Among the hundreds of joints in your body, the hips just might be the most essential for quality movement — and also among the most prone to developing problems. The hips are two of your largest joints, both in their functional role and in the amount of muscle mass that connects to them.
“Mobile, stable, strong hip joints are the keystone to both avoiding injury and to achieving optimal function,” says Dean Somerset, CSCS, medical and rehabilitation coordinator for World Health gyms and co-creator of the DVD series Muscle Imbalances Revealed (2010). “Showy muscles like the biceps and pecs get all the attention — but it’s the hips that are responsible for high-level athletic performance.”
Healthy hips facilitate movement of the thighbone (femur) in almost any direction: forward, backward, inward, outward and rotationally in either direction. They are also a physiological “way station” for the transfer of power from your lower to your upper body, and are thus loaded with proprioceptors — neuromuscular receptors that detect motion and position, and that are essential for maintaining balance.
When these joints are working well, you unconsciously move your hips in almost infinite ways as you exercise or go about everyday tasks, like ascending stairs, getting out of your car or climbing into bed.
These days, however, optimally functioning hip joints are a rarity. Thanks to desk jobs, plus travel and leisure activities that involve sitting for hours at a stretch, many people have hips that are inflexible, unstable and weak.
Repetitive, unvarying exercise routines often compound the problem. Sitting erodes strength and stability in the core and glutes, explains Bill Hartman, PT, CSCS, and co-creator of Muscle Imbalances Revealed. As that happens, “prime movers like your quadriceps start to act like stabilizers.” At the same time, the hamstrings and lower back start to take over for weak glutes. Indeed, the entire lower-body musculature begins to multitask frantically, with woefully inefficient results.
Lack of smooth, coordinated movement in the hips can force the lower back and knees to compensate by twisting and bending unnaturally when you walk, run or exercise.
“Injuries in the lower back and knees often result from hip joints that aren’t strong enough or don’t move well,” says Somerset.
Worst-case scenario? As the femur bones become confined to a limited range of motion, the protective cartilage between the bones and your hip sockets wears down unevenly — like bald patches on a poorly mounted tire — eventually causing pain, and greatly limiting movement.
The result: increasingly few recovery options outside of hip-replacement surgery. But you can beat those odds.
The Fix for Your Hips
The good news: Keeping your hips healthy and avoiding long-term joint issues is surprisingly straightforward. According to Hartman and Somerset, all you need to do is add a few simple mobility drills and a handful of strength-and-stability moves a few times a week for better function and improved performance, in and out of the gym.
They recommend the following workout, which consists of two sections: mobility drills and strength moves. Perform the mobility work — which takes just a few minutes — once a week for every decade you’ve been alive (four times per week if you’re in your 40s, for example), even on days when you aren’t doing any other type of exercise.
Then, once a week, add the strength moves in place of a normal lower-body workout. As you’ll see, many standard two-legged moves like back squats and dead lifts don’t play a role in this workout. There’s a reason: “You need to address mobility problems before you get into heavy strength work or high-speed athletic training,” says Hartman. The strength moves on the next page will enhance single-leg stability and mobility, as well as hip strength.
If you suffer from frequent back or knee pain, or feel that your hips need serious help, consider doing the full workout twice a week in place of all other lower-body strength training. You can also do the mobility drills even more often — when you get up in the morning and on breaks from work, for example.
Perform the following three moves as a circuit, completing one set of 10 reps of each exercise. Rest as needed. Complete one set before switching legs on single-legged movements. Do two circuits for a total of six sets.
1. Single-, Stiff-Legged Dead Lift
• Stand with your feet hip-distance apart, arms at your sides.
• Shift your weight onto your left foot and lift your right foot a few inches off the floor.
• Keeping your back in its natural arch, your right leg and hip extended, and the toes of your right foot pointing at the floor, hinge forward on your left hip, slightly bending the left knee.
• Extend your arms in front of you, elbows straight, palms facing one another.
• Continue hinging forward until you form a straight line parallel to the floor (or as close as you can get without rounding your back or rolling to one side).
• Slowly return to the starting position, maintaining your balance throughout the movement.
The Finer Points: “The toes of the back leg have to point toward the floor, and that hip needs to stay fully extended,” says Somerset. “If your chest goes down an inch, your back leg goes up an inch.”
2. Overhead Squat
• Stand with feet at shoulder width, toes pointed slightly out, and take a shoulder-width-and-a-half grip on a broomstick, dowel or light barbell.
• Press the dowel fully overhead, lifting and opening your chest as much as possible.
• Keeping the bar directly overhead, your feet flat, and your lower back in its natural arch, squat until your hips are slightly lower than your knees.
• With your knees tracking over your feet (versus caving inward), return to the starting position.
The Finer Points: “This is a great all-around functional mobility builder,” says Somerset. But it may not come easily at first. Just strive to go as low as you can while keeping your heels firmly on the floor, and the bar as straight overhead as possible.
3. Forward Lunge With Overhead Reach
• From a standing position, take a long step forward with your left foot.
• Keeping both feet pointed forward, drop into a lunge position, bending your left knee about 90 degrees and lowering your right knee till it’s almost touching the floor. From this position, squeeze your glutes together.
• Maintaining this position in the lower body, look upward, place your palms together, and reach both arms overhead with your elbows straight, allowing the chest to open and the upper back to arch backward slightly.
• Slowly lower your arms and step your right foot forward and even with your left.
The Finer Points: “The stillness of the hips is essential. If you allow your hips to rotate backward, you can wind up reinforcing bad habits,” says Somerset.
Unlike when you perform the mobility drills, you won’t complete the strength moves as a circuit — complete all sets of each exercise before moving on to the next. Rest 60 seconds between sets.
1. Hip Thrust
• Sit on the floor with your back leaning against the long side of a padded weight bench, feet parallel, shoulder-width, and flat on the floor in front of you.
• Keeping your knees aligned over your heels, lift your hips off the floor, finishing with them a few inches higher than your knees. Pause at the top.
• Slowly lower your hips, stopping when your glutes are a few inches off the floor. Repeat.
Sets and Reps: Three sets of eight to 12.
The Finer Points: Control the pace throughout the exercise, and squeeze your glutes together hard at the top of the movement. Once you’ve mastered the body-weight version, hold a padded barbell across your lap for additional resistance. “Unlike conventional squats and dead lifts,” says Somerset, “the hip thrust works the glutes with minimal strain on the lower back.”
2. Speed-Skater Squat
• Stand upright and shift your weight onto your left foot, bending your right knee 90 degrees, so the foot is behind you and off the floor.
• Keeping your left knee tracking over your standing foot, bend your left knee, hip and ankle, slowly lowering your right knee — and your entire body weight — toward the floor (your position will resemble that of a speed skater at full tilt).
• When you’ve lowered yourself as far as you can, reverse the movement and return to the starting position. Finish all the repetitions on your left leg before shifting sides.
Sets and Reps: Three sets of six to eight on each leg.
The Finer Points: Somerset recommends using a mirror your first few times doing this exercise to make sure the knee on your standing leg doesn’t collapse inward, a sign that your hip rotators aren’t pulling their weight. “Only perform the movement as far as you can while keeping your knee tracking above your foot. Over time, you’ll gradually be able to sink into a full squat with the knee still tracking directly over your foot.”
3. Weighted Single-, Stiff-Legged Dead Lift
• Perform this lift as described in the mobility circuit, but this time holding two dumbbells or kettlebells in your hands. Instead of extending your arms overhead, allow them to extend downward as you perform the movement (but don’t allow your back to round!).
Sets and Reps: Three sets of six to eight on each leg.
The Finer Points: For tight-hipped people, Somerset prefers this version to the more popular two-leg version: “Most people have naturally better form on the single-leg dead lift than they do on the double-leg version — that extended back leg helps people use their glutes properly.”
Instead of using two dumbbells, you can also hold a single heavy dumbbell in the hand opposite your standing leg (i.e., the left if you’re standing on your right). This creates an additional challenge to rotational strength and stability for your standing leg and hip.
This article was originally published as “Hip, Hip, Hooray!” in the September 2011 issue of Experience Life.