Yesterday, I made a case for the necessity of good hip mobility in, well, everyone. Athletes will get faster, stronger, and more powerful. Lifters will be able to lift more weight and squat heavier without rounding the lower back. Regular folks will spare their lower back from the stress of chronic sitting and bending over to pick things up. Extensive hip mobility will improve your love life (seriously, think about it – hip thrust, range of motion!), your deadlift, your Grok squat, and your posture. If you own a set of hips, the ability to traverse their full range of motion will improve your life in many ways. They are the fulcrum upon which most activity depends. Treat them well, keep them well lubed and tuned up, and you will reap the benefits and reduce your chance of injury. That much is pretty clear by now.
So, how do you do it? How do you get hip mobility, and how do you maintain it?
Before you launch into a series of drills and exercises, it’s important to understand exactly what I mean by hip mobility. I briefly went over it yesterday, but here’s a short exercise you can do right now to get the feeling for your hips.
Stand up (or remain standing if you’ve taken my advice to heart and set up a standup workstation).
Pick an object on the ground, or place one there. A shoe, a hat, a piece of paper, anything will work.
Now, pick up the object. But wait – don’t squat down to pick it up, and don’t just bend over at the waist. Erase the word “bend” from your vocabulary. You aren’t bending; you’re reaching back with your hips.
Stick your butt backwards, as if you were reaching for a stool to sit down. All the while, maintain a tight lumbar spine. Keep your back straight, in other words. Don’t round your back. Keep your legs nearly straight, too, just enough to unlock your knees.
Stick your hips back until you can grab the object. Grab it, then come back up by reversing the hip motion. Thrust your hips forward, as if you were performing a NSFW activity, Um, yeah. Thrust your hips forward by pulling against the ground with your heels. Squeeze your glutes for good measure, too. Feel that pull in your hamstrings and glute muscles as you draw power from your heels planted firmly against the ground?
That’s how you use your hips, and half the battle is won. Simply visualizing this usage of your hips will get you pretty far and improve your hip mobility (because now you know what using your hips feels like), but you can go even further. You can’t have too much hip mobility.
Soft Tissue Work
Next, get your hands on a foam roller and a tennis ball, baseball, golf ball, or a lacrosse ball. You’re going to do some soft tissue work to loosen up the muscles that are keeping your hips tight. Unless you’ve got a live in masseuse, these are essential items for any active person anyway, and they’re cheap, so there’s no excuse not to have them. Do these after a workout, in the morning, or, if you’re super tight and in a ton of pain, every day.
Foam Roll Your IT Band (VIDEO)
Tight hips often correlate with tight iliotibial bands, those infamous strips of connective tissue that run along the outside of our upper thighs. Start at your hip and roll down to just above your knee, pausing on any painful spots. Try slightly different angles to hit different aspects of the band. Fifteen rolls per leg.
Foam Roll Your Hip Adductors (Inner Thighs) (VIDEO)
You’ll sort of have to straddle the end of the roller to get your legs in position. It may look a bit obscene, but that’s okay. Fifteen rolls per leg.
Foam Roll Your Hamstring
If you desire a bit more pressure, do one leg at a time while keeping the off leg in the air.
Piriformis Myofascial Release (VIDEO)
Follow the directions in the video. Targeting the piriformis can be tricky, and this is the most reliable method I’ve found.
(Note: this isn’t really hip mobility, but it’s related, and I recall a commenter asking for help with piriformis pain. Try this. )
Otherwise, just generally foam roll the entire area – quads, hamstrings – and look for really tight spots which you can target with the ball.
These are classic mobility drills, essentially designed to explore the full range of motion in the hips. When you’re working these drills, think about starting out small. Instead of big circles right away, make controlled circles. Just make sure you’re actively using your hips in a controlled manner.
Front-Back Leg Swings (VIDEO)
Keeping your leg straight, hold on to a stable surface and swing your leg from front to back. Generate the power from your hips – from where the leg meets the hip socket – rather than from your thighs. To ensure hip engagement, keep your lumbar spine tight and still. If you find your lower back moving with each swing, swing a little shorter. Fifteen each leg.
Side to Side Leg Swings (VIDEO)
Similar to front-back leg swings, only performed from side to side. The urge to rotate your torso will be even greater with these, so be firm and lead with the hips, not the pelvis. Fifteen each leg.
Squat Stands (VIDEO)
Take a rather wide stance, touch your toes while keeping your legs straight, drop into a low squat position (elbows on the inside of your knees, knees shoved out and tracking over your toes) with a strong lumbar curve, throw your hands overhead, and come up. Make sure you maintain that lumbar curve and never round your back, because a rounded back means tension is taken off your hips. Repeat ten times.
Fire Hydrants (VIDEO).
On your hands and knees, make big (big – the video doesn’t really convey the range of motion) circles in the air with your knee by rotating at the hip. Do ten in each direction for each leg. These can be performed while walking upright (VIDEO), walking backward, (VIDEO) and briskly in reverse (VIDEO).
Reverse Lunge with Twist (VIDEO)
Take a big step backward (as far as you can). Drop to one knee and rotate your torso to the opposite side. Ten, each leg.
Instead of going quickly and turning it into a workout, try to get your feet flat-footed on the ground, outside of your hands – and hold that position for a second or two before switching feet. Really feel the stretch. Make sure you maintain torso and hip position; don’t go flailing around with your whole body. See the third exercise in this video for an example (also shows fire hydrants, as well as some other great hip mobility stuff). Do ten of these for each leg.
Sit on the ground, with your upper back resting on a bench, your feet on the floor and your knees up. Plant your feet firmly and thrust your hips forward by squeezing your glutes, creating a sort of bridge with your torso. Kinda like this, only without the absurd amount of weight. Light to no weight is also effective.
Hip mobility is nothing new. Trainers are increasingly aware of its importance, and there are some fantastic programs out there. Joe DeFranco’s “Agile Eight” hip mobility warm-up is a notable – and extremely effective – example. Consisting of eight basic drills, the Agile Eight hits all the basics of hip mobility. It’s perfect for maintenance, and it’s designed for daily use by experienced to semi-experienced athletes (or weekend warriors). It takes about seven or eight minutes to complete, perfect for the guy or gal who wants to stay mobile without turning it into a workout in and of itself. StrongLifts has another great dynamic stretch system for hip mobility that’s worth checking out.
Exercises and Activities That Support (and Require) Hip Mobility
Once you’re comfortable with your level of hip engagement, try some of these exercises. You’ll be amazed at how crucial the hips are in pretty much everything.
But first a word of warning: Some of these are advanced moves. If you don’t execute these with proper form you are putting yourself at risk of injury. My advice is to start light, use a coach for guidance and remember that this is more about form than it is about weight.
You know, that exercise in which you move more weight than any other exercise? That’s all hip extension, the most basic, powerful manifestation of strength we have at our disposal.
Box Jumps (VIDEO)
A bench will work, or even just a basic vertical leap to see how high you can touch on the wall. Only this time, pay close attention to your hips when you jump. What do you notice about jumping? It’s just an explosive hip extension! Steps and stairs are great for beginners.
Sprinting or running? Each stride is a single-legged hip extension. Try skip-sprinting (VIDEO), only explode with mini hip extensions on each step.
Kettlebell Swings (VIDEO)
Throwing a Punch (VIDEO)
Plant your foot, generate power and throw your body into it with a hip rotation.
My favorite way to engage the hips and nail the hip extension has always been the Romanian deadlift (VIDEO). After leaving the endurance world, the RDL was my breakthrough hip engagement exercise. It was eye-opening, because it let me know just how stiff and tight my hips were after decades of running with a limited range of motion (the marathoner’s plod). If you’re tight back there, it’ll do the same for you. It’s easier than the classic deadlift for newbies to grasp, and you use lower weights, making it fairly safe. And because it’s a mostly straight-legged move, it’s pure hip extension, whereas the classic deadlift is also about knee extension. The RDL is basically the drill mentioned above, only holding a barbell. Reach back with the hips, maintain lumbar curve/straight back, keep your legs barely unlocked, and lower the bar just past the knees. Come back up by extending/thrusting the hips forward, pulling your heels against the floor, and making sure to maintain skin-bar contact. You can go even lower with the bar as long as you maintain your lumbar curve. That’s the purest, simplest test of hip mobility. Most people off the street, if they can even grasp the nuance between hip extension and lower back extension, won’t be able to lower the bar lower than the knees unless they lose the straight legs and opt for bended knees. You know why? They suffer from tight hips that have never been used correctly.
Picking a Program
The good news is that there are many paths to fixing hip mobility. There are hundreds of drills, exercises, and stretches – both static and dynamic – that will help.
The bad news is that there are many paths to fixing hip mobility, almost too many. Faced with an array of choices, some people freeze up. If that’s you, fear not. I’m not an expert on mobility, but I’ve been there and I have an idea or two about what works best. I’ve suffered from limited hip mobility in the past and I learned how to rectify that unfortunate state. Here’s hoping you’re able to do the same.
If you’re incredibly tight, spend a week or two fixing the problem. Try all the drills, do all the soft tissue work, and once you’re confident in your ability to mobilize the hips, give the Romanian deadlifts a shot. If you just need to maintain mobility, pick three or four of the drills and do them as a warm-up along with the soft tissue work post workout three or four times a week. Once you’re aware of how important hip mobility is, you’ll never slack off again.