Everything you want to know about Hip – Flexors but were too afraid to ask

The hip-flexor group of muscles is a complex anatomical system which provides stability whilst powering movement. Here is an excerpt from my article on Unlocking the Hips which breaks down this muscle group:

The Hip – Flexors: Key Muscles:

So where and what are the hip flexors? Quite simply, your hip flexors are that group of muscles that allow for the flexing of your hip joint; namely the muscles that help you bring your thigh up towards your abdomen and vice versa. From a personal yoga perspective the major muscle groups of the hip flexors that present the most interest include the:

  • Iliopsoas which consists of the Iliacus and the Psoas Major
  • Rectus Femoris which is the only quadricep muscle that crosses the hip joint
  • Tensor Fasciae  which is attached to the Iliotibial band

The Psoas:

The Psoas is a major player in yoga. It’s the larger of the two muscles in the Iliopsoas and is attached to the top of the lumbar spine on one end and the femur bone at the other end. From a yoga asana perspective, it’s the activating muscle that helps you come into a forward fold. If you enjoy arm – balances which comprises mainly of a forward-folding action, a strong psoas muscle is that part of your deep core that will help keep your legs off the floor. In Shirsasana (Headstand) the ability to gracefully straight – leg raise into the full expression of the headstand originates from the psoas. Conversely, a psoas that is tight will restrict your movement in any posture that involves back-bending such as Dhanurasana or Bow Pose and Urdhva Dhanurasana or Upward Facing Bow Pose.

All these yoga postures aside, the psoas plays a key role as a spinal stabiliser and regulates balance for basic movements such as walking and standing. Dysfunction occurs when the psoas shortens as a result of sedentary lifestyles. Every time we sit the psoas contracts and shortens. It may continue to stay in this shortened disposition even when standing which then induces an opposing pull from the paraspinal muscles of the lower back, resulting in….you guessed it, lower back pain. Are you one of those people who likes sleeping in embryo position? You may want to reconsider changing your sleeping disposition as you’re probably not doing your psoas or your King Pigeon any favours.

Rectus Femoris:

This is an interesting muscle due to its biaxial characteristic – this means that it crosses two joints; the hip and the knee joint. It is the only one of the four quadricep muscles that does that. We know that this muscle can be problematic for atheletes who engage in forceful movements or explosive actions such as kicking, running and jumping. However the exposure to strain in this muscle is even higher for the “casual” or “social” club player for opposite reasons. Typically this is a person who may not have an active lifestyle but is co-opted through the office to play a social game. Or someone who has been sedentary and not maintained any activity but decides to suddenly pick up a new sport and then voila…at the first tennis social, on an attempt to push-off to take a volley, the  muscle reacts badly.  In the first case with the athlete, strain can occur due to over-exertion, RSI or excessive impact and in the latter, due to shortened muscles that have to suddenly extend and compensate for new activity. As such whether you are an elite athlete or not, the reasons for maintaining these hip flexors supple and healthy are obvious.

Tensor Fasciae Latae:

Well, it’s hard to get into a discussion about the TFL, the little muscle that lies just in front of the hip joint without also talking about the ilotibial band ( ITB ) – the thick dense tissue that runs down the side of the thigh. Tightness in the ITB and TFL often expresses itself as knee pain, especially on the outer side of the thigh. In yoga, often those with tight ITB externally rotate their feet when stepping up into forward fold from their downdog. If you attempt a scorpion in an inversion such as a handstand or in a forearm stand and find your knees and feet pull apart excessively and you are unable to bring your legs together, a tight ITB most likely has something to do with that. If you attempt Padmasana (Lotus Pose) and experience pain on the outer side of the knee, most likely a tight ITB has something to do with that also. Incidentally, bow – leggedness has been linked with tightness in the ITB. This seems consistent with the runner’s syndrome where the feet start to pronate and roll inwards when fatigue sets in, causing the ITB to tense up in order to maintain alignment.

Muscle Imbalance:

The yoga body is the balanced body. As yoga postures and sequencing require a practitioner to move smoothly and purposefully through a wide range of positions including twists, forward folds, backbends, side bends, both arm and leg balancing, it encourages allover muscular strength and flexibility. Specialist sports and typical weight room training can result in bodies that suffer from particular imbalances due to its very nature. Take a cyclist for example. Cyclists tend to have overdeveloped quadriceps as this particular muscle has to remain active to power the wheel for most of its circular motion. Fitness models on the other hand tend to do a lot of upper core exercises to help emphasise their 6 pack muscles, also known as the rectus abdominus. In fact in yoga, the important muscles are most often the ones overlooked in the gymnasium as they are hidden away and have no superficial appearance value. The psoas, pelvic floor, transverse abdominus are significant muscles in the lower core of the yoga body and so many of the exercises performed in yoga are designed to activate these muscles, thus bringing balance to the entire body. 

When hip flexors are weak:

This month we are focusing on the hip-flexors. In Ashtanga Yoga, strong hip-flexors are needed to execute transitions such as jump throughs and jump backs. Strong hip flexors are pivotal to arm-balances since most arm-balances requires a practitioner to come into forward flexion. Yoga aside, the iliopsoas is a major set of muscles sitting within the pelvic girdle that provide the spine and lower body with stability. When these muscles are weak, posture suffers and can result in both back and joint pain, noticeably in the knees. This is a common problem that can affect many for two reasons – one, because sedentary lifestyles encourage both weak as well as the shortening of the psoas ( sitting down for long periods apparently is enough to cause the psoas to shrink ) and secondly, the iliopsoas is not a muscle that is often targeted in fitness disciplines, as compared to its more visible cousin, the qaudricep (which comprises 4 muscles including the rectus femoris). Additionally bad posture stemming from hip misalignment also frequently affects walking and running gait. Long term lower body joint pain is a consequence and this aside, an inefficient gait obviously has ramifications for athletic performance. 

Continuing on this theme, strong hip flexors can of course impact significantly upon athletic performance. Anything that involves jumping, running and kicking – which covers just about every sport demands powerful hip flexors. Additionally pay attention to the iliopsoas since it’s the only muscles in this group of muscles that accommodates a knee lift beyond 90 degrees. Imagine the additional power you can add to the kinetic chain if you are able to draw the knee up beyond the level of the hip in the sagittal plane effortlessly when accessing energy from the deep muscles of the body for particular track sports such as hurdles or long jump. 

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana C
Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana C (Hand to Big Toe Series)

Bearing in mind the need to address muscular imbalances in our bodies due to lifestyle habits, our focus this month on strengthening hip flexors will pay particular attention to the iliopsoas. Collaterally, the other muscles within the hip flexor group will also benefit from our sequencing and drills. Just as we strengthen, our sequencing will include counterposes to encourage lengthening and stretching since what we are always striving for is balance – that tightrope we walk between sukha and sthira – that line where effort and ease, strength and softness meet.

I am a yoga teacher based in central Auckland. I teach a Yoga Fundamentals Course which runs twice yearly as well as yoga classes in the central Ponsonby area. For more details on time, venue and type of classes please refer to the Upcoming Events Page of this website. You can view my work on instagram also by searching for "ewabigioyoga". Contact me at ewalyhb@gmail.com

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