Athletes (and non-athletes) tend to have a lot of misconceptions about the hips. Here, the anatomy and function of the joint demystified.
As a yoga teacher, specializing in working with athletes (specifically, Crossfit athletes and weightlifters), I spend a fair amount of time not only helping my students deal with a host of sport-specific hip issues, but also clarifying common misconceptions about the function of the hip joint. I recently had the privilege of attending Tiffany Cruikshank’s Master Series For Teachers workshop at Yoga Journal LIVE!, which provided a wealth of knowledge on the workings of the hip joint, and greatly enhanced my understanding of its biomechanics. So, what’s the key to achieving stable hips, an efficient stride, and a safe, controlled squat? So glad you asked! Here are some pointers to help demystify the anatomy of the hip joint and its surrounding muscles.
Myth 1: Tight hips are “bad.”
Compared with the average yogi, many athletes are incredibly tight in their hips. This is not a bad thing! These joints are primarily built to provide stability, and all athletes need significant stiffness in this area to prevent an inefficient side-to-side tilt in the gait, maintain proper alignment, and support the legs. Runners, for example, rely on a combination of tension in the hips and mobility in the legs to move them forward in an economical manner. Stable hips help avoid superfluous strain on the knee joint, which is much more vulnerable to overuse injuries when it doesn't get the support it needs from the hip.
Myth 2: I really need to work on opening my hips!
Well…yes and no. While the hip joint’s main role is stabilization, it’s essential for athletes of all kinds to maintain a healthy range of motion, too. Weightlifters with very tight hips are unable to get into a nice, deep squat, and a runner with excessively tense hips will end up with a shorter stride, and gradually dwindling pace. As with everything, moderation is key: We want to strike a balance between strength and flexibility that is appropriate for our chosen sport and that allows for safe and efficient patterns of movement.
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Myth 3: Strong butt = stable hips.
The average person, when referring to their “butt” or their “glutes,” is usually talking about the meaty part of their booty, or the gluteus maximus. This large and powerful muscle plays an important role in moving the hip—it both extends and externally rotates it. However, to build stability in the hip, we must look to the gluteus medius, a thick fan-shaped muscle that covers the outside of the hip, connecting the outer, top edge of the pelvis (iliac crest) to the top of the thighbone (femur).This is the muscle we need to strengthen for sturdy, balanced hips. In a lunge position, firmly pinning the hip of your front leg toward the midline of the body. Engaging the gluteus medius integrates the head of the femur snugly into the hip socket and stabilizes the joint; conversely, weakness in the muscle results in the hip popping or sagging out to the side. Hence, your yoga teacher’s cue, “hug your outer hips in.”
Myth 4: Tight hips cause all the problems.
Many athletes—weightlifters, runners, and cyclists in particular—have a tendency to be quad-dominant, from frequent and repetitive movement in the sagittal plane. Consider the incredible number of times a runner’s hip flexes to bring the leg forward and up, then extends to swing the leg back. If there is a discrepancy in strength between the quads and glutes, it will increase with repetition of that movement. And when the gluteus medius is slacking on its duties, the quads are forced to take on the task of stabilizing the hip. This is not only highly inefficient, but over time can pull the pelvis out of alignment, strain the hamstrings, irritate the IT band, and lead to a variety of performance-ruining issues in the lower back and knees.
Myth 5: Tight hips are strong hips.
A muscle can become tight due to overuse and repeated contraction (like runners' quadriceps), but on the opposite end of the spectrum, a muscle can also become tight from being under-utilized and weak. Sitting at a desk all day, in passive hip flexion, can eventually diminish both strength and length in hip flexors. The body adapts to the stimulus (or lack thereof), and the hip flexors shorten and weaken. Similarly, the gluteus medius can also be tight, yet weak, thus triggering a whole host of problems from the resulting lack of hip stability. Gluteus medius weakness is the underlying cause of many an overuse injury in runners. The cruel irony is that since symptoms present themselves elsewhere in the body—usually in the IT band, knee, or lower back—the problem can be difficult for the casual athlete to pinpoint. This alone should be motivation enough for runners, triathletes, and weightlifters to maintain good tone in their gluteus medius muscles. Your body will thank you by keeping you active, mobile, and pain-free for years to come!
ABOUT OUR WRITER
Jenni Tarma is a Los Angeles–based yoga teacher, runner and Crossfitter. She really, really likes to move, loves teaching yoga to Crossfit athletes, as well as leading traditional vinyasa-based classes. She's currently studying with Sage Rountree to complete her Yoga For Athletes certification. Find her on Instagram: @jennitarma and www.jennitarma.com.