Here's a little anatomy quiz for you. The hip adductors are responsible for which of the following common yoga issues: (1) You have difficulty holding your legs together in inversions; (2) Your knees pop up in sitting poses like Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose); (3) Your legs slip down your arms in arm balances like Bakasana (Crane Pose); (4) Your legs won't separate very far in Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend).
Answer: All of the above. The hip adductors are a group of five muscles that occupy your inner thighs between the quadriceps on the front of the leg and the hamstrings on the back. When these muscles contract, they help draw your thighs together in poses like inversions and arm balances; when they stretch, they open up poses like Baddha Konasana and Upavistha Konasana. Whether stretching or contracting, they're crucial in a wide variety of poses. Strengthening and stretching the inner-leg muscles will improve the aforementioned poses, and you'll be able to sit on the floor with greater ease—to play with children or pets, perhaps—and have both greater stability and an increased sense of freedom in your walking gait.
Party of Five
Taken together, the hip adductors are about the same size as the four quads or the three hams. All five originate (attach) on your ischial tuberosity (sitting bone) or pubic bone. Two shorter adductors, the pectineus and the adductor brevis, insert on the upper posterior femur (thigh bone). Two longer ones, the adductor longus and adductor magnus, insert on the middle and lower posterior femur. The fifth member of the group, gracilis, is a long straplike muscle that extends from the pubic bone to the tibia, just below the knee.
The adductors play a role in many types of movements. When they contract, the adductors squeeze your thighs together, an action that's known as hip adduction. Depending on your leg position, one adductor muscle or another might help to flex, extend, or rotate your hip. The gracilis also assists the hamstrings in knee flexion, or bending. And all of the adductors play an important but unheralded role in helping to stabilize the pelvis when you stand on one leg. Whenever you walk or practice a standing balancing pose like Vrksasana (Tree Pose), the adductors are working with the hip abductors—the muscles that perform the opposite action—to help prevent you from wobbling.
To feel the adductors contract, put your fingers on their common tendon just below and slightly to the side of the pubic bone. Even a moderate squeeze of the thighs toward each other elicits a big response from the muscles, and the tendon will stand out against your fingers.
In yoga poses with extended hips—such as Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose) or Tadasana (Mountain Pose), in which the thigh is in line with or behind the torso—the adductors contract to hold your legs together. This action is especially noticeable in inversions, when gravity pulls the legs apart and down. If the adductors are weak or lack isometric endurance (the ability to hold a position for an extended length of time), it can be very difficult to hold your legs together in poses such as Sirsasana (Headstand), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), and Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand).
Squeezes for Strength
Fortunately, there a few simple exercises you can do to help strengthen your adductors. First, find a firm inflated ball about six inches in diameter or a towel or pillow rolled to that dimension. If you struggle to bring your thighs together in inversions, start by lying on your back with the inner edges of your feet together and your soles against the wall. Or stand in Tadasana, with your feet together or nearly so. From either position, place the ball between your thighs, press in against it, and hold for 10 or 15 seconds. Do this a few times during each practice, and over the next several weeks, gradually increase the holding times. If you can squeeze and hold the ball for one minute, you should be able to hold your legs together in Sirsasana for a minimum of that amount of time.
When you're ready to make the ball squeezing more challenging, lie on your back with your legs on the floor—but this time, don't put your feet against the wall. In this position the adductors will have to work harder to hold the legs together as well as to compress the ball. For the greatest challenge, however, have someone place the ball between your thighs while you're in an inversion. Exert a steady, moderate pressure to build strength and endurance in these muscles.
Strengthening the adductors with your hips extended can help your inversions and your backbends. Try squeezing a block between your thighs in Bridge Pose. Eventually, this can help correct the unwanted tendency of the feet to turn out and knees to splay. See that your feet are parallel when you place the block between your knees (the long side between the knees if you have wide hips). As the adductors work to squeeze the block, the knees stay in place. As an added bonus, this technique may help to resolve any knee pain you might have experienced in Bridge Pose.
You also need adductor strength in poses that flex the hips, like Bakasana and Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose). This time, place your ball or even a block between your thighs while sitting in a chair, feet flat on the floor, and work on squeezing it to build endurance. You can train the adductors with the abdominals—a useful combination for arm balances—by practicing Paripurna Navasana (Boat Pose) with a block between the thighs. If Paripurna Navasana on its own is challenging for you, start by keeping the block in place but doing the pose with bent knees.
Here are a few final tips for strengthening your adductors. Using a block can give you valuable feedback about whether you're pressing evenly with left and right adductors; you want to develop balanced strength. You can elicit a strong adductor contraction when your feet are off the ground (in inversions and arm balances) or when you're lying on your back, by pressing evenly through the base of your big toes and your inner heels simultaneously. This action can really help you "get a grip" in Bakasana and other arm balances in which your legs grip your arms. Remember, as you build isometric strength by increasing the time you hold the contraction, don't hold your breath.
Now, about stretching those adductors, particularly the short and medium-length ones, which include all but the gracilis. Shortness in these muscles limits your horizontal abduction, or your ability to spread your thighs apart when your hips are flexed in poses like Baddha Konasana, Janu Sirsasana (Head-of-the-Knee Pose), Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II), and even Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose). You can get a feel for horizontal abduction by sitting on an armless chair with your thighs spread as far apart as possible. Your adductors contract to pull your thighs back along a horizontal line (the chair seat).
Here's a stretch sequence you can do that will improve adductor flexibility in horizontal abduction. The first position is a variation of Baddha Konasana. Lie on your side with your feet close to a wall and your torso perpendicular to it. Bend your knees and slide toward the wall until your sitting bones touch it, and then roll onto your back, straightening your legs and bringing them up the wall. Bend your knees, place the soles of your feet together, and slide your feet down the wall as close to your pubic bones as possible. Put your hands on your inner knees, and push them gently toward the wall (while simultaneously lengthening the femurs out of the hip sockets) to stretch the adductors. Breathe and relax for a minute or two.
Bring your legs back together, place the soles of your feet on the wall, and slide your body away from the wall so your hips are about 18 inches from it. Your knees should be bent over your hips. With your feet on the wall, you'll look as though you're sitting on a chair that's been tipped over backward. Keeping your shins perpendicular to the wall, move your feet and thighs as far apart as possible. Imagine that your thighs are heavy and your adductors are surrendering their weight to the pull of gravity. You should feel a satisfying stretch in your inner thighs.
If you've tried a few of these stretching and strengthening ideas, you should have a pretty good idea of where your adductors are and what they do. And even though we spend a lot of time stretching our legs and hips—including the adductors—in yoga, it's equally important to keep them strong. Balanced strength and flexibility: a worthy goal for your adductors as well as for your body, mind, and spirit.
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Julie Gudmestad is a physical therapist and Iyengar Yoga teacher in Portland, Oregon. She regrets that she cannot respond to requests for health advice.