Stretching Hands Wrists and Forearms
Front of the Chest (Pec/Pec Minor)
Teres Major Release
If I were asked to identify a part of the body that is widely misunderstood, the hip flexors immediately come to mind. This may be partly due to the fact that we colloquially use the term ‘hip flexors’, since that’s easier to say than naming the specific muscles in the group, and partly because a large portion of people I talk with think they know what “flex” means, and they don’t.
Hip Flexors: What they do
The easy answer to the question ‘what do your hip flexors do’ is ‘flex your hip. Well, what is flexing your hip? More times than not, when I ask someone to flex their hip, they don’t know what to do.
Hip flexion may be more easily understood as bringing your leg up towards your torso (or decreasing the angle between your torso and your leg). It doesn’t matter if your knee is bent or straight (though most will perform this action by bending their knee at the same time).
What muscles are the “Hip Flexors”?
If you head in to see a bodyworker and tell them your hip flexors are tight, they’ll know what you mean. That said, the hip flexors aren’t a single muscle that has the common name of hip flexors, they are a group of muscles that work together to perform the action of flexing the hip. So what muscles are they?
The biggest and strongest muscle in this category is going to be the Psoas. I’ve explained a lot about the psoas in a previous post, so I’m going to direct you back to that post for more information. In short, it is the largest and strongest muscle of the hip flexor group, and lies deep under the abdominal contents along the back body near the spine. Psoas (major) hangs out with his friends Iliacus, which sits largely just inside the hip bone, and Psoas Minor, which a) is only present in ~40% of the population and is relatively weak, so we won’t worry too much about the psoas minor in particular.
Next up is rectus femoris, which is grouped in with the quadriceps (which most people know!) and aids in hip flexion because it crosses both the knee and the hip joint. It originates on the front of your hip bone (ASIS, or anterior superior iliac spine) and attaches down below the knee on your shin.
Also in the hip flexor group is sartorius, which holds the title of being the longest muscle in the human body. It runs from the front hip bone (ASIS), descends obliquely across the front of the thigh, and after joining in with the tendons of other muscles (gracilis + semitendinosis), inserts on the front, interior tibia. The sartorius is a pretty wimpy muscle, so think of it more as a helper than a powerful mover.
We also have the TFL, short for tensor fascia latae, which assists in hip abduction (moving your leg across your body) but also lends a hand in flexion, which often goes hand in hand with abduction. (Most of the time, you’ll bend your knee before trying to move it across your body, rather than trying to do so with a straight leg, which will offer a much smaller range of motion).
There are also a handful of small muscles on the medial (inner) thigh that also help with hip flexion. These are all minor players, so I’ll stick to just listing them for now, and we’ll talk about stretching them later. Here you’ll find pectineus, adductor longus, adductor brevis, and gracilis.
Many of these muscles also take part in other actions as well as stabilization, so keeping them happy will get you more than you might think.
Why are the Hip Flexors Relevant?
If your hip flexors are tight (and they probably are, because modern humans sit a LOT, keeping the hip flexors shortened, tight, and angry), there can be repercussions other than painful/tight hip flexors, though that can obviously be a symptom. Tight hip flexors can contribute to lower back pain (if the psoas is pulling either up or down too much on the pelvis, it will tilt it unfavorably in one direction or the other), knee pain, decreased hip mobility, lack of stabilization in the hips and core, balance issues, and more.
If you’re an athlete, the imbalance caused by too-tight hip flexors will cause you to lean forward in many motions (especially squats). Often times, your quads will be working harder than they should, and your glutes won’t be working hard enough if this is the case (there go those booty gains!).
Balancing the Hip Flexors
Most people will fall into the category of having overly tight hip flexors. If this is you, you’ll want to do some stretching and mobility exercises to improve the range of motion. I’ll have a much more in-depth hip flexor stretching routine coming your way shortly, but here are a few basics:
1. Start in a low, static squat, like this. Spend a little bit of time wiggling about to get comfortable, and hold the static stretch for 2 minutes.
2. Next, move into a runner’s lunge. To get there, start in a downward facing dog. Bring one foot between your hands, while staying on the ball of the back foot with your back knee lifted. Wiggle your back toes back as far as you can. Ensure your front knee is bent at a 90 degree angle, and your front knee stays behind your toes. Press back through your back heel, and try to ensure your hips are even with one another. Spend about 2 minutes here once you find the static position.
From here, put your back knee down into a low lunge. Walk the back knee back if you need to, and double check that your front knee has not come past your toes. If it has, walk your front foot up a bit more. From here, go ahead and sink your pelvis down towards your front foot/the floor. When you find a spot where you feel a good stretch but don’t have the immediate urge to get the heck out of that position, hold for 2 minutes.
Repeat the runner’s lunge and low lunge on the other side.
Sit crosslegged on the floor, and sit up as straight as you can. From here, hinge forward at the hips and start to fold over your legs. In this crosslegged forward fold, you may not get very far down, and that’s ok! Your goal is to move to a place where you start to feel some stretch in the back and sides of your hips, and maybe your low back. The goal is NOT to get your head down – instead, imagine that your sternum could reach the floor before your head does – you want to keep a straight(ish) spine. Hold for about 2 minutes when you find the right spot. Re-cross your legs so the opposite leg is in front, and repeat on that side.
Sit up and place the soles of your feet together and bring them in towards your pelvis. This is often referred to as a “butterfly“. It is a-ok if your knees are high in the air – you’re going to spend a few minutes here and let gravity and the magical stretch reflex do their work for some gentle release.
If you find yourself on the other end of the spectrum and have weak hip flexors, you’ll need to do a little work to strengthen them. Mountain climbers are your friend here – IF you move slowly and ensure you’re using the hip flexors to move your knee in towards your chest and not just momentum and accessory muscles.
Lying straight leg raises will also give you a lot of bang for your buck. Lie on the floor on your back with both knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Extend one leg long, and slowly lift it as high as you can, flexing your toes back towards your face as you do so. Slowly lower the leg back down. While you perform this movement, make sure that your low back is staying down on the ground and not arching up.
Finally, a simple looking yet deceivingly hard exercise – standing single leg raises with a hold. If you’re super weak here, you’re going to want to start with your back against the wall, which will help make sure you’re not bending forward to achieve the desired motion. You’ll stand up straight, bring your weight into one foot, and bend the opposite knee and lift the knee until it is even with your hip on the same side. Hold here, 30 seconds. To amp this up, you can move away from the wall, but be mindful that your hips are even and you’re not leaning forward or back, especially when you’re holding. If you still find this to be super easy, try with a straight leg.
I get this question quite often from both clients and friends, and while it may be formulated as a question, it usually isn’t really a question. Most of them mean something like “I know I should do yoga, right? Yoga will help me”.
This attitude should come as no surprise, given that yoga has grown drastically in popularity in the recent past. According to the 2012 statistics from Namasta, there are over 15 million practitioners in the US, and the industry sees about a 20% year over year increase. Over the last 5 years, there has been an 87% increase in the amount of money spent on yoga products. There has been a huge influx of yogis on social media, posting photos and videos of themselves in poses most people can’t even think of getting into. We’ve been cultured to believe that yoga is the panacea of all our ills – whether they’re caused by sitting at a desk for hours a day or too much running.
But is it? As someone who takes a fairly moderate approach to many things in life, I generally advise people (and often need to remind myself) that if something promises the world, or seems too ‘perfect’ it is probably too good to be true? We’ve come to believe that yoga can heal – and while I’d definitely argue that it can, I’d also argue that it isn’t all its cracked up to be, that not all yoga is for everyone, and that you need to approach it with some knowledge, care, and self-awareness.
Yoga Can Be Good
So you’re probably thinking that I’m mostly here to hate on yoga. Which is not the case – yoga, in many ways, completely changed my life. I’m a yoga teacher. I spend a good amount of time with my clients teaching them how to stretch and do certain yoga poses. So we’ll start with the good stuff. Most of this is probably stuff you’ve already heard about yoga, but its worth mentioning anyway:
- Yoga will likely help improve your flexibility. Probably one of the more obvious attributes of practicing.
- Yoga will help you to be more aware of your body. Buyer beware! This can sometimes get pretty annoying, especially if you’re an over-analyzer like me.
- Yoga can help you prevent injuries from doing….well, all the other stuff you do.
- Yoga can help you relax. The focus on breath in yoga is really good for us. Taking time to breathe and be present is pretty awesome, and something most of us need quite badly.
- Yoga can be an excellent workout, depending on the style of yoga you choose to practice.
- Yoga is awesomely adaptable. Whether you’re someone who can sit comfortably with both feet behind their head or can’t touch their toes, its ok – there’s yoga that you can do and that you can benefit from.
The list can go on and on – if you don’t believe me, head over to see what your pal Google has to say when you search for “benefits of yoga” or “why should I do yoga”. From hotter sex to better sleep to increased happiness and injury prevention, the list goes on and on.
Yoga Can Be Bad
Now that you know that yoga is totally awesome, we’re going to shine a little bit of light on the not so good stuff. There’s a lot of talk about how yoga can help prevent injuries, but not a lot of talk about how you can get injured doing yoga. And believe me, you can! I spent several years doing bodywork in a yoga studio, and lots of people get injured doing yoga.
Something that often gives me pause is that because yoga has exploded in popularity pretty recently, we don’t have a lot of long term data or studies showing what happens to people who do a lot of yoga for a long time. While it has been fairly well documented that stretching (within guidelines) is pretty good for you, what about repeatedly performing backbends, standing on your head or shoulders, or moving your neck in certain ways? A 2012 New York Times article addressed a number of ways yoga can be totally horrible for your body. Its a good read – take a few minutes to sift through it when you have a moment, but I’ll sum it up in a (majorly) oversimplified way: not all yoga is good for everyone. Further, what might feel great for you today might not feel great tomorrow, or next week. In order to benefit from yoga, we must move carefully, mindfully, and without ego. Oh yes, all those cliches that you didn’t want – you just wanted the workout, right?
What You Should Do
Whether you’re brand new to yoga or a seasoned practitioner, it is hugely important to move move carefully, mindfully, and without ego. If a teacher is leading the class through a sequence that includes a pose or two that say, hurts your lower back when you perform it, maybe you shouldn’t be doing that pose. If you’re doing something and it hurts, stop doing it! Seems basic, right? But most of us will just keep performing the pose that hurts or doesn’t feel right without question. Either perform a different pose, a less intense version of the same pose, or skip it altogether. Ask the teacher for help with your technique on that pose and for modifications.
Don’t be afraid to move slow. Lots of people love power yoga, lots of vinyasa, classes that move and make you sweat. Don’t get me wrong – I love these classes too. Vinyasa flow is my preferred flavor of yoga, but especially when you’re first learning, moving quickly through a lot of poses can mean you’re doing a lot of stuff wrong. Which can lead to injury. I’ve been to more “All Levels Yoga” classes than I can count, and very very few work through the technique of the vinyasa – a series of movements that brings you firmly into the camp of those likely to incur a shoulder injury if you’re doing it wrong and often enough. We’re so hard-wired in our culture to need to do MORE and FASTER that slower, stretchier yoga is often shunned for the more ‘workouty’ types, but there’s a lot of benefit to be had in classes that do fewer poses, longer holds, and offer a lot of cues for technique.
We see so many uber-stretchy yogis online doing crazy poses, and we aspire to them. We want to do forearm stand and bring our foot to the back of our head in one-legged king pigeon. Leave your ego at the door: just because someone else is doing something doesn’t make it right for your body. I once watched my neck-injured mother in law craning her neck at a horrific angle in an attempt to bind in extended side angle pose– a pose which wasn’t accessible for her body at that time. The vision of it makes me cringe even now, but I remember looking around and seeing every other person in the class performing the bound version of the pose, even those for whom it looked extremely difficult and/or just plain wrong. When the teacher guides a class through a sequence, they likely offer several stages of poses. Take the easier one if you need to, even if the people next to you are going further. Don’t do handstands and weird binds and backbends and hand balancing because you see people on Instagram doing them.
Do your homework. Not all yoga teachers are equal (and are often a dime a dozen, so if you strike out, keep looking!). I’ll be frank: the basic requirements for certification by the Yoga Alliance (the certifying body for yoga instructors in the US) is only 200 hours, which breaks down to roughly three weeks of full time training. This doesn’t mean that if a teacher has only completed that level of training they’re not good or knowledgeable, my point is just that the bar is fairly low, and not everyone has additional training or outside knowledge of the body, injuries, and more. Ask around. Try a lot of different teachers. Ask the teachers a lot of questions. You may find twenty mediocre but totally acceptable teachers before you find a great one. You’ll know when you find the great ones. They’ll offer you movement cues and modifications you haven’t heard before. They’ll work into harder poses logically, opening and strengthening areas of the body in ways that make sense.