In fact, it’s almost impossible to avoid them, unless of course, you’re a yogi. Not only do we have a whole category of poses called Hip Openers, but these poses have you covered from every angle—inside (the groin), outside (the glutes) and at the front (hip flexors). In this article, I’ll cover the causes and effects of tight hips and recommend different types of poses you can practice to loosen them up.
HOW DO HIPS MOVE?
Below are the movements available at the hips and the muscles responsible:
- Extension—primarily the gluteus maximus and hamstrings.
- Flexion—primarily the hip flexors (including the psoas).
- Abduction (away from the body)—gluteus medius and minimus, piriformis and TFL (tensor fascia latae).
- Adduction (towards the body)—adductors, including the groin.
- External rotation—gluteus maximus, piriformis, quadratus femoris and the external rotators (obturators and gemilli).
- Internal rotation—gluteus medius and minimus, TFL and adductors.
WHAT CAUSES TIGHT HIPS?
Your body is an efficiency machine that adapts to make it as easy possible to do your most common activities. This means that you lose the ability to get into positions and perform movements that you have systematically neglected over time and that the activity you do with the greatest intensity—riding your bike—overdevelops certain muscles while others become relatively weak. Both overworked and underused muscles can feel ‘tight’, as can a painful area, which is a symptom of a body out of alignment.
HOW DOES MOUNTAIN BIKING EXACERBATE TIGHT HIPS?
- Chronic contraction. We sit for the majority of the day—at work, on the bike, while we’re travelling, eating and relaxing in front of the TV. Sitting chronically shortens the hip flexors and adductors (inner thigh muscles), and over time, you body adapts and you lose access to your full range of motion.
- Limited movement patterns. Your hips are designed to flex (bend), extend (straighten), abduct (open), adduct (close) and rotate (turn in and out). Mountain biking primarily involves hip flexion, extension and adduction (drawing your thighs towards each other). Again, the principle of “use it or lose it” comes into play.
- Overuse. You repeat the same movement patterns over and over on the bike and this overly stresses certain muscles while others become relatively weak. These muscular imbalances can pull your pelvis and spine out of alignment, causing pain at the lower back.
- Reciprocal inhibition. As the hip flexors tighten from contraction and overuse, the opposing muscles—the glutes—respond by relaxing and deactivating. This process, known as reciprocal inhibition, is designed to protect the hip flexors from tearing. This and too much sitting can lead to weak glutes.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF INCREASING HIP MOBILITY?
“Yoga has helped to increase my hip mobility, making me more mobile on the bike, without having to fight against tight joints. It has greatly improved my cornering technique and made me faster!” MTB Yogi, Étienne Florentin
Here are some of the benefits of loosening up tight hips:
- Generate more power and speed on the bike.
- Transfer your weight smoothly and efficiently to optimise control and reduce fatigue.
- Reduce your risk of injury.
- Relieve associated lower back and knee pain.
3 TYPES OF HIP OPENERS
One of the main reasons that yoga is so effective at loosening up tight hips is that, unlike conventional stretching, in yoga we stretch the hips from multiple different angles. When you start to tune in, you will probably find that you are flexible in some ranges of motion and tighter in others. Try to focus on the areas that need most attention.
If you struggle to get into any of these poses, try one of the alternatives until you have sufficient flexibility and range of motion to move up to the next level. This is going to look different for all of you. For example, some of you may drop easily into Pigeon but struggle with Dead Pigeon, which for many riders is an easier pose. See what works for you and feel free to ask me if you have any questions.
4 TYPES OF STRETCHING
At the risk of turning this article into a listicle, there are also 4 types of stretching that you can play around with:
- Static stretching involves holding muscles at the end range of motion for 5-10 breaths. A great time for this type of stretching is after a ride.
- Passive stretching typically refers to longer holds of 2 minutes or more. The best time for this type of stretching is in the evening when your muscles are warm and relaxed.
- Active stretching involves simultaneously activating and stretching muscles. This type of stretching can be used in a pre-ride warm-up.
- Dynamic stretching incorporates movement. I’ll give you some videos at the end of the article that you can get started with.
1. HIP FLEXOR STRETCHES
Low Lunge is the classic hip flexor stretch and in yoga there are an incredible diversity of lunge variations that you can incorporate.
WHAT ARE THE HIP FLEXORS?
The primary hip flexors are the iliopsoas, which is made up of the iliacus—originates on the pelvis and attaches on the femur, and the psoas—originates on the lumbar vertebrae and attaches to the femur. And the rectus femoris—the only one of the quadriceps muscles that crosses the hip joint. The hip flexors connect your torso to the tops of your legs.
ACTIONS OF THE HIP FLEXORS
- Hip flexion involves bringing your thighs towards your abdomen and your abdomen towards your thighs.
DO YOU HAVE TIGHT HIP FLEXORS?
If you spend a considerable amount of time sitting and don’t have a regular yoga practice, you probably have tight hip flexors. And as the psoas attaches to all 5 lumbar vertebrae, when it’s tight, it can pull on the spine and cause lower back pain.
- Static: Low Lunge, Half-Twisted Lizard
- Passive: Lizard, Half-Reclining Hero
- Active: Runners Lunge, High Lunge
2. GROIN STRETCHES
Many riders don’t realize that they have a tight groin until they start practicing yoga and discover that they can’t comfortably sit cross-legged—in this way, yoga can act as a diagnostic tool.
WHAT IS THE GROIN?
Your groin is your upper inner thigh. It is closely related to the hip adductors, which are the 5 inner thigh muscles that lie in between your quads and hamstrings. These 5 adductors originate from the pubic and sitting bones. Two are short—the pectineus and the adductor brevis—and attach to the back of the upper femur (thighbone). Two are longer—the adductor longus and adductor magnus—and attach lower down the femur. The longest—the gracilis—attaches below the knee, to the upper tibia (shinbone).
When the adductors are both strong and supple, they can be a great source of power and stability.
ACTIONS OF THE ADDUCTORS
- When they contract, the adductors squeeze your thighs together—this is known as hip adduction.
- They assist the hip flexors (psoas and iliacus) and abductors (glutes and TFL) in flexing, extending and rotating your hip.
- The gracilis assists the hamstrings in knee flexion and stabilisation.
- They co-contract with the hip abductors to stabilise the hips and pelvis.
DO YOU HAVE A TIGHT GROIN?
Here is a simple test you can do. Lie on your back with butt against the wall and your legs straight up. Allow your legs to fall open (abduct) while maintaining contact with the wall. You should have at least a 90-degree angle between your legs.
- Static: Head-To-Knee, Dead Pigeon, Side Lunge
- Passive: Wide Knee Child’s Pose, Folded Butterfly, Reclining Butterfly, Happy Baby
- Active: Extended Side Angle, Yoga Squat
3. HIP ROTATOR STRETCHES
Pigeon pose is generally a godsend for mountain bikers who have lost access to full internal and external hip rotation. When you’re riding, you draw your thighs together to control the bike and rarely have to open them wide and take them through full range of motion.
WHAT ARE THE HIP ROTATORS?
- The lateral rotators are the piriformis, gemellus superior, obturator internus, gemellus inferior, quadratus femoris and the obturator externus.
- The glutes can also laterally rotate the femur when the hip is extended—the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus and tensor fasciae latae.
YOUR 5 VIDEOS TO LOOSEN UP TIGHT HIPS
- Relaxation 3: Loose Hips
- Flexibility 5: Tight Hips
- Strength 2: Lower Body Strength
- Balance 8: Moon Landing
- Mobility 3: Lunge Flow
Hip openers are where I find most mountain bikers get the first early wins when they’re new to yoga. I’d love to hear to what you’ve found works and doesn’t work for you.
Photo credit: Graham Mattock