Stop me if this sounds familiar. You spend a lot of your day siting down, and you’re starting to wonder if spending so much time in a seated position is proving detrimental to your health. Your posture isn’t great, you’re starting to feel recurring pains in your lower back and/or legs, and you’re just not feeling athletically explosive the way you know you could. Maybe you’re having trouble sleeping, or just feeling sluggish in your day-to-day. Whatever the specific symptoms, you’re not feeling great, and you’ve concluded that the answer lies in physical exercise.
So you buckle down, and get to work on strengthening your psoas.
Introducing: The Psoas Muscle
As it turns out, the psoas—one of the two muscles that make up the iliopsoas, and the sole muscle in your body connecting your upper and lower halves—doesn’t get a lot of exercise in most people’s day-to-day; especially in a more sedentary lifestyle. But it’s incredibly important; attached to your diaphragm, it plays a role in your breathing, your balance, and your core strength. A strong psoas muscle can support all those functions. Conversely, a tight, underdeveloped psoas muscle can have detrimental effects on your entire body.
Think about it. You use your hips for everything. When you stand up, when you sit down. Your balance, and every bend and twist of your torso flow through your hips. When you reach for something, and with every step you take, your hips are involved.
But despite their importance, there’s not a lot of focus on your hip flexors in the exercise world. And it’s not difficult to see why; your psoas isn’t visible to the outside world. No one at the beach or the gym is going to give you feedback on your hip flexors unprompted, and it’s not going to have the satisfying feelings of progress that lifting a higher weight, or shaving seconds off your mile will.
Which is a shame, as strong, released hip flexors play a part in all of those and more. Still, the market isn’t exactly awash in psoas strengthening techniques and advice. Fortunately, if the source is good enough, you really only need one.
Unlock Your Hip Flexors: The Key to Strength & Vitality
Written by Kinesiologist and Injury Specialist Rick Kaselj, MS and Mike Westerdal, CPT and founder of criticalbench.com, Unlock Your Hip Flexors is a two-part product—containing a manual and a DVD—detailing a sequential flow of ten exercises, designed to stretch and strengthen these elusive, yet important, muscles.
The DVD contains two videos. First; an instructional coaching video, in which Rick walks the viewer through each exercise in detail, walking through each movement so that the viewer actually understands what’s happening, as well as why. Proper form, how it should feel, detailed instruction; all covered. The second video is your much more standard workout video; exercises performed in sequence, designed to be followed along with as part of a workout routine.
The second part of the product—the 63-page Unlock Your Hip Flexors Manual—goes into more detail on your hip flexors. The effects that a tightened, shortened psoas muscle can have on an individual’s overall health and physical wellness; as well as more detail on the benefits that a loosened, strong psoas can have. It also provides additional detail on the ten exercises, with illustrated examples for greater clarity.
So! Let’s take a deeper look, shall we?
Understanding Your Hip Flexors
A cursory internet search will reveal that Westerdal and Dr.Kaselj aren’t alone in recognizing the importance of your hip flexors; the world of health and fitness have come a long way in learning to look at the body as an entire system, rather than a series of isolated components. All of this is connected; habits, commonly held positions, choices on what to exercise and stretch – these each affect the body as a whole.
Or as one instructor puts it: “no stretch is an island.”
And there seems to be a general consensus on the importance of your hip flexors in the body’s overall health, and athletic performance. Generally speaking, tightness in the hip flexors isn’t the result of doing something wrong—no particular activity agitates the hip flexors in this fashion—but rather the consequence of a sedentary lifestyle, and the cost of comfort.
Simply put, when a muscle contracts, it’s going to tighten up, it’s going to shorten over time. When you sit, your hips are contracted, shortened. Think for a moment: how much of your day do you spend seated? A quarter? A third? Half? No matter your level of activity when you’re not seated, that’s a lot of time for your hip flexors to spend contracted. Muscles learn; and a seated society teaches its hips to contract. When seated, your legs camp out at a 90-degree angle from your hips, rather than their full 180-degrees of motion, which has all manner of adverse effects on your hips, as well as your thighs and lower back.
Needless to say, you don’t want to do that, and not have a plan to counteract the effects.
As discussed earlier, tight hip flexors can have a plethora of detrimental effects on your overall health. Soreness, locked hips, general sluggishness, and poor posture are just some of the effects that over-tight hip flexors can bring. When your hip flexors are too tight, they pull your pelvis into an exaggerated tilt forward, which has a number of effects, but most notably pulls your lumbar spine out of alignment, leading to recurring lower back pain.
Additionally, your hip flexors play a major part in stabilizing your lower body. Poor posture is just the tip of the iceberg; balance issues, difficulty standing and walking for extended stretches, and issues with your gait are hardly uncommon.
There’s really no debate here; if you’re seated for most of your day, you’re not doing any favors to your hip flexors. And if you have even a passing interest in your health, you really should be.
Are My Hip Flexors Tight?
From reading this, you might assume that your hip flexors are both tight and weak. And while statistically speaking, that’s probably true, there’s an easy, proven method to find out.
The Thomas test.
Named for Dr. Hugh Owen Thomas (considered the father of orthopedic surgery in the United Kingdom), the Thomas test is a simple procedure, provided you have the space to do it in. Originally designed for a doctor’s examination table, a gym’s training table—or similar surface—will work just fine.
We’ll be doing the modified Thomas test, which anyone can do, and suits our needs perfectly.
Firstly, lie supine on the table, with both legs hanging freely, thighs half off the table.
Secondly, grab knee, pulling it towards your chest. This isn’t a stretch; we just need enough to flatten your lower back and sacrum on the table. In a perfect world, you’ve got someone to hold down your pelvis on the testing side, allowing for a bit more tilt in your posterior. This prevents you from excessively extending your lumbar, which can give the false impression of a nice, long, hip flexor where none exists. With someone holding down your pelvis, you can’t accidentally cheat.
Anyway, if your other leg—the one you’re not hugging right now—can make it to flush the table, your hip flexor’s not in bad shape. If it’s healthy, your knee should be able to hang about ten degrees below the table, with the leg hanging down freely. If not, you should seriously look at addressing your hip flexors!
Of course, it’s worth noting, the Thomas test does nothing to test for strength, just flexibility.
Static Stretches vs. Dynamic Exercise
So! Our hips are tight, our flexors are contracted, and we can all agree that this is far from ideal. So what happens next? Well, obviously, we’re going to want to stretch out our hip flexors, and work on developing a robust psoas.
So how do we go about doing that?
Heading back to the internet, there’s a relative wealth of stretches available. Given the importance of your hip flexors, there’s an abundance of advice on the matter; from yoga sites to YouTube power lifters, to mainstays such as Men’s Health magazine, and bodybuilding.com, there’s an ocean of advice so large, it’s not hard to drown in. Even so, there’s a general consensus; stretching is integral to unlocking your hip flexors. And just like with your shoulders, you’re going to want to smash, stretch, and ultimately strengthen your hip flexors to see any real improvement.
And yet, most online advice is relegated to a few simple stretches.
On the surface, this is fine and good – stretching is important! Without proper stretching, you’re never going to address your contracted hip flexors. Absolutely, positively, you need to be stretching.
But not just.
Holding static stretches is a good technique, but it’s not going to do anything to strengthen your core. And developing a robust psoas is going to be a key strategy to really unlocking the potential in your hip flexors. Ultimately, static stretches only address part of the problem.
Additional exercises suggest self myofascial release, which is a fancy way to say “rolling around.” Foam rollers, PVC pipes, tennis balls, and a variety of specialty exercise gear is an integral part of this practice, leading to varied results.
Experts are torn on this process; when it works, it can work great. It can also do nothing. And if you really need to get the tissue in your core un-knotted, it might be worth seeing a chiropractor, therapeutic masseuse, or other professional, lest you run the risk of accidentally making it worse, or seriously injuring yourself.
Basically, if you don’t really need it, rolling might not do anything. And if you do really need it, it might be better to leave it to a professional, rather than trust your ability to balance your pelvis on a tennis ball.
Unlocking Your Psoas
So here’s where the Unlock Your Hip Flexors course sets out to distinguish itself. Rather than a set of rolling exercises and static stretches, it looks to unlock the region of the body with a tailored process.
Instead of rolling, it starts with proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, or PNF stretching. Basically, this is a technique focused on activating a specific muscle to relax nearby muscles surrounding a joint; allowing for a reduction in stiffness in said joint.
It follows this up with dynamic stretching. Building off the prior activity, dynamic stretching focuses on activating the muscle around a given joint, and progressively taking it through its full (current) range of motion. When done right, this can lead to a noticeably increased range of motion around the joint in question, as well as helping to warm up said muscle, and aiding in circulation around the joint. For reference, high knees are a pretty good example of dynamic stretching.
Following that, they move into three-dimensional core stability exercises. Contrasted with traditional core exercises, these activities target the muscles’ full range of movement on multiple planes. Activating the core and abdominal muscles in this way is significantly easier on you joints, as well as providing a nice enhancement to your strength and endurance.
That leads into some mobility exercises. Again, targeting a given joint—everything here builds on what came before—these movements and exercises focus on freedom of movement.
After that, we’re on to fascia stretching, in which you target the tissue surrounding your muscles; loosening and strengthening your fascia. Admittedly, this is one that you’re not going to find kicking around on YouTube; this is pretty specialized training.
And then, we’ve got muscle activation movements. These targeted motions focus in on muscles that aren’t seeing enough use in day-to-day activity, and bring them back up to speed.
Bringing it all Together
Technology is great. We’re lucky to live in a society that prizes our minds, and the opportunities that provides are wonderful. But the trade-off is that we’ve got to use those minds, and take control of our physical health.
To that end, it’s difficult not to recommend the Unlock Your Hip Flexors product to pretty much anyone. Either you’ve got tight, weak hip flexors (in which case you might really need the course), or your hip flexors are doing all right (in which case, you can really benefit from strengthening them in a targeted fashion).
In short, there are few better ways to take control of your health than unlocking your hip flexors.