Help for Tight Hips

Jennifer Pilotti

Coach

Yoga, Personal Training, Mobility & Recovery

I was chatting with a colleague at a workshop a couple of weekends ago. He was telling me about the torn labrum in his hip that used to bother him. The labrum is a thin, cartilaginous film that lines the rim of the socket in the pelvis where the head of the femur sits. “I used to feel like I needed to stretch, but when I stretched, the feeling would only go away for a little while. It always came back.”

 

Do you ever feel like your hips are tight and need to be stretched? When I was going through yoga teacher training, the teacher would ask for requests during the public classes. Invariably, at least one person (and often more) requested hip openers, presumably because of “ hip tightness.” But is it tightness? Or is it something else?

 

 

The Decisive Nervous System

Tightness is a sensation, dictated by the nervous system. Sensory receptors embedded in muscle, tendons, and joint capsules let your brain know what’s happening at the joint and what range of motion is available in the event someone comes running in yelling, “fire” and you have to jump up from reading this and sprint out the door.

 

The nervous system is constantly seeking ways to keep you, the organism, safe. One of the ways it does this is to limit range of motion in a specific area if the information it’s receiving from the sensory receptors suggests it would be harmful to move past a specific point. There are a number of factors that cause this feedback loop to occur. Let’s pretend the last time you successfully bent forward in a seated position on the floor with your legs long to touch your toes, Miley Cyrus was still a wholesome adolescent with her own television show. A lot has happened since Hannah Montana went off of the air, and while deep in the recesses of your brain where movement occurs there may be a faint memory of what it was like to touch your toes, for all intents and purposes, your nervous system no longer recognizes forward bending as a movement you do. As a result, if you were to try the movement right now in our hypothetical scenario, your nervous system would put the breaks on, stopping you before you moved into unknown territory.

 

If you practiced folding forward to touch your toes regularly for three weeks, you would notice it getting easier. You would not feel the sense of stretch as quickly, and you may find the discomfort that was originally associated with the movement feels less like discomfort, and more like a “good” stretch. Were you really tight, a word that is thrown around to describe a muscle that is taut, like a rubber band? Or were you simply experiencing a sensation designed to keep you safe while your brain assessed this “new” position and decided whether it was an okay place to be?

 

But what if your hips feel tight all of the time? That’s different than the sensation of stretch associated with bending forward, so maybe the sensation of chronic tightness is a little bit like chronic pain; the information your brain is getting from your hip joint and muscles isn’t painting a completely accurate picture of what is happening at the joint.

 

Try this. Think about your shoulders as you sit here, reading (or skimming) this article. How do they feel? Now, raise your right arm overhead until it comes to a natural stopping point. Lower your right arm down.

 

Many people will experience a stopping point slightly before or as the arm approaches a vertical position. (And for those of you that didn’t feel a natural stopping point before vertical, kudos to you for having excellent shoulder flexion). If you did feel a stopping point, one could argue your shoulders have a more limited range of motion. (There are lots of potential reasons your arm isn’t going all of the way overhead, but we are looking specifically at the concept of the sensation of tightness, so there will be no tangents about shoulder mobility. This time). One might even say your shoulders are “tight.” But do they feel tight to you as you go about your daily life? Probably not. So the sensation of tightness doesn’t always correspond to a joint expressing a limited range of motion.

 

If the sensation of hip tightness doesn’t actually mean that you are tight and you need to stretch, what does it mean?

 

The Value of Strength

The thing about the hips is that they are designed to withstand load in a variety of ways throughout the day. Yes, there are genetic differences within the hip joint that may prevent deep squatting in some people (and when I say deep, I mean butt almost to the ground squatting. In my experience, everyone is able to bodyweight squat past 90 with the right progressions. The hip socket is designed for movement). However, we also live in a world of convenience, which is both wonderful (streaming music, takeout food), and movement limiting (there are very few reasons you have to move throughout the day). So the hips, while they might be in a passively flexed position much of the time, are only getting challenged when you work on hip dominated movements in the gym.

 

Now, ask yourself this: even if you squat and do high step-ups regularly, how much total time, in minutes, each week do you spend actually strengthening a flexed hip position? How often do you load the hips by actively moving in and out of various flexed hip positions,? I am going to guess that for most people, a surprisingly small percentage of time is spent actively working on hip flexion. Yet, your hips feel tight. Can you see my train of thought?

 

 

Maybe what you are experiencing is actually hip weakness. Remember the colleague I mentioned in the first paragraph? The way he made his hip stop feeling tight was to do lots of front scales, which is a straight leg hip flexion strengthening exercise. When his hip became stronger, he no longer felt the need to stretch it. It’s a completely counter-intuitive thought, but let’s look at it a little bit further.

 

In a paper published in 2017 by Stanton, et.al, the authors concluded that feelings of back stiffness did not correspond to actually having a stiff back.1 They also suggest feeling stiff may be protective in nature- people with chronic low back pain overestimate force applied to the spine when compared to people that don’t have chronic low back pain. If you look at this another way, the person with the sensation of a stiff back and chronic low back pain doesn’t feel strong enough to handle a change in force, so lack of strength is potentially causing the sensation of stiffness.

 

If you are still with me, I am about to make the leap that maybe the sensation of chronic stiffness isn’t purely muscular; maybe, like with chronic pain, it’s multi-faceted and one way to combat it is to improve proprioception and a sense of resiliency through loading the area in a variety of ways.

 

Strengthen Your Hip Flexors

Below are five exercises that strengthen the hip flexors. By incorporating a variety of positions, the muscle gets strengthened at different angles and in different positions. Being strong in many positions makes things better.

 

You will notice some of the exercises are open chain (the foot of the leg that’s being strengthened isn’t on the ground), and others are closed chain (the foot of the leg that’s being strengthened is on the ground). The muscles that control the hip not only lift the leg up; they also lower the hips towards the floor. To fully strengthen the hip, you want to make sure you strengthen it using both open and close chained exercises.

 

If you incorporate stretching and it makes your hips feel better, that’s great. It’s not that you should avoid stretching the hip altogether; you simply want to make sure you are also strengthening it if you truly want to alleviate the feeling of chronic hip tightness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Role of the Pelvis Position

There is another factor that can contribute to the sensation of hip tightness, and that’s the position of the pelvis. If you consider chronic tightness a type of nociception, then the following train of thought may make sense. Nociception is simply the nervous system’s response to a potentially harmful stimulus. It is not necessarily good or bad. For instance, the burning sensation you get when you lift weights or run up a steep hill is nociception, but the context dictates it isn’t actually causing harm. When you roll your ankle on a rock, on the other hand, the intense sensation from your ankle is also nociception; the immediate swelling of the ankle tells you something is wrong.

 

Nociception can be complex. How it is experienced is partially dependent upon how much control you think you have over the sensation.2 When it persists for long periods of time, your sense of control feels diminished. Doing things like altering position to reduce sensation helps you regain control over your experience.

 

If your pelvis remains fairly rigid at all times, you aren’t going to be using your hip through its full range of motion. Yes, the hip moves in the hip socket and this is a form of hip mobility, but the pelvis also moves around the hip. If your pelvis remains rigid, you are going to reduce the amount of options the brain perceives it has for hip movement, which may increase your sensation of tightness.

 

Below are four awareness exercises to improve mobility through the pelvis. They are meant to be done gently, without forcing any of the movement. See if you can feel how moving the pelvis causes echoes of the movement in other parts of the body. The last one looks like I am resting, with my feet flat on the wall. I am focusing on breathing in through my nose for a count of four and out through my mouth for a count of six. As I am breathing, I am feeling the connection of my feet against the wall and the weight of my pelvis and ribs against the floor. Breathing also influences mobility in the pelvis and how your hips feel. It is, after all, all connected.

 

 

 

 

 

Put the Concepts to Practice

The next time you experience tightness in your hips, before you go to war with your hip capsule, attempting to stretch it until it’s a Jello-like consistency, consider the other reasons your hips might feel tight. Hip flexion isn’t bad, and being strong in hip flexion only serves to make everything else a little bit easier.

 

References:

1. Stanton, T.R., Moseley, G.L., Wong, A.Y.L., & Kawchuk, G.N., (2017). Feeling stiffness in the back: a protective perceptual inference in chronic low back pain. Nature.

2, Garland, E.L., (2012). Pain processing in the human nervous system: a selective review of nociceptive and biobehavioral pathways. Primary Care, 39(3), 561-571.

 

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