Simple Tips to Improve Essential Natural Hip Function
One of the quickest ways to improve our natural movement ability is to train the hips. For the best performance, the hips must be able to move fluidly in a stable manner and have the ability to generate force from a variety of angles.
Assessing this basic capacity of the hip and the inclusion of movement training that develops hip function in a natural progression improves our ability as movers. What follows are some simple and effective movement drills you need to improve hip performance - and therefore athletic performance.
"The sweet spot for real-world hip development is training efficient natural movement and then adding proper resistance training to make additional performance gains."
Why Train Movement for Hip Performance
The sweet spot for real-world hip development is training efficient natural movement and then adding proper resistance training to make additional performance gains. Training movement is they key to longevity and ensures that further strength development is built on a foundation of good mechanics.
Traditional Olympic lifts and other forms of loaded training are an essential for hip strength gains, but many individuals perform these lifts incorrectly or are poor movers to begin with. Adding heavy resistance training to a poor mover leads to weak performance gains and injury. The complexities of the variables that affect hip mechanics make technique, skill, and motor control essential.
Take the squat, for example. Perfect squat form is a bit of a myth and really varies from client to client. Joint anatomy and mechanics, muscular performance, and knee/hip position are some of the variables that affect the optimization of the traditional Olympic-stile squat.1 A thorough screening of basic hip function should occur prior to resistance training.
"Traditional Olympic lifts and other forms of loaded training are an essential for hip strength gains, but many individuals perform these lifts incorrectly or are poor movers to begin with."
Simple Assessment of Hip Mobility
The functional FMS-type squat is one of my favorite first-line assessments for hip mobility, muscle performance, and motor control. Understanding that individual anatomy affects this simple assessment is key when considering the functional squat as an evaluation tool.
A simple modification to the functional squat test can help identify problems that may require something other than mobility work of the hip. Physical therapist Phil Malloy does a great job explaining the functional squat test:
Hip Mobility Flow Drill
Once structural hip problems or other red flags are cleared, my favorite type of hip mobility training is a hip flow routine. The benefit of performing natural-type flow drills is that they require both stability and mobility of the hip (dynamic stability), and they often provide rapid improvements. Dean Somerset, trainer and creator of Ruthless Mobility, offers an example of a basic hip flow series here:
Simple Assessment of Glute Max and Glute Medius
Glute max and glute medius deficiency has been proposed as a predictor of injury in athletes.1 These two muscles are prime stabilizers of the hip. The function of the hip stabilizers has been compared to the function of the shoulder rotator cuff.2 As with the shoulder, assessing the function of these muscles and their firing patterns is helpful.
The use of devices like EMG to measure gluteal activation is expensive and cumbersome. But simpler, less-scientific assessments of glute max and glute medius function are also highly effective. Assessing this basic function tells you a ton about an individual’s movement skill.
"While there is some debate in the medical literature of the role of glute max, it is fairly obvious it is an important hip stabilizer."
How to Assess Glute Max
Gluteus maximus is the largest of the gluteal muscles. The general functions of the muscle are believed to be extension of the hip, adduction, and external rotation. There is also evidence pointing to the significant role of glute max in force closure or compression stabilization of the SI joint. While there is some debate in the medical literature of the role of glute max, it is fairly obvious it is an important hip stabilizer.
My favorite glute max assessment technique is similar to the one below as explained by Dr. John Gibbons. It involves identifying abnormalities by testing the glute max firing pattern in prone position with palpation and movement. Attempting to isolate one side of the glute max versus the other with isometric contraction is also a helpful assessment for motor control.
Glute Max Activation Movement Drills
Performing the basic assessment as an exercise can assist with glute max activation patterns. Prone-to-supine rolling patterns are also helpful to work on segmental firing and motor control issues of the glute max. Basic rolling patterns are a key component to developmental mobility and something I like to include in early phases of training regardless of firing pattern assessments.
How to Assess Glute Medius
In 2008, researchers from Carmel College in Auckland New Zealand identified glute medius dysfunction as one of the more common deficits found in the hip.2 The researchers described an examination and assessment process for identifying glute medius problems. Testing involved side-lying leg raises (abduction) or side-lying clamshell movements.
The point of doing the testing procedure was to see if the glutes were active during their dedicated movement patterns versus the TFL or psoas (a common aberration). Palpation (physically touching) the glutes during the movement is helpful to see if they are active versus the anterior hip muscles muscular. Weight bearing examinations include unilateral stance activity or functional squats looking for a hip drop or valgus collapse.
Mike Reinold, physical therapist and founder of Champion Physical Therapy and Performance, describes the process here.
"The point of doing the testing procedure was to see if the glutes were active during their dedicated movement patterns versus the TFL or psoas (a common aberration)."
Glute Medius Activation Drills
The assessments described above can also be helpful remedial exercises. My personal preference is to use close-stance balancing-type movements and jumping-and-landing drills to train the glute medius and lateral hip stabilizers. Two of my favorite MovNat drills for functional glute training are a balancing drill on a narrow object or jumping-and-landing drills.
The Take Home
Enhancing hip function is one of the first places I look to make significant gains in my clients’ ability to move better. Performing the screens for hip muscle function and mobility will help identify problem areas that impair movement performance and aid in injury prevention.
Adding the basic movement drills is an enhancement to any workout regimen or general wellness plan. Do yourself a favor and build solid foundation for efficient movement, locomotion, and power development by taking a good look at the hips.
Take a look at these related links:
- Mobility: It's All In the Hips - Or Is It?
- Practical, Adaptable, and Efficient: 3 Natural Movement Principles
- Pop Up to the Top Challenge - Free 4-Week Training Plan
- What's New on Breaking Muscle Today
1. Nadler SF et. al., "Relationship Between Hip Muscle Imbalance and Occurrence of Low Back Pain in Collegiate Athletes: A Prospective Study." Amer Jour of Phys Med and Rehab. 2001; 80(8): 572-577
2. Fry AC., et al., "Effect of Knee Position on Hip and Knee Torques During the Barbell Squat." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2003;17(4), 629–633
3. Bunker TD., et al., (1997). "Rotator-cuff tear of the hip." J Bone Joint Surg Br. 1997 Jul;79(4):618-20.
4. Presswood L, Cronin J, et. al. "Gluteus Medius: Applied Anatomy, Dysfunction, Assessment, and Progressive Strengthening." Strength and Cond Journal. 2008 Oct;30(5):41-52.
Photo courtesy of CrossFit Empirical.