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Hip Anatomy: Get to Know Your Hip Flexors to Diagnose Tight Hips

What is a “hip flexor”?

The term “hip flexor” is often used as if it describes one muscle, when in fact there are multiple muscles that do the job of hip flexion (bringing the knee towards the chest). Tightness in the front of the hips is a massively common complaint, and it’s much easier to address if you know which of your hip flexors are tight.

Like GI Joe said, knowing is half the battle…

This blog and video are a quick introduction to the 6 primary hip flexors, where they are, how they work, and how they affect your hip mobility. I’m not going to hide my un-secret agenda to promote better awareness of the iliopsoas (the deep hip flexors)!

The most important thing is to gain greater understanding of how your hips work so that you can work with them in a way that is optimal for your body.

So here are the main players in the hip flexor game:

The IlioPsoas (Psoas and Iliacus)

Drawing of the Iliopsoas

The Iliopsoas

Let’s start with the big dogs… the Illiopsoas is a combo of the psoas and the iliacus. These are both hip flexors that attach to your upper inner thigh right in the groin area. They are your biggest, most effective hip flexors but they have some challenges.

The iliacus attaches to the upper inside of the back of the pelvic bone. The psoas attaches all along the inside of the lumbar spine. These attachment points are higher up on the body than any of the other hip flexors, giving these muscles better leverage to lift your leg, especially if you want it to go higher than your hip (hello dancers, aerialists, gymnasts, yogis and contortionists). Both of these muscles are deep in the body, making it hard to find them with your hands or brain.

Fun fact: the psoas is the only muscle that bridges the upper and lower body.

The psoas is affects and is affected by posture. If you sit a lot, or if you have an exaggerated bend in your lower back (check out the Bendy Back Tight Hips post) then your psoas can be chronically compressed into a scrunchy, tight, weak state where it is no longer effective either as a postural muscle or as a hip flexor. The illiacus right along with it!

Check out my upcoming series on core muscles and the psoas for some exercises and info to start to transform that predicament, if that sounds familiar to you.

In the meantime, let’s meet some more hip flexor friends.

The Pectineus

This little guy attaches to the base of the pelvis and has a short journey down to the inside of the thigh bone. It is definitely an adductor (squeezes the legs together) as well as a hip flexor and you can see just by looking at it that it isn’t as big or as well-positioned as the iliopsoas for hip flexion. That wont stop it from trying to help out though, and if it gets over worked you can find yourself with some tight, grouchy inner thighs!

Drawing of the pectinius muscle

The Pectineus

The Tensor Fasciae Latae (TFL)

 

This outer hip muscle is so important it got its own TFL blog post. This muscle attaches to the front outside of the pelvis and runs down the outer front hip, attaching to the famous IT band. Often tightness in the IT band can be traced back to a tight, overworked TFL. And it is easy to overwork the TFL because it can do so many different things: hip internal rotation, hip abduction (lifting the leg out to the side), and hip flexion. Like many competent beings, it can get stuck picking up the slack for under-performing friends.

A tight, weak, sad TFL can show up as outer hip pain, lower back pain, sciatica, and even knee and ankle pain.

Drawing of the Tensor Fasciae Latae

The Tensor Fasciae Latae

The Sartorius

The sartorius is one of the two hip flexors that crosses both the hip and the knee. This elegant, swooping muscle runs from the front outside of the pelvis down across the thigh to attach on the inside of the lower leg. That means it can help to straighten the knee, externally rotate the hip, and flex the hip. It is most effective at hip flexion when the leg is turned out, as in a ballet passé. In fact, this muscle is usually super strong on ballet dancers! It just isn’t as effective if you are trying to lift your leg straight out in front of you.

 

Drawing of the Sartorius Muscle

The Sartorius

The Rectus Femoris

 

Drawing of the Rectus Femoris

The Rectus Femoris

So many dancers, circus performers, and other athletes I have worked with over the years are very familiar with the rectus femoris. This is the biggest of your quadriceps muscles, crossing both the knee and the hip, right up the front of the leg. You can feel the big tendon in the front of the hip, just inside the hip bone, where this muscle attaches to the pelvis. Many people experience that tendon as being tight, tender, and possibly even inflamed due to overworking in the rectus femoris.

This muscle is the primary go-to for people who have difficulty accessing the illiopsoas, which can make the rectus femoris super cranky and tight. It can also create hypertrophy in that muscle so it gets really big and bulky (at the studio we fondly refer to that as femoris enormous or quadrisaurus rex). This is frequently an indication that the iliopsoas needs some love and encouragement.

Because the rectus femoris is both a knee extensor and a hip flexor, and because it attaches much lower on the body, it will never be as good at hip flexion as the iliopsoas. But it tries its best, bless its heart.

 

My hope in writing this article is that you now have a better sense of what is going on in your hips in order to tailor your workouts and your stretches to the muscles that need them most. If you suffer from chronically tight, painful hips and stretching isn’t helping, it’s likely due to an imbalance between these muscles where someone on the team isn’t pulling their weight, and other team members are having to play overtime and are getting resentful.

For the second half of the battle, check out the hip and core workouts on YouTube or the full length workouts on Video Club for some exercises and stretches that I have found useful to deal with hip challenges in both my own body and with my clients. I particularly recommend the next blog post on lunge variations to target specific hip flexors.

Happy Bendings!

 

Can My Body Be Strong and Flexible at the Same Time? Yes!

One of the most common misconceptions about training is that you cannot train to be strong and flexible at the same time. This isn’t true. Just watch any luminaries of circus, gymnastics, or yoga and they will demonstrate a gorgeous combination of strength and flexibility, which is necessary in any of those disciplines.

Two woman back to back in standing fron splits

The standing front split is an example of a common pose in contortion and yoga that requires strength and flexibility.

 

The training method that makes this combination possible is active stretching.

Active stretching means using your own muscles to move your body into your end range of motion. It feels more like a strength-building exercise than a traditional stretch sensation.

To learn more, check out “What’s the Difference Between Active and Passive Stretching?”.

In a passive stretch, gravity or some other outside force causes the joint to move into a stretch, so no effort is needed. This is very good for lengthening muscle, and done repeatedly over time (recommended to do at least three stretch sessions a week for best results) muscles will accommodate greater and greater ranges.

However the issue with passive stretching alone is that it doesn’t teach your body how to support that new range of motion. An over-emphasis on passive stretching often means that the body is able to achieve positions where no muscles are able to work to support the joint. This can lead to a situation where you achieve flexibility at the cost of your strength.

Of course, the converse is also possible. Muscles build only and exactly how you use them, so if you are lifting weights and doing strength-training exercises in a small range, over time your body will start to be limited to that range and either wont move beyond that range, or will feel unstable and prone to injury when it does. The more strength you build in a limited range, the harder it will be to move outside of this range, thus sacrificing flexibility for strength.

Active flexibility strengthens a muscle through its full range of motion, with a particular emphasis on its shortest position. Muscles can only do two things: shorten or relax. They cannot actively lengthen themselves. That means that the most vulnerable position for a muscle is when it is at its shortest length, helpless.

When we stretch passively, an outside force squishes muscles into shortened positions, and the muscle becomes powerless and possibly very resentful. In an active stretch we only move the joint as far as that muscle is able to contract on its own. Over time, with repetition, the muscles becomes more competent at shortening and the range increases.

Flexibility earned by active methods will almost always be less than passive flexibility. However, active flexibility will be more comfortable, safer, more sustainable over time, stronger, and require less warm up. Active stretching builds strength, awareness, and control of the joint and is a powerful tool to prevent injury, degenerative disease, and chronic pain.

Being strong and flexible isn’t just important for contortionists and gymnasts. It is a component of healthy movement for all of us, keeping our bodies responsive, supple, and able to enjoy the world. The good news is that this type of stretching is available to all bodies at any age or fitness level. It is safe, effective, and can be done with minimal fuss, equipment, and warm-up.

Active stretching can take many forms and levels of challenge and can be applied to any skeletal muscle or joint in the body. It is one of the primary components of our work here at Fit & Bendy. For a super gentle full-body workout using a large number of active stretches, check out this free workout. Other full-length workouts are available through our Video Club or you can get live instruction through our courses and classes.

Happy Bendings!

 

 

Stretch your Shoulders without Pain or Pinching

 

It is possible to stretch your shoulders without pain, pinching, or compromising the strength and integrity of the shoulder joint. This range of motions is necessary for a whole host of activities that require you to bring your arms overhead including weight lifting, handstands, aerial arts, yoga, and contortion… and just getting a plate off a high shelf!

Pinching or pain in the shoulder joint is often caused by sub-optimal shoulder alignment. When the bones aren’t in the right place you can create compression in the shoulder socket which can, over time, lead to injuries like impingement and tears.

Plus you wont make good progress on building your mobility and strength.

Coordinate Your Shoulder Movements

Remember that with all shoulder movement we are managing two different areas of mobility: the glenohumeral joint and the scapula. For more about shoulder anatomy please check out last month’s blog post, 3 Things You Should Know about Shoulder Anatomy to Address Shoulder Pain. Understanding shoulder mechanics is essential to mastering shoulder positioning for optimal movement.

The glenohumeral joint and the scapula each have an important job to do. And just like a choreographed duet between two dancers, if either one of them isn’t in the right place the whole thing falls apart.

I’ve broken the process of finding the correct position into three steps—and for you visual learners there is also a video below.

Step 1: External rotation of the Glenohumeral Joint

External Rotation of the Shoulder

External Rotation of the Shoulder

Internal Rotation of the Shoulder

Internal Rotation of the Shoulder

 

The glenohumeral joint, where the arm bone meets the shoulder socket, should be externally rotated when stretching. External rotation creates spaciousness in the shoulder socket and puts the arm in a more supported position.

It is much easier to achieve this position if you start with rotation before you’re in the stretch.

There are some overhead movements that call for internal rotation like the clean and jerk, but you never want to do anything at your end range of motion in internal rotation. This can lead to the dreaded pinching feeling.

If you’re having a hard time finding your external rotators, check out How to Find and Strengthen Your Rotator Cuff.

Step 2: Pull the Scapulae Apart

Illustration of Pulling the Scapulae Apart

Pull the scapulae apart creating space in the upper back.

The scapulae are capable of tremendous mobility since nothing is holding them onto your rib cage except muscles. Restriction in scapular movement comes from neglecting upper back mobility, and poor posture can make it worse. However time spent on scapular mobility has big pay-offs. In this case you want to pull your scapulae straight out to the side, away from your spine. It is easiest to do this with your arms in a T position. Don’t forget to keep that external rotation!

Note: If this is a new range for you, you may feel a deep, nervy stretch down your biceps, elbows, forearms or fingers. If this is you, GO SLOW. Don’t push into that stretch, just gradually work on it little by little over time and don’t stay in the stretch for more than a few seconds. Nerves are easily pissed off and hard to calm down. Don’t upset them!

Step 3: Upwardly Rotate the Scapulae Keeping Them Wide

Drawing showing the upward rotation of the shoulder blades

The scapulae move apart and rotate up in order to move the arms overhead for stretching.

The last step is to bring the arms overhead. This phase of the movement is highly dependent on the scapulae rotating out and up; imagine the upward rotation of a bird’s wing joint as it gets ready to fly. If the scapulae do not rotate upward sufficiently, pointing the shoulder socket towards the sky, then the shoulder muscles will have difficulty functioning properly and the glenohumeral joint will be overworked, resulting in the previously mentioned pain and pinching.

It is vitally important when upwardly rotating the scapulae to maintain steps 1 and 2 so that you don’t lose your external rotation or the width between the scapulae. Once you have all of these pieces in place, you’re ready to rock your shoulder stretch.

When you have all of the bones aligned properly, you should feel the stretch through the back of the arm, the armpit, and possibly down the side of the body. There may also be stretching through the chest (see Tight Shoulders? Try Stretching Your Pecs!). But keep in mind there is a lot of variety in anatomy and different people will experience this stretch in different places.

If you are feeling pinching, stabbing, blocking pain in the shoulder socket itself, keep working on improving your ability to do the three steps above before going deeper into the stretch. If the pain persists, I recommend seeing a doctor or PT as there may be an injury in the shoulder that needs to be addressed before stretching.

For ideas on how to create more stable, mobile shoulders and address your root causes, please check out our catalogue of shoulder mobility videos at Video Club.

Happy Bendings!

 

 

 

Tight Shoulders? Try Stretching your Pecs!

Tight shoulders restrict athletic performance and our daily activities. A key aspect of upper body health is to have full shoulder flexion, meaning you’re easily able to lift your arms straight up over your without arching your back. If you are interested in contortion, handstands, or advanced yoga poses you will want even more range, building the ablility to move your arms behind your ears with strength and good form.

There are a number of different structural and muscular factors that can restrict mobility here including the ability of the scapulae to rotate upward and correctly position the shoulder socket (see my blog post on shoulder anatomy for more info about this), instability in the rotator cuff muscles leading to tightness (see the rotator cuff post for more info), and tight lats, among others.

But today we are going to talk about a reasonably common cause of decreased mobility with a relatively easy short-term fix (yay): stretching the pectoral muscles.

What is the Pectoralis Major?

The pectoralis major muscles connect the front of the upper arm bone (humerus) to the bones of the front of the rib cage and the clavicle. It is one of only two bones that connect the arm to the torso rather than the scapula, and it’s a big, powerful muscle capable of lifting a lot of weight. This is the muscle that leads the way for weighted movements like push-ups and bench presses.

The pec major is a pretty common muscle to be highly active and over-worked. Lots of people train push-up style exercises without doing a corresponding amount to work the back of the body. Exercises like benching heavy or continuous sun salutations bias these muscles. If your form is off and your back muscles aren’t active, or your shoulders are forward rotated because of poor posture, those pec muscles can get very stressed out and tight.

Cute skeleton girl with a glowing pectoralis major muscle

Pectoralis Major can contribute to tight shoulders

How Does the Pectoralis Major Effect Shoulder Flexibility?

Since the whole job of the pec muscle is to pull the arm in towards the body, it makes sense that they could get in the way of that overhead shoulder flexibility. Tight pecs will pull the arm bone in and down, creating a concave chest, hunched shoulders, and forward rounded scapulae. Then when you try to stretch your arms overhead they may feel very heavy, blocked, or pinchy, and it will be hard to straighten your elbows and find external rotation.

For folks with chronically tight pecs, a relatively quick stretch of the pectorals can immediately confer a satisfying increase in range of motion of the shoulders. For my favorite pec stretch (I call it the clock stretch) check out the video below. All you need is a wall to do it, and it targets all the different fibers of the pectorals and even gets a little bit into the pec minor which runs underneath the pec major and is a big contributor to hunchy shoulders.

This is a Short-Term Fix!

Pro tip: the gains provided by the clock stretch can potentially feel miraculous, but they do not address the root causes of your tight pectoralis muscles!

If you find that the clock stretch provides a noticeable improvement in your shoulder flexibility I highly recommend that you take a look at your posture and training regimen in order to figure out why they are tight.

Passive stretches like the clock stretch are great quick fixes. They can feel good and provide windows of opportunity to try out greater ranges in our joints, but they don’t change our bodies’ fundamental configuration. Sleuthing down the root causes of tightness will give you a more sustainable change and ease of movement in the ranges you desire.

For ideas on how to create more stable, mobile shoulders and address your root causes, please check out our catalogue of shoulder mobility videos at Video Club.

 

How to Find and Strengthen Your Rotator Cuff Muscles

When I received my MRI back from the doctor’s office it just said “rotator cuff tear”. What a tease!

There are four rotator cuff muscles in the shoulder and each of them does a different, vitally important role. Even medical professionals tend to lump them together into one poorly-defined category. But the better you know each one and can strengthen them with precision, the easier it will be to keep your shoulders happy and healthy.

The rotator cuff muscles are responsible for the rotational qualities of your arm bone in your shoulder socket. They are also vital to the stabilization of the arm bone since the shoulder socket is very shallow and the bone has the potential to slip out of place without muscular support. This means that the balance of each individual muscle is necessary to keep the arm bone centered in the joint.

So let’s meet the team!

Subscapularis

The subscapularis is responsible for internal rotation and stabilizes the arm bone from slipping forward in the shoulder joint. This is a very important job since the most common shoulder dislocation is in a forward direction. The subscap attaches to the front of the arm bone and runs along the underneath side of the shoulder blade to attach along its inside edge. This means it’s very difficult to poke at your subscapularis since it’s mostly an internal muscle.

Illustration of a glamorous skeleton with a glowing subscapularis muscle

The Subscapularis Muscle

Supraspinatus

The supraspinatus is responsible for rotating the arm bone up in the socket and protects against the arm popping sideways out of the socket. It attaches to a boney ridge on the top of the shoulder blade and runs through a little hole in between the shoulder socket and the arm bone to fasten to the outside of the arm bone. This journey through the little hole between two bones makes the supraspinatus especially prone to sadness because improper shoulder mechanics can crush the tendon and over time lead to tearing. Since it’s right underneath the powerful deltoid it is easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention.

Cute skeleton with a pony tail and a glowing pink supraspinatus rotator cuff muscle

The Supraspinatus Muscle

Infraspinatus

The infraspinatus is responsible for external rotation and stabilizes the arm bone from slipping backwards out of the shoulder socket. It attaches to the outside edge of the shoulder blade and runs along the top of the shoulder blade to fasten to the back of the arm bone. Since modern posture biases internal rotation of the shoulder, most of us could use a little more external rotation love from the infraspinatus.

Teres Minor

The teres minor is the bff of the infraspinatus and they do everything together. The teres minor is a smaller muscle that sits just under the infraspinatus and reinforces the external rotation and stabilization role. For our purposes you can think of the teres minor as the Robin to the infraspinatus’ Batman.

A skeleton with cute hair and star earrings and a glowing infraspinatus and teres minor rotator cuff muscles

Infraspinatus and Teres Minor Muscles

 

Compared to the big, beefy deltoids, biceps, and triceps, the rotator cuff muscles are relatively small. If you only do shoulder strengthening with heavier weights it is very easy to go right to the bigger muscles since they are designed for the big, dramatic movements. To feel and strengthen the rotator cuff muscles it is better to use light weight, or even no weight at all, to make sure that the bigger muscles aren’t called into action.

The video below shows three unweighted, easy isometrics that you can use to experience each of your rotator cuff muscles and develop your relationship with them. Once that relationship is established you can add weight and movement to build their capacity. But you can’t strengthen a muscle that you can’t find or feel so this is a great start in getting to know your shoulders so you can all be friends!

Spend time getting to know your rotator cuff team. It’s a relationship you will value for the rest of your life.