Are Tight Hip Muscles Limiting Your Squat?

Are Tight Hip Muscles Limiting Your Squat?

Performing a deep squat is a common goal in many training environments. While squat depth may be predetermined by bony anatomy that dictates hip ranges of motion, a majority of people (if not all) have the appropriate hip structure to squat to at least parallel. However, this goal is often challenged by muscle tightness in the hips. Some blame the hip flexors, others say the hamstrings, so which is it? Let’s take a look at some basic anatomy and biomechanics of the squat to identify what may be causing impaired squat performance. Get better tight hip muscles squat.

Note: if you need signifiant squat mobility help, please check out my SQUAT MOBILITY OVERHAUL PROGRAM.

 

Basic Biomechanics

The main concept to understand is the passive length tension relationship and determining whether a muscle is on slack or stretch. To make things as simple as possible, we will use the hip flexors as an example. If the hip is flexed, the hip flexors are on slack. If this hip is extended, the hip flexors are on stretch. This concept can be applied to any joint. When a muscle is on stretch, it can create passive tension. When there is too much passive tension where a lengthened muscle limits the joint’s range of motion, this muscle is said to be passively insufficient. Identifying whether a muscle is on slack or stretch is critical for determining whether passive tension (passive insufficiency) can limit range of motion. tight hip muscles squat

To hammer home this concept, think of a rubber band. Bring both ends together and start to pull. At first, there is no resistance to stretch. As the ends get further away, there is more tension and more resistance to stretch. This represents passive tension, and ultimately will help decided whether a muscle can be passively insufficient.

If a muscle is passively insufficient, it will limit the joint’s range of motion opposite to the motion it performs. Identifying muscles that may be passively insufficient during a squat will identify if muscle length is limiting squat depth.

Let’s look at the hip muscle groups and see if muscle length contributes to passive insufficiency and can limit squat depth. tight hip muscles squat

Hip Flexors

The primary hip flexors are the iliopsoas, the rectus femoris, and the tensor fascia lata (TFL). All of these muscles have implications at other joints in addition to the hip and slightly different functions that are important to consider. The rectus femoris extends the knee, and the TFL also abducts and internally rotates the hip. The psoas major (part of the iliopsoas) attaches to the lumbar spine and has the ability to extend and side bend the lumbar spine. When the hip is flexed (e.g. the bottom of a squat) these muscles are on slack at the hip. In the bottom of the squat the hip is flexed. This means the hip flexors are on slack and cannot be passively insufficient and are not limiting squat depth.

Hamstrings

The hamstring muscles include the semimembranosus, semitendinosus and the biceps femoris. The hamstrings attach to various bony landmarks on the pelvis, tibia, and fibula. Because they cross the hip and knee joint on the back side of the body, their function is to extend the hip and flex the knee. The hip is flexed at the bottom of a squat, which means the hamstrings are on stretch at the hip. However, they are on slack at the knee because the hamstrings flex the knee and they are not fully stretched. In this position the hamstrings do not have enough passive tension to limit squat depth and are not passively insufficient.

 

Quick Assessment

Try this passive mobility test and see if the hip flexors or hamstrings are limiting your ability to achieve this modified squat position! Improve tight hip muscles squat.

 

Anatomically, the hip flexors and hamstrings are not passively insufficient at the bottom of a squat and their length is not a limiting factor in squat depth.

 

Adductors

Here is a muscle group that can have some serious biomechanical implications for squat depth. Let’s break down how the adductor muscles function to understand their implications

There are 5 major adductor muscles (Adductor magnus, longus, and brevis, along with the pectinus and gracilis). All 5 muscles attach to various places on the pelvis and four of the five attach to the femur, meaning they do NOT cross the knee. Therefore, changes in the knee angle do not affect the passive tension for 4 out of the 5 adductor muscles.

The adductor muscles function as adductors and internal rotators of the hip joint. Therefore, squatting with a wide (abducted) and toe out (externally rotated) stance, increases passive tension from the adductors as you descend into the squat. This passive tension due to increasing muscle length can be limiting the depth of the squat. In this case, the adductors are passively insufficient for hip abduction and external rotation.

To make matters more complicated, when the hip is flexed to 70 degrees or greater, the adductors also function as hip extensors. This means if muscle length is an issue, they will limit further hip flexion for any squat greater than 70 degrees of hip flexion and are passively insufficient for hip flexion.

The adductors can be passively insufficient for hip abduction, hip internal rotation, and hip flexion and their length can limit squat depth.

Tightness in the groin and inner thigh can be a tell-tale sign for limited adductor mobility. Try one of these loaded drills to improve adductor mobility!

Kneeling Eccentric Hip-Hinge for Adductor Tightness – Let’s break this drill down and see what’s going on and make sure we can execute it and understand what’s going on here. 1. Start half kneeling. Breathe, balance, own the half kneeling position by engaging the abdominals and anterior core musculature. 2. Slowly and controlled bring one heel to the floor, much like you would in a Cossack squat. Back to step 1: breathe, balance, own this position. Make sure your pelvis/lumbar spine is still in the same position (not more flexed or extended). If you lose position of the pelvis/lumbar spine, slow the movement down OR more through less ROM to start. 3. Holding a weight, such as a KB, slowly load the hip-hinge by sitting back onto your heels. Again, breathing, maintaining the same position of the spine (not excessively flexing or extending). 4. Return to the starting position in a controlled manner. – Tight groin/adductors? (even an argument for hamstrings can be made here) this is a great way to decrease any perceived tightness and prepare for heavier lifts. By coming into the kneeling position, or a regressed position, it is easier to control these movements then in standing. By controlling the movement in a regressed position and then loading the available ROM, the body perceives less threat during the motion (which we feel as tightness). Positioning the body in “less threatening” positions, such as on your side, your back, quadruped, or kneeling, is a great way to hammer home movement patterns, strengthen available ROM, and potentially increase ROM if there is a limitation and then you can progress back to standing for traditional lifting. – Regress, Load, Progress, Load – @clinicalathlete @strengthcoachtherapy @thestrengththerapist @ekrueger35 – #PrimePhysioFitness #DPT #dptstudent #physicaltheapy #physio #rehab #exercisescience #crossfit #movement #exercise #mobility #stability #training #strong #fit #fitness #athlete #powerlift #glutes #wellness #rehab #prehab #injuryprevention #muscle #core #sports #training #ketlebell #groin #functional

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Goblet Squat for Adductor Mobility – My Adductors are my kryptonite, and a good portion of my squat prep is spent working with these bad boys. If tight adductors are an issue for you, here's a drill to help alleviate the perceived tightness before squats. – The adductors are an interesting group as they have implications in all 3 plans of motion. When the hip is flexed (such as the bottom of a squat), their function is to extend the hip. If hip extensors have limited mobility, the depth of your squat can be limited if you squat with a wider stance (more hip abduction). – Sitting in the bottom of a goblet squat and walking the feet out into more abduction can help to improve adductor mobility by helping decrease the perception of tightness before squat. Adding some active hip ER & IR can be beneficial as well! – @clinicalathlete @thestrengththerapist #gobletsquats

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Is There More Than Just Structure?

Now, the biomechanical model for the squat is great for helping us understand how muscle length can be a limiting factor for squat depth, but if someone feels tightness in the hip flexors or hamstrings in bottom of a squat that we know biomechanically they can NOT limit squat depth. So what is the issue?

The answer lies in the nervous system. If something “feels” tight, its exactly that, a feeling. The nervous system is responsible for receiving loads of sensory input and having the brain integrate it so you can perceive what’s going on in your current environment. Knowing that hip flexors and hamstrings cannot biomechanically limit squat depth, the perception of tightness in either of these muscle groups during the squat is possible. This could be a sign that your body is using a sub-optimal movement pattern to execute a squat. The nervous system has identified this faulty movement pattern and the perception of tight is the nervous system telling you that motor pattern you are using is not optimal as the system perceives some “threat.”

An important piece to recall is the hip flexors and hamstrings both have attachments to the lumbar spine and pelvis (lumbopelvic region). One plausible solution is to perform drills to focus on maintaining a stable lumbopelvic region while moving through the squat pattern. The goal of these drills is to improve the motor pattern used for the squat and so the nervous system does not perceive a threat as you move through the squat pattern. If the pelvis is stable and the muscle attaching to the pelvis are controlled, it is possible the perception of tightness will solve itself! Fix tight hip muscles squat.

Quadruped Rockbacks – Here's a drill that helps to disassociate the movement between the hips and spine, which is essential for the squat. Start in quadruped and rock back on to the heels. There many aspects to be highlighted but I want to talk about three. – 1. Disassociation of hip and spine movement. Some people start their squat with a significant amount of lumbar extension instead of a hip hinge. This will help stabilize the spine as you will need to use the abs to prevent anterior pelvic tilt/lumbar extension in the drill. 2. Finding a position of comfort for your squat. Everyone has different hip anatomy so everyone will squat with different widths and different degrees of hip rotation. Use this drill to find a position of the hip that allows the greatest range of motion without and discomfort or excessive movement of the spine. I demo this by moving my knees around a few times. 3. Allowing a posterior pelvic tilt. I finish off the drill by performing "child's pose," a classic yoga pose, and I let my pelvis fall into a posterior pelvic tilt and let my lumbar spine flex. If you are someone who lives in an excessive anterior pelvic tilt or often complain of a "tight" lower back, allowing some lumbar flexion before stabilizing and loading may be beneficial in decreasing the tightness you are experiencing. #PrimePhysioFitness #Squat #Spine ________________________________________________________Prime-Physio Fitness: Improving the fitness world by integrating physical therapy principles and a better understanding of movement.

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Kneeling Band-Assist Hip Hinge – Struggling to nail the Hip-Hinge for your squats or deadlifts? Here's a neat variation I picked up from @drben_cscs and here's why I like it. – 1. Tall kneeling- brings the focus to the hips and spine by temporarily "eliminating" the ankle and knee. If you can't quite nail it standing, regress the drill to own the hinge in a kneeling position and then return to standing. 2. The Band- provides an external cue to help sit the butt back on to the heels. Focusing on anterior core activation while the band helps sit you back can help eliminate unwanted spinal movement. 3. The PVC Pipe- another external cue to keep the spine relatively neutral and control all parts of the spine. – All the extra pieces here work, and you can certainly add more or use less depending on the patient/client you are working with. Regardless of what you choose, always have a rationale for the intervention or coaching drill you are choosing & know WHY you are doing what you are doing! This was the best advice I received in my first year of PT school. – @clinicalathlete @thestrengththerapist #PrimePhysioFitness #ClinicalAthlete #HipHinge ________________________________________________________Prime-Physio Fitness: Improving the fitness world by integrating physical therapy principles and a better understanding of movement.

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tight hip muscles squat

Bottom Line:

  • Structurally, the hip flexors and hamstrings cannot limit squat depth, but the adductors can limit squat depth. Loading the adductors prior to squatting may improve muscle length.
  • There are other joint structures that have implications on squat depth, such as the ankle, that should also be considered.
  • If something feels “tight” it may not actually be tight, rather an issue of perception from the nervous system.
  • Improving control of the pelvis and lumbar spine during the squat pattern may relieve the perception of tightness.
  • As always, if you are in pain seek the care of a licensed physical therapist who understands your training needs!

 

About the Author:

Jason LePage is a Doctor of Physical Therapy student and the owner of Prime-Physio Fitness. To learn more from Jason, visit www.primephysiofitness.com and follow him on Facebook & Instagram!

 

References

  1. Neumann D.Kinesiology of the Musculoskeletal System: Foundations for Rehabilitation. 2nd ed.; 2010.
  2. Shumway-Cook A, Woollacott MH.Motor control: translating research into clinical practice. Baltimore, Md: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2007.
  3. Schünke M, Schulte E, Schumacher U, et al.Atlas of Anatomy. New York: Thieme; 2012.