The fitness world has come a long way in our understanding of the importance mobility work has on athletic performance. Mobility tools and drills are becoming commonplace in gyms, CrossFit boxes, and on the playing field. Unfortunately, most athletes performing these hip mobility drills have yet to figure out that much of their mobility work does not result in real performance gains!
Sadly their mobility work does not address the true root of their problems, and their constant stretching, foam rolling, and joint band distractions get them nowhere… AND THE HIPS ARE THE GREATEST EXAMPLE OF THIS PROBLEM with athletes everywhere wasting hours on useless mobility work!
Quitting static stretching and refocusing your mobility work on more effective exercises will improve not only your mobility but your athletic performance as well! And will do so in a fraction of the time.
Where Mobility Exercises Have Gone Wrong
Because of the inherent stability of the hip joint provided by the ball-and-socket, many athletes and coaches spend far too much time trying to improve hip mobility by performing stretching and soft tissue work. Months of intense stretching techniques provide little actual change in available motion and only serve to waste time and create pain in the athletes.
Instead, small stability changes at the pelvis can provide drastically fast improvements in performance. Contraction of the muscles around the pelvis can result in changes in pelvic positioning and thus available hip range of motion. For example, a posterior tilt of the pelvis will put the hips in a position advantageous to improve hip flexion mobility. In contrast, and anterior pelvic tilt will result in increased hip extension.
The hamstrings are the perfect example of the effects pelvic positioning can have on mobility. I’ve yet to meet an athlete who doesn’t claim to have “tight hamstrings.” Even in the elite gymnasts, dancers, runners, and yogis that I work with, the belief that their hamstrings should be further stretched is rampant.
In an anteriorly rotated pelvis, the hamstrings will have increased tension placed on them, thus resulting in a perceived decrease in flexibility. More often than not, I find that simple core stabilization movements will provide immediate improvement in their perceived tightness or chronic hamstring muscle strains.
To test this, I have athletes perform a straight leg raise while lying on their backs. Quite often, simply cueing the athlete to “push your rib cage down” or “flatten your lower back into the floor” will result in a posterior pelvic tilt that instantly improves “hamstring mobility” and decreases the perception of hamstring tightness and muscle strain.
This simple repositioning of the pelvis can provide more gains than months of static stretching, manual therapy, and self-myofascial work combined. And this effect can also be seen when working to improve hip extension, rotation, and functional patterns such as the squat.
The Hip Mobility Solution
The solution to hip mobility problems is simple. Perform movements that challenge the available active hip range of motion while engaging the core to stabilize the pelvis. As the athlete learns to better control the core and pelvis, mobility will drastically improve!
Hip “mobility” work done this way will have two effects.
First, it will reposition the pelvis to a more neutral position, allowing for improved mobility within the hip socket.
Secondly, it will serve as a “reset” to muscle tone around the hips. Often, the body realizes it does not have the needed stability around a joint due to muscle weakness. The body’s response is to increase the tone in a muscle to provide some false-stabilization. The hip flexors (like the hamstrings) are another muscle group that often feels tight in athletes. Still, when proper core stabilization movements are performed, this increased muscle tone instantly vanishes, and mobility problems are gone!
Your New Active Hip Mobility Regimen
The following exercises should be a strong component of any athlete’s hip mobility work, as they will produce faster results than the typically prescribed foam roll and stretching routines.
The Reverse Active Straight Leg Raise
This is an excellent movement to improve hip flexion and active hamstring mobility. The athlete begins lying on his or her back with both legs vertical and knees straight. One leg is kept in this vertical position (this can be done by using a stretch strap or not using one to increase the challenge) while the other leg is slowly lowered to the floor. The key point of performance is that the lower back remains flat on the ground, ensuring that the core is actively engaged to stabilize the spine and pelvis.
Up next for those with hip flexor tightness, the Single Leg Hip Lift and Psoas March variations can be incredible exercises.
To perform the Single Leg Hip Lift, the athlete lies on their back with one foot flat on the floor, and that knee bent to approximately 90 degrees. The other leg is pulled towards the chest and held in the athlete’s arms. Next, the athlete lifts his or her hips as high as possible without arching their lumbar spine. The athlete should consciously focus on activating his or her glutes throughout the entire movement.
The Psoas March is an amazing exercise for quickly eliminating hip flexor tightness as it retrains the psoas’ role in spinal stability. The athlete lies supine with a resistance band around both feet. While focusing on maintaining a neutral spine, the athlete lifts one knee towards his or her chest, stopping at ~90 degrees of hip flexion, and then returns to supine. This is then repeated on the opposite leg.
The Goblet Squat
This may be the most powerful mobility exercise specific to the squat. By holding a weight in front of the body, the athlete can better sit back into the squat, maintain a neutral spine and pelvis, and reach better squat depths. When performing Goblet Squats to work hip mobility, we suggest performing a slow negative and pausing for several seconds at the bottom of the squat.
90/90 Breathing with Hip Internal Rotation
Here is another fantastic drill for quickly changing hip mobility. This has repeatedly helped improve the rock-bottom squat depth and decreased hip pinching in the elite Olympic weightlifters and CrossFit athletes that I work with.
To perform, the athlete is lying on his or her back with their feet on a wall with hips and knees bent to ninety degrees. After raising the hips slightly off the ground, they inhale through their nose, focusing on filling their stomach with air before allowing the check to rise. As they exhale, the rib cage is pushed down. This movement puts the spine in a neutral position, and the pelvis slightly posteriorly rotated. After several breaths, the athlete then lifts on the leg off the wall and repeatedly internally rotates it while continuing the breath cycles.
For an athlete looking to optimize hip mobility and performance, I encourage them to do each of the above exercises three to four times weekly, usually as part of their warm-up.
- 90/90 Breathing with hip internal rotation – 5 breaths followed by 20 internal rotations per side
- Reverse active straight leg raise – 2 sets to moderate fatigue each leg
- Single leg hip lifts – 2 sets to moderate fatigue
- Psoas march – 2 sets to moderate fatigue
- Goblet squats – 2 sets of 10 reps with 5 second negative and three-second pause in the bottom