Since the start of 2020, pretty much every facet of our day-to-day lives has shifted—from the way we work (goodbye, water cooler chit-chat; hello, sweatpants) to the way we socialize (who doesn’t love a good Zoom Happy Hour?). And although some of these changes may actually be for the better, others are less than ideal. For one, we’re moving a lot less.
Not only have frequent sitting and less activity throughout the day been tied to a host of major health issues, like obesity and depression, but a sedentary lifestyle can also cause trouble in more subtle (but particularly painful) ways, explains physical therapist Chad Walding, D.P.T. One of them: hip issues—particularly poor hip mobility.
Though it might not seem like a big deal, having cranky hips can mess with your life (specifically how you move and work out) in a pretty noticeable way. Here’s how to tell if you’ve got a hip mobility issue—plus what to do about it.
What Poor Hip Mobility Looks And Feels Like
How exactly does sitting a lot mess with your hips? For starters, the hips weaken, which limits the pelvis’ natural range of motion, Waldin says. “This puts more stress on the lower back and hip joint itself,” he explains.
One result: super-tight hip flexors, which are a group of muscles that surround your pelvis, spine, and upper legs. This group includes the rectus femoris (your quads), psoas major (a muscle that extends from your lower spine through your pelvis), and iliacus (a muscle that passes through your pelvis).
When your hips don’t (and can’t) move through their full range of motion, you’ve got what the pros call poor hip mobility.
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“When the hip flexors are tight, it will pull the spine in a more lordotic, or hyper-extended or overarched, position,” he explains. “This leads to all kinds of issues up and down the spine and body.” Yep, that means that in addition to muscle tightness, the hip issues caused by a sedentary lifestyle (or, at least, a sedentary job) can ultimately lead to serious injuries like herniated discs and torn labrums (cartilage in the hip joint).
If you’ve got poor hip mobility, you’ll probably notice it most when moving and working out. “Proper hip mobility is a necessity for functional mobility, which includes squatting, bending, and lunging,” says Walding. If you have poor mobility in your hips, other parts of the body naturally pick up the slack to keep you moving, which isn’t ideal. “Other joints, including the back, knees, shoulders, ankles, and neck, take on more stress than they’re designed for; it’s all connected.”
4 Signs You Might Have Tight Hips
How can you really tell that your hip mobility is off? Look out for these tell-tale signs.
1. You Have Lower Back Pain
“The first thing folks with overly tight hips notice when strength training, or doing really any physical activity, is periodic lower back pain,” explains sports performance consultant Alex Harrison, Ph.D., C.S.C.S. “If your hip flexors are tight, they can become easily fatigued and irritated, which can result in lower back spasms and soreness from overuse.”
2. You Frequently Get Hamstring Injuries
Tight hammies? Those might signal poor hip mobility, says Walding. “Generally, when the hips don’t have full mobility, the surrounding muscles, particularly the hamstrings, tend to get tight and shorten,” he explains.
3. You Can’t Perform A Womb Squat
One of Walding’s favorite ways to measure his client’s hip mobility: the womb squat. “This exercise is excellent at testing a person’s hip flexion, along with their knee and ankle mobility,” he says.
Here’s how to do it: Start in a standing position, preferably barefoot or in flat shoes, with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and toes turned out slightly. Sink your glutes toward the ground, pushing your knees outward. Go as low as you can (the lower you get, the more your knees may want to come in, so use your elbows to press your knees out). If you can hold a squat in which your thighs have lowered beyond being parallel to the floor for at least 30 seconds, your hip mobility is solid. If not, then not so much.
4. You Fail the Ankle-Over-the-Knee Test
Another simple test you can do anywhere to test hip mobility: the ankle-over-knee test. To do it, start in a sitting position with both feet flat on the ground and toes facing forward, suggests Walding. Lift and cross your left ankle over the right leg, resting your left ankle on top of the right knee. If both knees are at the same height, your hips have relatively solid mobility. If one knee is higher than the other, there’s a good chance your hips are tight.
How To Improve Your Hip Mobility
If you’ve got an achy back, tight hammies, or fail either of Walding’s two tests, you’ve got to show those hips some TLC.
Your first order of business? Strengthening the muscles surrounding the hip, says Harrison. “Hip mobility is probably second to hip strength in terms of [staving off injuries],” he notes. “The fastest improvements in hip mobility come from progressing through a full range of motion in weightlifting movements.”
His go-to moves for clients when their hip mobility is poor: squats, stiff-leg deadlifts, Bulgarian split squats, and walking lunges, all of which strengthen your hips. Ideally, you’ll incorporate these into regular strength training sessions at least twice or three times per week.
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That being said, if you have tight hips and want to do these exercises to increase your hip mobility, you’ve got to follow one important rule: Start with a very, very conservative weight, urges Harrison. This is particularly important if you’ve been sedentary for a while (like, uh, since pre-pandemic). According to Harrison, this not only helps you avoid injury but also ensures your body responds optimally as you get to work. He recommends aiming for strength training a minimum of two to three days per week.
The other obvious way to combat hip tightness and crummy hip mobility, according to Walding? Moving—and often. If you’re working from home, for example, aim to get up and move at regular intervals. Set a timer for the top of each hour and get moving for five to 10 minutes before continuing with your workday.
In case you’re wondering about stretching, Walding recommends doing more of that, too. Spend a few minutes twice per week on the following stretches to help open up those hips.
- Sit on the floor with your right leg out in front of you. Bend your right knee 90 degrees so that your thigh extends straight out in front of you and your lower leg extends out to the left.
- Meanwhile, bend your left knee to 90 degrees so that your left thigh extends out to your left and your lower leg back behind you.
- Keeping your back straight, slowly lean forward until you feel a firm stretch in the front (right) hip and along the side of the right leg.
- Hold the position for 30 seconds to two minutes, breathing slowly.
- Repeat on the other side.
- Start in a standing position, preferably barefoot or in flat shoes, with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and toes turned out slightly.
- Sink your glutes toward the ground, pushing your knees outward. Go as low as you can (the lower you get the more your knees may want to come in, so use your elbows to press your knees out). Hold on to the edge of a desk or table to support yourself, if needed. Come down far enough that you feel a stretch, but not so far that your heels lift up off of the floor.
- Stay in this position for 30 to 120 seconds. Focus on breathing slowly, while allowing your belly to expand. Keep your feet flat and avoid coming up on toes.
Hip Flexor Stretch
- Start in a half-kneeling position with your right leg forward and bent with your right foot flat on the floor. Your left leg should be bent so that your knee is on the floor beneath your hip. (Place a towel or cushion under your knee, if needed.)
- Keep your upper body straight, gently tucking in your chin as you squeeze your glutes. Keep your pelvis neutral; avoid tilting it forward.
- Gently push your hips forward until you feel a stretch around the front of your left hip.
- Reach your arms overhead and lean to the left side for an extra stretch.
- Hold for 30 to two minutes, breathing slowly.
- Repeat on the other side.
When To See A Pro
While engaging in regular strength training and stretching can go a long way in helping you improve your hip mobility, if you really want to show your pelvic region some much-needed love, consider talking to a physical therapist or mobility specialist. They can create an individualized plan based on your current limitations and movement goals.