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The Secret To Happy Hips
I’ve been super, super into moving my hips recently. Mobilizing them in all directions, flexing them, extending them, strengthening them for better walking and squatting, rotating them for better foot health (yes, that’s a thing), and just generally loving how it feels to use them.
See, hips are a terribly under-moved body part. Most of us have made a sort of movement trade-off where we overuse our lower backs and underuse our hip joints.
That means we get injuries in both places because they aren’t getting the right amount of movement. So in today’s post, I’m going to teach you how to get your hips moving again!
Here’s The Secret To Happy Hips:
There’s a lot of goodness you can get from working on your hips. When your hip muscles get worked, your body gets a lot of benefits!
Hips that move well are very beneficial for your pelvic floor, because the state of the deep hip muscles directly affects pelvic floor muscles.
Functioning hips help create sustainable knees – a lot of the time the knees get overused because the hips get underused. For the same reason, hip work helps your lower back.
And of course, functioning hips create hips that are happier and healthier too!
But my favourite part about working on hips? It feels great – the feeling of using strong hip muscles in a full range of motion is a whole new world of awesome.
Here’s the secret:
You need to stabilize your pelvis.
Otherwise when you try to get into your hips, you’re really moving your lower back.
As you learn to stabilize, you’ll also be better at getting into all the muscles that affect your hips and pelvis – your quads, your hamstrings and your hip flexors.
Today, I’m sharing 5 different exercises to help you really access your hip joints by practicing stabilizing your pelvis. There’s a video with all the exercises at the bottom of the post.
These are gentle and appropriate for most bodies, but please listen to your body when you try them and back off if it doesn’t feet right!
Stable Pelvis, Hip Flexion With A Bent Knee
Hip flexion is the technical term for when you bring your knees in towards your chest. When you sit in a chair, you’re usually at about 90 degrees of hip flexion.
Although, thanks to sitting, hip flexion is a position we spend a lot of time in, we often are very limited when it comes to getting more than 90 degrees of range. This makes it very hard to squat well, and may also limit your ability to access the muscles in the backs of your legs.
Explore Your Hip Flexion
For this exercise, all you need to do is lie flat on the ground. I usually like something under the back of my head. Start by noticing how much space is under your lower back, and the way that your sacrum (the large triangular bone at the base of your spine) is sitting on the ground. This is basically neutral – think of it as your starting position and home base. When your pelvis is neutral, movements of your leg are 100% about your hips.
Now slowly lift one leg up – knee can be relaxed) so your thigh is vertical. Does this change the way your sacrum and lower back feel are relating to the ground? Likely not – but if it does, it’s a sign that you’re already moving into your back. No big deal, just good information about the state of your body right now.
Next, super slowly, keep moving that knee in towards your chest. Notice how and when your pelvis and lower back start to round and push into the ground. Let your knee travel back to where your pelvis is neutral. Bring it in again, slowly, noticing and being super aware.
Finally, let your leg relax so your pelvis becomes neutral, and then bring it in again – but this time, stop when you feel your pelvis start to move. Hold your leg here (I use my hands) and hang out. This is the limit of your current, unloaded hip flexion. Just by hanging out here, you’re asking your body to adapt and increase your range. This gives you many of the benefits of squatting without creating pressure, and over time it will increase your ability to squat with an untucked (aka neutral) pelvis.
Stable Pelvis, Hip Flexion With A Straight Leg
My clients always laugh at me because I say that basically every exercise is my favourite.
The one I’m sharing here isn’t actually my favourite exercise to teach, because it’s hard for people to see what’s going on without a mirror at floor level.
But it’s a great way to practice maintaining a stable pelvis with straight legs, and since you’re likely at home, hopefully you have a mirror to help you out. This is also a great stretch for the backs of your legs.
You’ll need a yoga strap (or a similar thing, like a belt, anything that’s not stretchy), something for the back of your head, and a mirror, naturally.
The Strap Stretch
This time, your non-stretching leg is how you’re going to assess whether your pelvis is neutral.
Set yourself up so that you can see your thighs in the mirror as you’re lying down.
Are your thighs on the ground? If so, awesome. If not, that’s awesome too but it’s also a sign that you’re permanently in a bit of hip flexion and/or pelvic tucking. You need to put a blanket, cushion or bolster under your shoulders so that your thighs are flat to the ground (set up just like in the psoas release exercise here).
Now, loop a strap around the ball of one foot. Use your arms to pull your straight and relaxed stretching leg until you feel a good tension in the back of your leg.
Next, check in the mirror – is your other hamstring (aka back of your thigh) still on the ground? Often it will have lifted (image #2) – which means that your pelvis is not stable and the load of your stretch has transferred from your hips to your back. If so, lower your stretching leg until the back of the opposite leg is connected to your mat (image #1)
Don’t feel a stretch anymore? Try pulling your toes back towards your shin and see if that increases your stretch. If not, don’t worry about it – your body is still getting a signal to increase the length of the tissues at the back of your leg, and you’re still practising stabilization, which is the real point here. Hang out for a minute or so.
Add a crossover
The fun really starts when you add a crossover! But the key here, again, is to keep your pelvis still. Sink your stretching side butt into the ground – imagine it as an anchor and don’t let it move as you use your arms to cross your stretching leg towards your midline. Personally I only get a few inches of travel – this might be very small.
If your pelvis rolls, you’ve lost your neutral, but it can be hard to tell if you’re rolling. Try getting someone to watch you, or watch yourself in a mirror, or try my favourite way to learn body observation. Pull your leg way over, so far that you really feel your pelvis roll too. Then go back to flat. Then, pull again. And then flatten again. Slowly make it a smaller and smaller movement until you’re pretty sure you’re kind of there. And that’s good enough – you’ll refine your skill at this as you continue your practice.
Once you get into your crossed leg position, hang out there for another minute or so and then relax. You might enjoy a hand stretch now to give your hands a break!
Stable Pelvis, Stronger Hips
Stabilizing your pelvis can also help you strengthen the muscles around your hips. This is another place where we like to use our trunk and lower back to help us out. Here’s one of my favourite ways to identify if you use your abs instead of your hips, and a way to start strengthening and isolating your hips.
Also, if you feel like you have really ‘tight’ hips, and you stretch and stretch without much relief, you may find this really helpful. Most of us have really WEAK hips and getting more strength can really change the sensations there.
For this one, you’ll need a mirror.
Start by lying down on your side, and try to make yourself into a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles. If you feel very wobbly, you can use your top arm as a tripod.
Gently lift your top foot and push it away from you enthusiastically. This will help you stabilize, and it will also help you start with a more neutral pelvis (when you’re lying down on your side, gravity makes your pelvis twist a bit)
Now lift your top leg – slowly so you can watch what’s going on. Imagine lifting from your hip joint itself (which is located just in front of your butt, not near your waist). See if you can feel your side butt muscles work. If so, you’re 90% of the way there.
As you slowly lift and lower, observe what’s happening at your waist. If you see any movement there – usually most visible as your shirt wrinkling – it means that you’re using your trunk as well as your hips. Your job is to work on stabilizing your waist as you lift your leg. Keep pushing your top leg away from you, make it small, and go really slowly. It can help to tap the muscles around your hip joint so they turn on a bit here. It should look like image #1 and not image #2.
If you’re doing this right, 15-20 of them will have your hip muscles burning. Just in time for my favourite hip stretch!
Stable Pelvis, Stretching the Side Hips
Here’s a chance to practice stabilizing your pelvis in sitting! This is awesome, because you can do it at work or any other time you’re in a chair.
I recommend having a half dome for this, but a rolled up towel will work too.
Seated #4 Stretch
First, you want to get into a neutral pelvis – everything you need to know is in this blog post.
Once your pelvis is neutral, cross one leg over and rest the shin of that leg on the thigh of your non-stretching leg.
Is your pelvis still neutral? Probably not. Tilt the front of your pelvis forward so that you untuck back to neutral and feel how that impacts your stretching hip/outer leg. Most people find that this intensifies the stretch. It certainly means that you’re actually loading the outer hip better. Your lower back should look more like image #1 than image #2.
Hold for a minute or so then repeat on the other side.
Stable Pelvis, Hip Extension
No discussion of hips would be complete without talking about extension.
Hip extension is the technical term for moving your thigh backwards from the hip joint, towards the wall behind you. Most of us are super, super limited in this movement.
You can get your leg behind you by using hip extension, but you can also get it there by extending or rotating through the lumbar spine. Yep, it’s the lower back once again stealing work from the hip.
As usual, the trick to improving your ability to extend your hip is to stabilize your pelvis. For this, though, we need a tucked pelvis and not a neutral one.
Grab a bolster or big rolled blanket for this exercise.
Hip Flexor Release
Lie down so that your pelvis is fully supported by your bolster. Now, bend both knees and curl yourself into a tiny little ball. Your lower back should round out completely.
Wrap your arms around your right leg – it’s your anchor, to help you maintain your pelvis in a super deep tuck. That’s the stabilization part.
Now, slowly extend your left leg so that it’s straight. Allow it to relax without bending your knee, and let gravity create a gentle load on the front of your hip. Work to let go of tension here, not to create a stretch. After a minute or so, start moving your leg back and forth like a windshield wiper, going super slow and smooth. So nice! After another minute or two, bend your right knee, pull both knees into your chest, reset your pelvic anchor, and repeat on the other side.
Get your hips even happier!
You can use these exercises as a way to practice stabilizing your pelvis.
They are also good to prime your hip muscles so that when you go for a walk, you get more from your hips than normal. This is definitely what I’d recommend! Try spending 10-15 minutes doing the exercises in this post then head out for a nice walk!
If you like video instructions on exercises, I’ve got you covered. Grab your free video below. If you like it, make sure you subscribe to my mailing list so you can get more awesome movement tips!
Petra is a movement educator and personal trainer with a passion for helping people find greater ease, joy and health in their bodies. She believes that better movement can help every body – and she’s always happy to chat about it. When she’s not teaching, you’ll probably find her hanging out on a set of monkey bars.