Houston, we have a problem.
That is, a stability problem, not a mobility problem.
Last week, I talked through the secret ingredient for achieving optimal shoulder health and movement for barbell overhead pressing. (Read it HERE.) The Cliff Notes version: Trainees in the lifting world are spending an excessive amount of time on shoulder mobility techniques while ignoring stability. We need to spend more time addressing shoulder stability for optimal movement without of course, neglecting mobility.
The same goes for addressing hip dysfunction. If we want more hip mobility, let’s look outside the hip first, address stability and muscular imbalances. More often than not, the tightness we experience around the hips is s symptom of something else occurring in the body, which is why stretching or mobilizing this region isn’t as effective. You can stretch the hips all you want, but if stability is the problem you’re barking up the wrong tree.
But wait, I thought my hips were meant to be mobile?
Damn straight they are.
The hips are a ball and socket joint meant for movement, much like the shoulder joint. They’re also the center of force transfer from the lower extremities. Every time we squat, jump, run or do a kettle bell swing, the force from the lower body travels through the hips.
But the magic doesn’t end there. There are several muscles around the hip necessary for force transfer and production, and other muscles we don’t even think of effect hip mobility due to its connection to the hip joint.
The secret sauce: Core stability and pelvic floor muscles!*
*The ! expresses my actual excitement as I write this
If we want to dramatically improve hip mobility we can start by first looking at core stability. As I mentioned in THIS POST, our bodies are clever enough to create artificial stability where it’s lacking. The lack of core stability impacts spine mobility causing the brain to hit up the muscles around the hips, hamstrings and mid/low back to tense up and make up for that lack of stability in order to protect the spine.
We must understand that these compensations are the body’s way of creating whatever movement efficiency it can in the most pain-free way possible. You may not feel pain when the body creates stability in the hips, but you do experience stiffness around the hips and hamstrings. This is another reason that constant mobility and static stretching of these muscles do little to alleviate the root cause of the problem if the root of all that stiffness is due to lack of stability. Having core stability promotes hip mobility because the diaphragm links directly to the psoas, the pelvic floor, the obliques — muscles that connect to the hip and influence mobility in that area.
I know a lot of lifters with super strong abdominals, but when I put them in a position where they can’t use momentum or their hip flexors to move and must activate their entire core musculature instead, they are hit with a harsh reality check: They lack the stability to perform.
Wowza. How is that even possible?
Let’s first come to terms with the fact that strong abdominal muscles do not translate to core stability, and that stability is dramatically influenced by posture and pelvic alignment. When the pelvis is out of alignment, core stability decreases. If stability decreases, the spine’s ability to move functionally also decreases. Once again, all these things will affect our mobility in the squat, the deadlift, box jumps, kettle bell swings, you name it. If all this mobility work truly addressed the actual problem we wouldn’t complain of tight hips.
The pelvic floor muscles are also integral to core stability, but unless you’re female and pregnant when the heck do you ever think about your pelvic floor? My guess is “never”.
Pelvic floor integration is not just great for pre/post-natal women and sex (heyyy yo!), but it’s integral to core stability as it connects to the transverses abdomens (TA) and the diaphragm. They are the deep “inner” muscles of the core region. Pelvic floor muscles work dynamically and synergistically with breath and movement to support stability.
Muscular imbalances around the hip
We can’t discuss hip stability without looking at the muscles that support hip movement and create power. Mark Rippetoe has said that moving big weight doesn’t make one more powerful. We can be strong and good at lifting weight, but considering how the body will create false stability to help us move big weights its safe to say that we’re leaving a lot of plates and power on the table by not addressing stability in a movement like the squat as well as muscular balance.
The gluteal muscles are some of the biggest and strongest muscles of the body, and pivotal for healthy hip function. Someone with weak glutes can still squat big weights but with a lot of compensation. To make up for the weakness in the glutes the lifter might give into a forward lean on the squat or struggle at the bottom. The low back kicks in to make up for the lack of hip extension causing the hip flexors to fire and tighten. The same forward lean will activate the muscles of the quadriceps and minimize the glute activation needed to get us out of the hole.
The lesson here is: In order to master your squat, we must balance the energies and forces in the body. In this case we want to address pelvic alignment, core stability and gluteal strength.
Creating stability for healthy hip function
In Pilates, the core is referred to as the Powerhouse and consists of the front and back of the torso starting at the bottom of the rib cage and down across the hip joints and butt. Someone with a strong Powerhouse can move their limbs in a controlled, coordinated manner without deviation, compensation or repositioning of the desired spinal and pelvic alignment. I often teach clients and students to move their limbs as though it were connected directly to their powerhouse rather than a specific joint so they’re always thinking of the powerhouse connection.
So how do we find the strength and stability for healthy hips? Let me count [some of] the ways….
1.) Finding the pelvic floor muscles on the ball
My favorite way to teach Pilates newbies how to find their pelvic floor muscles is on a mini-ball.
- Put it directly underneath your sacrum and find a neutral spine position (i.e., avoid hyperextension over the ball).
- With the arms pressing firmly on the floor, gently press down into the ball to feel the deep muscles in the low belly. Don’t tilt the pelvis or jam your tailbone down. We want to use very light pressure.
- From there I take students/clients through a series of leg exercises while pressing into the ball to make them feel the exercise from the pelvic region.
By far the go-to exercise to build core stability. Planks and all its variations are fantastic exercises. I won’t go down that rabbit hole in this post though.
3.) The Long Stretch
By the time we get to this exercise on the reformer we have achieved some level of powerhouse stabilization. Still, it’s among my favorite core training exercises because it involves dynamic movement. The integration of the lower and upper body makes this a full-body exercise but it’s easy to lose one’s stability if we’ve grown accustomed to dipping our hips or moving from our shoulders.
4.) One leg circle
This exercise comes early on in the mat sequence and Lordy, it does magnificent things when done correctly. I cue clients to “stir” the leg in the hip socket and limit the range of motion in order to keep the pelvis stable and release the hip. Some individuals get caught up on making a huge circle but this ROM is earned not given. Pelvic stability by way of activating the Powerhouse is key in this exercise. This is one of my go-to exercises for all my athletic clients because of how quickly it releases the hip joint. This exercise can also be done with the leg springs on the Reformer and Cadillac, providing more support for the leg without using the back and arms. The additional spring also helps strengthen the back of the leg in the downward phase of the circle while supporting the torso.
5.) Side leg series
The side leg exercises demand core stability during active movement but it gets butchered at times by sheer laziness (ok, to be fair, a lack of understanding as well). On our sides we have to position the hips and feet just right, lift the obliques and abdomen up and away and maintain that while the leg moves without losing pelvic stability. No wonder we sometimes get a little fatigued and lazy in this series! However, once we can create stability and control we activate those powerful gluteal muscles from all angles, thereby creating more balance around the hips.
6.) Legs in straps (frogs, circles, openings, bend and stretch)
The resistance of the spring gives us the support to steady our torso while creating enough tension to help us fire through the appropriate muscles. Those that tend to grip with their hip flexors will feel a juicy opening as they extend the legs away.
Unlike lifting, where we’re focused on exerting ourselves through a movement, Pilates movements like the ones above slow us down enough to pay attention to all these intricacies in our body including alignment and stability. While mobility is important work for every lifter, we can’t skim through the stability and alignment stuff just because we have a few years of training under our belt.