Tight hips stopping you from making gains? Ever felt that your hips just won’t go any further? Well, it’s probably your hip mobility. Below is a comprehensive guide to hip mobility exercises including strengthening, stabilising and mobilising recommendations.
Unfortunately, the hip joint is literally the middle child between your low back and knee. Forgotten. Ignored. Neglected.
Hip mobility is so important for everyone. A lack of hip mobility not only inhibits your ability but can predispose you to risk of injury.
Throw away your old ‘how to stretch hips’ guide because this will be the only article you need.
What is hip mobility?
Hip mobility describes its range of motion and the joint’s ability to move effectively. You need hip mobility to execute most lower limb activities such as running to compound exercises (e.g., squats, kettlebell swings, etc.).
If the hip joint is tight or lacks mobility, this can create additional strain through other areas of the body, including the low back, knees and ankles.
Like the shoulder, the hip is the most mobile joint in the body with a 360-degrees range of motion. A combination of the following six movements permits overall hip mobility.
- Flexion and extension – movement forwards and backward
- Abduction and adduction – the movement away and towards the mid-line of the body
- Internal and external rotation – pivoting of the hip joint inwards and outwards
The hip joint can best be described as a ball and socket. The ball-shaped head of the femur glides and slides within the socket (acetabulum) of the pelvis.
Running across the joint are 21 muscles, which help control and maneuver the hip through multiple movements. All these structures allow the hip to move in various directions.
Why does hip mobility matter?
The hip joint serves to:
- Absorb the weight of the trunk & head
- Allow a greater degree of movement (e.g. squat deeper). The large degree of movement and power generated through the hips facilitates compound exercises, such as squats or kettlebell swings.
If your hip mobility is compromised, your form and technique will also follow. Try to swing a kettlebell in tight jeans (please don’t).
” When the femur, pelvis, and spine move in a coordinated manner to produce a larger [range of movement] than is available to one segment alone… ” – Levangie and Norkin (2005)
Instead, other parts of the body will begin to compensate and experience additional strain. An accumulation of stress on the body can lead to increased risk of developing devastating injuries, such as low back pain, hip conditions, and knee injuries.
Limited hip mobility is commonly associated with low back conditions. Dr. Brad Schoenfeld, a renowned bodybuilder, mentions that “poor [hip] joint mobility can lead to greater forward lean and thus increased spinal shear. ”
As you lift heavier and with more volume, lacking adequate hip mobility puts your back at a greater risk of developing injuries, such as a herniated disc or sciatica.
Alarmingly, inadequate hip movement or strength is also associated with various other lower limb conditions and injuries, including:
- Hip impingement
- Poor ankle posture
- Hip and knee osteoarthritis
- ACL injuries
- Patellofemoral joint injuries
As the body relies on each region of the body to function fluidly, any point of weakness can cause a domino effect. Not only is hip mobility essential for sports and exercise performance, but also pivotal for injury prevention.
How to Increase hip mobility
To increase hip mobility, you must consider three important characteristics. Hip flexibility, stability and strength. Improving any or all of these properties will unlock your hip mobility.
Every athlete will have specific deficits or weaknesses they can target. Perhaps your hip flexibility is fantastic but you lack the strength to perform heavy lifts. Under these circumstances, you may need to focus on specific hip strengthening exercises rather than flexibility.
To understand hip mobility, you will have to differentiate between these three main characteristics. Distinguishing between flexibility, stability, and strengthening can be complicated so we’ll accompany our explanations in reference to car analogies.
1. Hip flexibility
Flexibility is a term commonly associated with the joint’s full capacity to move. This can be measured in static or non-moving positions. For example, when you’re attempting the splits, you’re limited by the tightness of your adductor or groin muscles.
Hip flexibility can be best compared to the wheels of the car. Without a functioning axel or fully inflated wheel, your car’s capacity to move is capped.
2. Hip stability
The hip has specific stabilizer muscles that help accompany and fine tune hips movements. Examples of these muscles include the deep external rotators (e.g. piriformis, obturator externus, pectineus, etc.), gluteus minimus, and hamstrings.
Depending on the location and size of these muscles, most will guide rather than drive movement. This role is analogous to a car’s steering wheel, which dictates control as opposed to power and acceleration.
3. Hip strength
In contrast to hip stability, strength describes the ability of the hip muscles to contract, generate power, and act as prime movers. Typically, larger and more robust muscles are associated with strength, such as the gluteus maximus and adductors. Like the car engine, all the action happens here.
Hip flexibility exercises and routines
The hips flexibility is determined by two main factors.
1. Your muscles’ ability to stretch
When performing a movement, you may be only able to go as far as your muscles allow you to. Just imagine flicking a rubber band and pulling it back until it’s tightest moment.
One way of determining the flexibility of a muscle is by stretching and comparing how tight it feels. For example, perform the hip flexor stretch for each leg and see how far each hip moves. Depending on the distance moved and how tight the hip flexors feel, you can determine which side is less flexible.
2. How far your joint can glide and slide within the joint
With every movement, the ball of the femur will react by moving within the socket. For example, as you go to kick a ball forwards, the ball of the femur will slide backwards to allow motion. Without this type of movement, you physically cannot wind up to kick it.
Joint stiffness is a bit harder to measure without a second pair of hands. However, physical therapist Jeff Cavaliere has a simple demonstration below on how you can do this yourself.
Perform the hip knee flexion stretch until you feel resistance. Gently push into resistance and pulse at around 10 times. You will either feel a springy or hard bony feeling. A hard bone feeling will indicate that the hip joint is stiff.
To help improve your mobility, below are 3 hip stretches and exercises that will improve both muscular and joint flexibility.
1. Hip mobilizations with a power/resistance band
Purpose: By tying a powerband around the hip joint, you are pulling the joint looser as you perform specific movements. The aim of this mobilization is to temporarily relieve joint stiffness. It can be a very beneficial stretch particularly before deep squats or lunges.
2. 90/90 stretch
Purpose: One of the best hip mobility exercises around. Not only are you able to open up the hips in both internal and external rotation, but you can also promote more hip flexion. All in 1 stretch. Trouble with squatting lower? Here’s your answer.
3. Cossack squat
Purpose: The Cossack Squat epitomises how to kill 2 birds with 1 stone. Although this hip exercise helps strengthen the lower leg as you squat, it also dynamically stretches the opposing groin muscles. For those with ongoing groin tightness, this is a must.
Hip stabiliser exercises
“Joint stability refers to the resistance that musculoskeletal tissues provide at a joint and is the product of contributions from passive, active and neural subsystems.” – Neumann (2010)
So what on earth does this mean? To oversimplify, hip stability is the capacity of the surrounding structures (e.g. muscles, ligaments etc.) to move as we desire.
Drawing back to our car analogies, imagine a Ferrari without a steering wheel. Even though we can generate heaps of force and power, without adequate control, you’ll just end up in a mess!
Hip stabilizers are technically known as local hip muscles. These are smaller muscles such as the gluteus medius and deep external rotators (i.e. piriformis, gemellus, quadratus femoris, etc.), which surround the hip joint.
Whilst exercising or moving the hip joint, these stabilizers are constantly fine-tuning movement to ensure that your body is moving efficiently. For example, the deeper you squat, the greater your deep external rotators will activate to open up your hips.
You can try to test your hip stabilizer performance by performing specific exercises (e.g., clams) until failure and comparing each side. Any significant differences between each side may indicate that your hip stabilizers require more attention.
Purpose: The hip external rotators are important for dynamic hip stability during high-velocity movement. Particularly with single leg activities, such as compound exercises or running sports, these muscles play a major role in fine-tuning hip movements.
The clams help isolate these muscles, as well as the gluteus maximus.
2. Squat into activate external rotation
Purpose: This exercise combines the squat and clam into one single exercise. Although the clam also focused on strengthening the external rotators, this variation is more functional and challenging.
Activating the external rotators in this standing position helps improve hip stability in standing exercises, such as squats and deadlifts.
3. Single leg deadlift
Purpose: The single leg deadlift is not only an excellent strengthening exercise for the glute and hamstrings, but also targets hip stability. Whilst in the single leg position, the hip abductors (i.e.gluteus medius, gluteus minimus) are working tremendously to keep the body stable and in alignment.
Hip strengthening exercises
Hip strength is essential for performing any activity with full range of motion or mobility. Strength is the ability of your body to overcome resistance (e.g. your body’s weight, barbells, etc.) and to move freely.
Large muscles, such as the gluteus maximus and medius are the primary movers of the hip and also generate the most power. These muscles are the most active when performing heavy and explosive movements, including kettlebells swings, deadlifts and hip thrusts.
However, it’s not enough just to increase overall strength. Ensuring that your hip strength is proportional and balanced between both legs is essential. Incorporating single leg exercises, such as split squats and lunges will make sure your legs are equally strong and sized.
You can identify each point of weakness by testing the repetitions performed until failure by the muscle group. For example, to look at glute strength, try performing single leg bridges and compare both sides.
1. Frog pumps
Purpose: The purpose of this exercise is to engage the gluteus maximus muscle. Interestingly, this muscle is not only the most powerful hip extensor but also the strongest external rotator.
By combining both these movements, you can maximise its activity. If you’re one of those people who can never feel their glute, try leaping into frog pumps.
2. Kettlebell swings
Purpose: Kettlebell swings are fantastic for strengthening the posterior kinetic chain, which is a group of muscles, including the low back, glute and hamstrings.
As the kettlebell swing is an explosive movement, developing these hip exercises can translate into your powerlifting technique (e.g. squats, deadlifts).
3. Forward Lunge
Purpose: Lunge walks are excellent dynamic hip strengthening exercises for several purposes, this includes:
- Individually strengthening up both legs
- One of the most effective hip exercises for developing quadriceps size and strength
- Can be performed anywhere, with or without weights
What to do when you have hip pain?
Hip pain is not uncommon, especially for active gym goers who perform explosive power lifts or kettlebell movements. Contrary to many people’s beliefs, pain does not necessarily represent irreversible structural damage to the hip joint.
Under most circumstances, it’s actually the lack of hip mobility that can overstress the joint. Maybe it’s the lack of flexibility. Or perhaps the suboptimal performance of your stabilizers.
When you are hampered by these issues, high-impact movements can begin to overload structures, including the tendon or joint. As stress through the hip begins to accumulate, you may begin to experience pain and discomfort.
If you experience hip pain, it’s best to consult a health professional, such as a physical therapist or physician who can perform the appropriate assessments.
There is no “one magical hip stretch” or exercise to ‘fix’ pain. However, an experienced therapist will determine why you are experiencing pain and a progressive rehabilitation program to accelerate your recovery.
1. Assess and identify your weaknesses and specifically target them
To unlock your hip mobility, you should pin-point what specific areas you can improve upon. The assessment tips above will allow you to identify whether your flexibility, stability, or strength are the predominant limiting factors.
Focus on improving these areas instead of dedicating an exorbitant amount of time trying to do everything. If you are struggling to identify your weaknesses, you should consult a relevant health professional, such as a physical therapist.
2. Continuously reassess your movements
How do you know that your exercises are improving your mobility? Re-assess your movements! Once you have performed any exercise, make sure you check your hip mobility.
For example, after performing a crab walk, you may want to have a look at your squat to see whether it feels easier or increases your lifting capacity.
3. Perform exercises through each plane of movement
Our hip moves within 360 degrees of range. You cannot focus on one specific type of movement or exercise. Performing exercises in each direction will ensure a comprehensive approach.
Make sure that the hip exercises you’re performing integrate the following three planes:
- Internal and external rotation
4. Consulting a movement specialist (e.g. physical therapist, kinesiologist, strength and conditioning coach etc.)
If you have hip mobility issues or pain, consulting a knowledgeable movement specialist is extremely valuable. By performing specific assessments, a qualified specialist will be able to identify any specific deficits and guide you to recovery.
Under many circumstances, there will be subtle cues that only a qualified professional will be able to pick up.
Where hip mobility exercises have gone wrong
Although performing any type of mobility exercise is likely to be beneficial, these are some common mistakes that need to be addressed.
1. Insufficient volume
Ever skip a day from brushing your teeth? Didn’t think so. The same principle should be applied to hip mobility exercises. Unless these movements are consistently adhered to, you will not be getting the results that you want.
Exercises only work if you actually execute them sufficiently.
As a minimum, hip mobility exercises should be completed for 3-4 days a week. Although the volume of exercises will vary, a general amount of 3 sets of 10-15 reps is recommended.
2. Ensure you have clear goal
What do you want to achieve with these hip mobility exercises? Do not waste your valuable time on exercises if you don’t know why you’re doing them.
Pick a clear goal and work towards it. Do you want a deeper squat? Maybe you’d like to show off your splits. Using the practice recommendations above, make sure you purposefully select your exercises.
3. Stretching is NOT the only answer
Stretching is a very polarizing topic. Old school gurus swear by it whilst modern-day researchers villainize it. Stretching has its time and place but should not be your only mobility exercise.
One of the biggest misconceptions about hip mobility is that stretching is the ‘best’ for it. Tight hip flexor? Well, lets stretch the living hell out of it. Unfortunately, any relief is often short-lived and not a long-term solution. All areas of hip mobility should be considered in your hip mobility routine.
Do not forget about hip mobility. Its role in every single movement is essential. Tied with the shoulder for the most mobile joint in the body, it provides us with the freedom to perform a variety of tasks such as walking or swinging a kettlebell.
Fortunately, it’s not that difficult to optimize. Figure out what factors are restricting your hip mobility and be consistent with the relevant exercises. Not only will you impress gym-goers with your new found form, but your body will thank you for keeping it healthy.
Learn more about prehab and rehab exercises here
- Levangie, P. K., & Norkin, C. C. (2005). Joint structure and function: A comprehensive analysis. Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis Co.
- Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). Squatting kinematics and kinetics and their application to exercise performance. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research,
24( 12), 3497-3506.
- Reiman, M. P., Bolgla, L. A., & Lorenz, D. (2009). Hip function’s influence on knee dysfunction: a proximal link to a distal problem. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 18(1), 33-46.
- Neumann, D. A. (2010). Kinesiology of the hip: a focus on muscular actions. journal of orthopaedic & sports physical therapy, 40(2), 82-94.