When we talk about the role of the hip flexors in squatting technique and running power, we can begin the conversation in terms of flexibility. Tightness in the hip flexors can prevent full extension as you come out of the squat, can pull on the pelvis as you lower down to prevent your back from staying upright, or decrease your full power potential during your run stride if you can’t fully extend the hips as the striking foot leaves the ground behind you.
Without getting too anatomical, the hip flexors consist of 3 main muscles: Illacus, Psoas Major and Rectus Femoris. The Iliopsoas, (more commonly referred to as the hip flexors) flex the hip joint as well as stabilize the low back. The Rectus Femoris (top most quad muscle) — along with some other muscles we won’t get into today– assist with that hip flexion. Try standing up straight, lifting your knee up so that it is parallel with your hip. Now, find the hip crease, press down, and you should feel a tense muscle which is most likely the Illacus. Now from here, straighten your leg, keeping it as high as you can. Feel for the muscle on the very top of your thigh, that is the Rectus Femoris.
If you found it difficult to find these muscles on your own body, here we get a little more precise with the anatomy, so that you can see where exactly these muscles are in relation to your hip joint.
Illacus –The muscle that inserts into the inner side of hipbone, joins with the psoas major and originates in the inner flat surface of the hipbone.
Psoas Major — This muscle originates in the lumbar spine, specifically T12-L5 and joins with the Illacus and inserts into the inner side of the hipbone.
Rectus Femoris — One of the quadriceps muscles, the Rectus Femoris originates at the wing of the ilium (i.e. the upper lateral parts of the pelvis) and attaches to the patella tendon (knee cap).
If you are squatting heavy, semi-heavy at high reps, or running consistently each week, then keeping the hip flexors relaxed and flexible must be part of your training program. Even if you are starting from a place of great flexibility, remember that every squat and every stride is a concentric contraction of this group of muscles, meaning they shorten each time they are used. And if you don’t stretch the muscles to regain the length you started with, they will continue to shorten which may cause issues with your squat form or power output during your runs over time. This is precisely why we stretch.
The sequences of stretches below increase gradually in their intensity and should be approached in this order to minimize over-stretching and maximize flexibility. Now that you know where the target muscles are located, be focused and deliberate in your stretching to increase efficacy of each stretch.
Make sure to keep the hips square as you come into the stretch, the front heel grounding and the hips stable, but relaxed, so that the body can ease into the stretch and the hip flexors can release.
It is recommended that you stay in each stretch for about a minute, making sure to switch sides before moving on to the next stretch.
As these stretches increase in intensity, only go as far as your body is willing to go. Meaning, once you feel a good stretch, stay where you are and breathe.
Before you move on to the next one in the series, switch sides.
Pictured below is CrossFit NorCal Regionals Athlete Amanda Norton out of CrossFit Marin. After the 2014 Regionals, Amanda had tightness in both hip flexors which translated into pain and tightness during squats. She has been working diligently to keep the hip flexors open and uses these stretches regularly, especially after heavy squat days.
A. Foam Roller: This works to relieve the tension in the region of the hip flexors to prime them for stretching. Make sure to place the foam roller in the hip crease and slowly roll back and forth to massage the hip flexors and top of the quads.
B. Low Lunge: Keeping the torso upright while the hips relax toward the ground, target the Illacus.
C. Low Lunge Side Stretch: Keep the torso upright while the hips relax toward the ground. As you lift your arm up, find the side stretch, then turn that side of the upper chest toward the ceiling and lift, finding a slight backbend. This will not only stretch the Illacus, but also the Psoas Major as well.
D. High Lunge: The focus for the high lunge stretch should be on lengthening the tailbone down toward the ground as you extend through your back heel to target the Illacus.
E. High Lunge Side Stretch: The focus for this stretch is the same as low lunge but now you are adding the side stretch. Find lift in the upper chest as you turn that side of the chest up for a slight back bend.
F. Low Lunge On Block or Plate: This is the same position as low lunge but now we are elevating the front foot to deepen the stretch in the Illacus.
G. Foam Roller with Bent Knee: At this point in the sequence your hip flexors have opened up. These next three stretches will help you access the inner most parts of the hip flexors and quads. For this foam roller stretch, we are using the same principles as when the leg was straight, but here you are able to access the muscles more thoroughly.
H. Low Lunge with Quad Stretch: The set up of this stretch starts with low lunge. Walk the front foot a couple of inches out to the side and then bend the back knee and grab for the foot with the opposite hand. If that is not possible, use a strap and wrap it around the foot.
I. “Couch” Stretch: The name of this stretch doesn’t give it the justice it deserves. Shout out to the coaches at CrossFit Marin for coming up with such an innocuous name. This is a deeper version of the previous stretch and all the same rules apply. The bottom knee should be as close to the wall as you can get. The bent leg’s foot should be pointing up. Send your hips back to a point where you feel the stretch along the top of the quad and up into the hip flexor. Every few breaths, shift the hips back toward the wall to deepen the stretch.