Posted by Casey Cameron on 21 August 2014

It’s a Hip Flexor Stretch.

What the heck is a hip flexor and what does it do?

Your hip flexors are large muscles that attach your upper femur (thigh bone) to your lumbar spine (low back).  These are large and powerful muscles that allows you to flex your hips and are used anytime you lift your foot off the ground like walking, running, riding, kicking, etc.  They’re also used in movements that require you to flex your torso from your hips when your feet are planted on the ground, such as squatting or bending over.  And of course, they’re used when doing traditional abdominal exercises like sit ups, leg raises, v-sit ups and so on.  Believe it or not, they’re even used when you’re sitting down or driving!  So, if you spend 9 to 5 sitting at a desk and spend an additional hour or more driving to work and from work, your hip flexors are getting a lot of use.  

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Now, each muscle in your body has opposing muscles—these are called agonists and antagonist muscles.  For instance, your biceps (agonist) opposes your triceps (antagonist), or you quads (agonist) opposes your hamstrings (antagonist).  So the  opposing muscle for your hip flexors (agonist) are the hip extensors (antagonist) which is a group of muscles made up of your glutes, low back and hamstrings.  A gross imbalance between your agonists and your antagonist muscles can lead to injury.  And one of the leading causes for low back pain is the imbalance between the hip flexors and hip extensors. 

How your hip flexors can wreak havoc on your spine, causing lower back pain

When your muscles get overused, they start to shorten and lose their ability to fully lengthen and contract.  This eventually leads to a chronic shortened state.  By shortened, I mean they’re more active (since the muscles are in a semi-contracted state).  This leads to a lengthening of the opposing muscles, which in this case are your hip extensors.  When your muscles lengthen, they become weaker since they’re less active or are in a less contracted state.  So you can see what eventually happens…  the shortened muscles get strong while the opposing muscles get long and weak.  

Your pelvis acts as a fulcrum and depending on you posture, the shortened hip flexors will exacerbate your posture.  There are essentially two types of postures that cause low back pain when your hip flexors are overactive. 

- The first type of posture is especially common in women.  I call it  the high heel posture or the sway back - it’s when your low back sways back and the butt gets accentuated.  This posture may enhance the curves, but it’s not ideal for your low back.  In this posture, short hip flexors will compress the spine.  People with a sway back have a hard time activating the hip extensors since their hip flexors are too strong. 

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- The second type of posture is “butt tuck”.  This is more common in men and in taller women who are uncomfortable with their height.  You stand with your butt tucked in, head jutted forward with a rounded upper back in a slouched position.  In this posture, a shortened hip flexor will lengthen your low back muscles, make your hip extensors weak—making you more prone to lower back injuries. 

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How to alleviate your lower back pain with one easy stretch

To put it simply: Lengthen your hip flexors and strengthen your hip extensors.  One way is to lengthen the hip flexors is by static stretching.  Although there is no solid evidence that static stretching permanently lengthens the muscles, there is strong evidence that static stretching temporary lengthens the muscles and dampens the “active” nature of these shortened muscles.  Immediately following the stretch and during the short window that “dampens” your hip flexors, you want to stimulate your hip extensors by doing simple hip extension exercises such as bridges to “reactivate” your hip extensors.  This process will help counter act the overactive hip flexors by lengthening it and strengthening your hip extensors.  By bringing the correct balance back to these opposing muscles, you will help alleviate low back pain and reinstate a healthy state of balance.

Please note I did not post a specific way to perform this stretch. Reason for this: There are preferred ways to perform it in accordance to your posture mechanics. Also, there is possibility one needs to improvise the stretch due to underlying joint restrictions or injury. I recommend speaking with a qualified healthcare professional whom specializes in musculoskeletal injuries for inquiries. 

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