With the amount of sitting most of us have to do on a daily basis, it’s common for hip and lower back muscles to get tight as they remain in a shortened position over extended periods of time.
Hip flexor muscles attach the hip joints to the top of the femur and the inside of the knee, allowing flexibility of the upper leg. When we sit for long periods of time, these muscles tighten, causing stiffness and pain. Hip flexor stretches can loosen up these muscles to take some strain off the lower back and restore a normal range of motion.
Often tight hip flexors manifest in pain elsewhere in the body such as the lower back and hamstrings. We don’t pay a lot of attention to hip flexors because they’re buried deep in the body and aren’t regularly activated through conscious effort. However, the right hip flexor stretches can loosen them right up into their natural state.
What are Hip Flexors?
Hip flexors are a group of hip muscles that connect the lumbar spine, pelvis, hamstrings, gluteal muscles, and knees. They’re responsible for the mobility of the lower extremities, as well as core stability and balance. They also allow you to raise your knee upward.
The muscle group includes:
- Iliopsoas – (iliac and psoas muscles grouped together) work to flex the hip
- Rectus femoris – one of the quadriceps at the front of the thigh
- Sartorius – attaches from the top of the large pelvic bone (ilium) at the iliac crest to the top of the tibia (shin bone)
- Tensor fasciae latae – a muscle located at the outside front of the hip which flexes and abducts the thigh (moves it away from the body)
- Pectineus – in the front of the pelvic bone between the iliopsoas and adductor muscles (those that move the leg in toward the body)
- Gracilis – a thin muscle that runs the length of the inner thigh, attaching the pubic bone to the top of the tibia
- Longus, brevis, and magnus adductors – a group of muscles of the inner thigh (along with the pectineus and gracilis) that move the femur in toward the middle of the body
- Gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus – muscles of the upper legs and buttocks that attach the hips to the back above and the legs below.
The hamstring muscles at the back of the thigh (biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus) attach the pelvis to the leg bones.
Why You Should Stretch Your Hip Flexors
You may not be able to see your hip flexors but you sure can feel them if they’re not working properly.
Tightness and pain in hip flexor muscles are often accompanied by tight hamstrings. Undue strain is put on the lower back causing pain there as well. In addition, tight flexors can result in an anterior pelvic tilt, in which the front of your pelvis is pulled forward from your spine and out of alignment.
“A chronic state of shortening can lead to an increased anterior pelvic tilt which is very harmful to the discs, especially within the L5-S1 region [lower back]. A tight iliacus muscle (part of the iliopsoas) also corresponds to a tight psoas,” writes Low Back Pain Program. (1)
In the context of muscle fitness, strong hip flexors are crucial to abdominal and glute muscle flexibility, strength, and form. Even more importantly, fit and flexible hip flexors enable proper posture and wide ranges of mobility of the back, hips, and legs.
Tight hip flexors pull your posture out of whack, affecting every part of your body from your head to your feet.
“Restrictions in hip joint mobility can not only cause hip pain, but also affect the back and knee by changing the mechanics of how they move. Tightness of the hip flexors located at the front of the hip can affect the position of the low back and sacroiliac joints and how they function in relation to each other,” writes the Jacksonville Orthopaedic Institute Rehabilitation (2)
Over time, this strain on the hips, back, and neck will take its toll and you can experience chronic pain from muscle, fascia, and nerve constriction. (3, 4) Tingling, numbness, loss of muscle strength, and limited range of mobility can follow. That why it’s important to practice hip flexor stretches every day if you work in an office or run regularly.
12 Hip Flexor Stretches
Given how important these invisible muscles are and how a complete lifestyle change is beyond the realm of possibility for most of us, it’s important to remember to include hip strengthening exercises in our workout regimes. At work, we may have to sit more than we would like so a little extra consideration can alleviate or avoid hip flexor pain.
Following are some hip flexor stretches and exercises designed specifically to show you how to stretch your hips.
1. Assisted Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
This is a great beginner hip flexor stretch, as you can support yourself with a solid object to ensure you get the correct form.
- Lay down your yoga mat and get into a half-kneeling position with your back leg being the one you are about to stretch.
- Hold a stick in front of you and actively push it down into the ground. This will engage your core and stretch all the right muscles.
- Keep your body upright and rotate your pelvis inward, squeezing your glutes.
- Then, keeping your muscles engaged and your body upright, lean forward at the hips for 2 deep breaths.
- Repeat 8-10 reps per leg.
2. Pigeon Stretch
This is an advanced stretch for hip flexors. Be careful not to over-stretch, which can cause injury.
- Start with your hands and knees on your yoga mat, and bring your left ankle to your right hand. Your knee should be aligned between your hands if possible.
- As you do so, slide your right leg straight back, keeping your hips in line with your wrists.
- Inhale, lift your chest to lengthen your spine.
- Hold for a few deep breaths and switch legs.
3. Spider-Man Stretch
Be your own superhero with this sequence of hip flexor stretches!
- Start by sitting tall on your knees. Bring your right knee forward, bending at the hips. Your left knee and toes should be touching the floor.
- Step forward with your front foot and bring both hands to the ground beside it.
- Relax your back leg, bring your left knee to the ground.
- Hold for a few breaths as you drive your left hip towards the ground. Hold for a few breaths.
- Bring your right hand to the right of your right foot and shift your weight to sit on your left thigh. Your right leg should straighten out as you do so. Hold for a few breaths.
- Return to the main position and twist your chest towards your right knee. Hold for a few breaths.
- If you’d like, repeat the motion twisting away from your knee.
- Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.
4. Hip Flexor Mobilization
This stretch is low impact and you can control how much weight you put into it. Foam rollers are effective in aiding muscle stretches as they release and stretch the fascia (connective tissue) that cover the muscles. Using the roller, you can actually increase the range of motion of your whole hip.
- Press a foam roller into the crease of your hip as you lie down on your belly.
- Let your weight sink into the roller and roll back and forth to massage out your muscles.
- When you find a spot that’s tender, focus on it and apply even more pressure to help release the tightness.
5. Happy Baby Yoga Pose
Yoga poses are exceptionally effective in stretching out hip flexors; many are designed particularly for opening up your hips. The beauty of yoga positions for stretching is that they are easily adapted to your level of ability. For example, this pose provides a gentle stretch.
- Lie on your mat and pull your knees to your chest.
- Place your hands on outsides of your feet, opening your knees and hips wide.
- Press your feet into hands while simultaneously pulling down on your feet to create resistance.
- Breathe deeply and hold for 30 seconds or so.
6. Head-to-Knee Stretch
You can tailor this yoga position to match how deep a stretch you can comfortably reach.
- Begin seated with your back straight and your legs out in front of you.
- Bend your left toes outward and bend your knee to bring your left foot to the inside of your right thigh.
- Draw you bum away from your sit bones. Tilt your pelvis inward to straighten your back.
- Place your arms above your head and exhale while bending at the hips to bring your chest towards your leg. Rest your hand on your ankle, shin, or foot.
- Hold for a few breaths and repeat on the other side.
7. Deep Squat Hip Stretch
Hip flexor muscles are fully engaged when performing a squat. They work opposite your hip extensors to maintain pelvic motion and stability while doing the exercise. Watch the video below to see how it’s done—it’s important to do the stretch properly to avoid putting too much strain on the lower back.
- Stand tall with your feet wide apart and squat down as deep as you can, placing your weight on your heels. Your bum should be at the same height as your ankles.
- Adjust if need be by widening your stance.
- Press your palms together, resting your thumbs at the center of your chest and your elbows on the inside of each knee. Look forward and hold for a few breaths.
- Look right as you push your left elbow into your right thigh. Hold for a few breaths and repeat on the opposite side.
8. Sumo Squat to Stand
This is a deep squat that lifts into a hamstring stretch. You hold on to your toes for balance as you rise to standing, hinging at the hip. As we mentioned, the hamstrings and hip flexors work together for pelvic stability and mobility.
- Start in a deep squat position with your back straight, chest up, and your hands holding your toes. Your weight should be on your heels.
- Push your knees back and bend at the hip to bring your head and shoulder towards the floor. Don’t let go of your toes.
- Repeat 5-10 times as needed.
9. Lizard Pose
The hip, hamstring, quadriceps, and inner thigh muscles all have a tendency to tighten when we spend a long time sitting. Add life stress to that and we can become stiff and sore when changing positions. The lizard yoga pose hits all these spots to release tension and lengthen the muscles. You can adjust the depth of the stretch using foam blocks to support your arms.
- Resting on your right knee, walk your left foot forward, moving it away from your hips as you do so. Your left knee should be at the height of your shoulders and hands when you bend forward.
- Keep your left knee in line with your ankle and your hands in line with your shoulders.
- Breathe deeply and shift your right knee back to deepen the stretch.
- Hold for a few breaths and repeat on the other side.
10. Square Pose
Also known as the Double Pigeon, this is an advanced pose to target hip flexor muscles. You can vary the yoga position by placing a block or blanket under your crossover leg and/or foot for comfort while doing the stretch. Protect your knees from strain by keeping your feet flexed during the exercise.
- Sit cross-legged on your yoga mat and adjust your right shin so that it is parallel to the front of your mat. Keep your right foot flexed.
- Bring your left foot across to your right knee, resting it comfortably.
- Try to lower your left knee to your right foot. Use a blanket or yoga block under your left knee if needed. Breathe deeply to loosen your hips. Once loose, you can remove the block or blanket and try again or bend forward to deepen the stretch.
- Switch legs and repeat.
11. Frog Pose
If your knees or ankles are a problem, skip this one. Also known as the Horizontal Squat Stretch, the intense frog pose may feel a little funny but it’s marvelous for opening up tight hips and inner thighs. You may want to do it while the kids are asleep so they don’t make fun of you—or do it together as a family!
- Get down on all fours, with your palms on the floor and your knees on a yoga mat.
- Slowly widen your knees until you feel a comfortable stretch in your inner thighs, keeping the inside of each calf and foot in contact with the floor. Make sure to keep your ankles in line with your knees and flex your toes.
- Lower down to your forearms and keep your back straight. Look forward.
- Hold for 30 seconds. breathing deeply.
12. Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch With Raised Foot
Last of the hip flexor stretches, this stretch is commonly used by athletes. Pulling up the back foot in this stretch provides a deeper and more intense stretch for the hip flexors, including the quadriceps.
- Start in a kneeling lunge position, with your right knee in front of you, in line with your ankles and hips. Your left knee should be in line with your back and hips, with the left shin on the ground behind you.
- Reach straight back and grab your left foot using both hands, driving your heel towards your left butt cheek.
- Keep you back straight, with your core and glutes engaged and hold for a few breaths.
- Repeat with the other leg.
Given the range of ease of these stretches for your hip flexors, you can gradually start to loosen, lengthen, and strengthen all the pelvic and lower back muscles to counter the strain of long periods of sitting. You’ll feel the difference these hip flexor stretches make after just a few days, with improved mobility, less strain, and a greater range of motion.
You don’t need any special equipment or to go to a gym to do these hip flexor stretches, just get out your yoga mat and do them at home. It’s always a good idea to warm up your muscles for at least five minutes before stretching to avoid a pull or tear.