Tight Hip Flexors – The Causes and How To Fix Them

Do you feel tension in the front of your hips after getting up from sitting for long periods?

Or my maybe you feel tightness around the hips after squatting in the gym?

Do you have lower back pain when standing for long periods.

If you've answered yes its highly likely that you have tight hip flexors. 

What are Hip Flexors?

The hip flexors are a complex set of muscles located around the lower back, pelvic and groin area. The muscles enable you to raise your legs above the waist. This movement is called a hip flexion. They're also essential for lumbar spine stabilization by keeping the hips and the lower back aligned, strong and flexible. 

The Anatomy of the Hip Flexor Muscles

The pelvic muscles are responsible for a complex range of motion which is better understood by seeing the anatomical leverages of each muscle concerned.

There are five muscle groups involved in the hip flexion movement: 

  1. 1
    Tensor Fascia Latae (TFL)
  2. 2
    Rectus Femoris
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
hip flexor muscle anatomy

Source:  Science Direct

Each muscle group assists in different ways due to their point of leverage.

Let me explain...

From the diagram can you see where the TFL, rectus femoris and sartorius muscles are connected?

They're connected at the iliac crest and this point of leverage limits these 3 muscle groups to raising the to the level of the hips.

In contrast, the iliacus is connected to the ilium and the psoas major and minor are connected to the lumbar spine. Their higher leverage point creates two distinct differences:

1. The insertion of the psoas at the lower lumbar spine acts like a stabilizer for the iliacas as well as being a flexor

2. Both the psoas and iliacas are the only muscles that are capable of bring the flexion above the hip

What Causes Hip Flexors to Become Tight?

The hip flexor muscles become tight and sore due to a lack of use or they are being overworked. 

One of the biggest causes of tight hip flexors is due to a sedentary lifestyle.

Sitting for long periods puts the hip flexors in a state of constant contraction. Overtime, the contraction causes the muscles to shorten and tighten.

tight hip flexors sitting

Sitting for long periods is the most common cause of hip flexor tightness 

So when you stand up after sitting for a long period you feel that tenderness and restricted mobility when the muscle is stretched.

However a sedentary lifestyle isn't the only cause.

Athletes or anyone participating in sports that involve a lot of running, jumping and twisting can easily overwork the hip flexor muscles to the point of weakness causing tears and injury

Other factors Causing Tightness

Before using your foam roller to smooth out the tension you're feeling in the front of your hips.

If you're feeling tension in the front of your hips the natural reaction is to get out your foam roller and smooth that tension away,

However, you could be doing more bad than good.

Here's what I mean.

In many cases your hip flexors are tight because you have either weak abdominals or glutes.

Muscles become tight when overworked. And they become overworked because somewhere in the body there's an imbalance causing one muscle to overcompensate for another.

For example, your core muscles are essential for stabilizing the spine. When they're weak, your hip flexors, especially the psoas muscle, is forced to take up the slack. This overworks the psoas making it tight and sore.

Another common issue is an imbalance between the front and back of the pelvic area.

The glutes and the front hip flexor muscle the TFL provide front and back balance/stability for the pelvic area.

If you've got weak glutes, the TFL overcompensates to stabilize the hips and pelvis making it tighter and sore.

And the tenderness that you often feel at the top of the hips is due to an overworked TFL.

As you can see, targeting the hip flexors in isolation is not always going to solve the problem.

Tight Hip Flexors Symptoms 

When the hip flexor muscles are under constant tension they will eventually shorten and tighten.

The most common symptoms are:

  •  muslce spasms in around the thigh and hips
  • soreness and at the top front of the hip
  •  front of the hip tender when touched 
  •  tightness in the neck and lower back 
  •  pain while walking and running
  •  pain when raising the leg 
  •  lack of strength in the leg

What are the Long Term Consequences?

Left untreated long term tightness can lead to serious debilitating problems such as...

  •  limited mobility in hips and legs 
  •  poor posture 
  •  muscle injuries
  • chronic pain

Tight Hip Flexors and Lower Back Pain

The psoas major attaches to the vertebrae of the lumbar spine (lower back) and inserts at the femur bone (upper leg).

When the psoas becomes tight it can pull on the lumbar spine, compressing the disc's and vertebrae, causing lower back pain.

Bad Posture 

Tight hip flexors can also have a negative affect on your posture.

For example, prolonged tightness of the psoas major results in an excessive curvature of the lumbar spine which can cause an anterior pelvic tilt.

This is when the pelvis tilts or rotates forwards causing your butt to stick outwards and your upper chest and stomach to protrude. 

Anterior pelvic tilt can reduce training performance, especially when doing weight lifting exercises such as the dead lift and squat. 

Tight Hip Flexors and Knee Pain

You’re maybe wondering how the hip flexors have anything to do with your knees.

The fact is, they have a lot to do with it.

Here’s what I mean…

When you're walking or running weight is being transferring from one foot to the other.

The transfer of weight is possible by the pronation of the feet, a natural motion causing the feet to roll in towards each other. Pronation of foot helps propel the movement of the ankles and lower leg forward.

However, tight flexors can inhibit the feet from rolling inwards creating a 'tug-of-war' between the upper and lower leg that increase strain on the knee joints.

What's more, weak hip muscles such as the gluteas medius, can cause the thighs to pull inwards at an abnormal angle causing excessive strain on the knee.

How Do You Know Your Hips flexors are Tight?

It's important to find out that you've actually got tight hip flexors so you can use the correct treatments.

Your hip flexors can feel sore for two reasons...

  1. 1
    they are tight because they are short
  2. 2
    they are long but feels tight

To determine whether you've tight hip flexor muscles, use the Thomas Test.

Its a quick and easy to do.

Here's a video that explains how to do it in more detail:

How to Relieve Sore Hip Flexors

If the Thomas Test reveals you're hip flexors are tight, then the the best way to treat them is stretching. 

However, not all hip flexor stretch exercises are created equal.

The thing is, muscles such as the psoas and iliacus are notoriously hard to target because they are located deep inside the pelvis. That's why solely using static stretching is ineffective.

And as mention before if you core muscles and glutes these need to be strengthened to so that the hip flexors are not triggered.

In order to target and re-balance these hard to reach inner hip muscles you need a perform a unique combination of exercises.

But more importantly, these exercises need to be performed in the correct sequence otherwise you could end up making the situation worse.  

To discover the most effective hip flexor stretching exercises that permanently relieve the pain and increase flexibility check out this article now. 

Gene Dasci

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