Jan 29, 2015
All in the Hips

In just about any sport, hip strength is critical to performance. Consider these simple exercises to give your athletes the upper hand.

By Jim Kielbaso

Jim Kielbaso, MS, CSCS, is the author of Speed & Agility Revolution and the Director of the Total Performance Training Center in Wixom, Mich. He can be reached at: [email protected].

Core training is obviously a buzz word in our industry. Every strength and conditioning professional knows the value of a strong core, and over the past few years we have seen hundreds of new exercises and routines to train the abdominals and low back musculature. But, at the same time, I see a major void in many core-training routines.

That void is in an area a little south of the core: the hips. Without powerful and flexible hips, core strength will not be functional for most sports. With that in mind, I’d like to share some ideas on how to improve the function of this important area by incorporating a few simple exercises into a training program.

Many of you may think, “That’s great, but I don’t have time to add any more exercises into my program.” There are so many great strength-training ideas and drills available today that it sometimes becomes difficult to decide how to integrate everything into a safe and time-efficient program.

For a long time, I felt the exact same way, and I chose not to do certain exercises because I simply didn’t have time. Time-efficient training is a priority for me, and I already felt like I had enough exercises in my head to create four-hour workouts, seven days a week.

Eventually, I realized that my athletes were missing out and I had to rethink my approach. I didn’t want to add more exercises to their strength routine, so I came up with a way to incorporate some very functional hip exercises into their warm-up activities.

Amazing Joints

The hips are the largest weight bearing joints in the body, supported through an incredibly complicated network of ligaments and muscles. Over 20 muscles directly influence hip movement, including: adductors magnus, longus and brevis, gluteus maximus, medius and minimus, piriformis, rectus femoris, illiacus, psoas major, semitendinosus, semimembranosus, biceps femoris, tensor fascia latae, superior and inferior gemelli, obturators internus and externus, quadratus femoris, sartorius, pectineus, and gracilis. That’s a huge list, and it doesn’t even include the abs, low back, or leg musculature that influence hip movement through the pelvis.

These muscles make the hip flex, extend, abduct, and adduct, but a detailed look at the kinesiology reveals that most of these muscles are also at least partially responsible for controlling femoral rotation in the transverse plane. This is especially interesting since most hip exercises are done in the frontal or sagittal planes, and they typically isolate specific muscles rather than working through motions similar to those seen in sport movements. The hip musculature is often responsible for accelerating and decelerating transverse plane motion, but how often do we actually train this rotation?

Think about the way the femoral head rotates inside the acetabulum during a primarily sagittal plane motion like running. During the support phase of each step, the pelvis actually rotates, resulting in femoral rotation that must be controlled in three planes of motion.

In more complex movements such as planting and cutting, where the hips are involved in decelerating and re-accelerating the body, there is an even greater amount of femoral rotation in the socket. Internal and external rotation need to be controlled at the same time hip extension and abduction are performed. That’s a lot of movement, and with so many muscles involved, it’s a wonder we even move at all.

Unfortunately, many athletes have rotational deficiencies, either in strength or mobility, yet they are rarely addressed. In the weight room, we typically focus on strengthening the major muscle groups, and during conditioning sessions we usually spend our time training the appropriate energy systems. There is only so much time available, so how can we effectively and efficiently work all of these little muscles?

I suggest adding some of the following exercises to a warm-up routine to enhance multi-planar hip function. The great thing about these exercises is that they are helpful for just about anyone, yet can have dramatically positive effects on those with deficiencies. The overall benefits of these exercises are that they:

  • Help prevent injuries, especially at the knee. Controlling femoral rotation helps stabilize and align the knee, which can help maintain joint integrity during rapid movements.
  • Can be used to teach proper movement mechanics. The cutting drills are a great way to teach athletes how to properly transfer weight during a change of direction.
  • Take less than 30 seconds each. And it is certainly not necessary to perform all of these exercises in every session. Just adding one or two variations to the end of a warm-up routine will address some much needed strength or mobility issues that may be limiting performance.
  • Require no equipment. Wherever a team is warming up, these exercises can be performed.
  • Have numerous variations so athletes won’t get bored. I’ll explain some of the variations, but you can make them more difficult or more complex as needed.

  • Incorporate many other muscles that help assist in the proper function of the hips. The abdominals, quads, hamstrings, and lower back are synergistically engaged during the movements, which can improve overall body control during sport movements.

    Each exercise should be performed for 10 to 20 repetitions, or for 10 to 20 seconds. Athletes may perform multiple sets of an exercise or one set of each. You can choose the best way to implement them for your situation.

Single-Leg Hip Twister

This simple exercise will improve rotational strength and mobility, especially if there is a deficiency. Rotational strength will increase through the deceleration and acceleration work during the movement. And mobility will improve by rotating to the ends of both internal and external rotation.

Instructions: To start, stand on one foot with a slight bend in the knee (about 15 degrees). Hold a dowel behind the back. Internally rotate the hips are far as possible, then do the same thing externally. The movement should be controlled, but not slow. Encourage athletes to gradually and very gently increase their range of motion.

You can change the movement slightly with a forward or backward trunk lean, or by placing the arms in different positions. Increase the intensity by holding a weighted object or moving faster.

Single-Leg Lean Back

This exercise creates an excellent “stretch-and-strengthen” motion in the hip flexors and abdominals. At the same time the muscles are being stretched, they must also work to support the body.

Instructions: Stand on one leg. Position your hands overhead and lean back as far as possible. Bend the knee slightly as you reach back, and return to normal posture. The movement should be controlled, but not too slow. As the athletes get comfortable with this motion, have them lean backward at different angles.

Hip Flexor Stretch

Hip flexors are often very tight, causing problems elsewhere in the body. This exercise not only works to stretch the hip flexors, but will help save wear and tear in other areas.

Instructions: Starting from a squatting position, push the hips forward and lean the body backward. Internally rotate the hip to focus on the ilio-psoas. Externally rotate the hips for a greater stretch of the adductors. Reach your hand overhead and across your body to maximize the stretch through the entire side of the body. Rock the hips side to side or attempt to twist them in the transverse plane for maximum stretch in all three planes. (See Figure Three on page XX.)

Leg Swings

This movement simply gets the legs swinging in different planes. It will help mobility on the swing leg, yet also help strengthen the support leg as it decelerates rotation and controls motion during each swing.

Instructions: Stand on one leg. Swing the other leg forward and backward with both feet in neutral. Vary the movement by swinging the leg in different directions. Other variations include internally or externally rotating one or both of the hips.

Twisting Lunge

Another simple exercise, adding a twisting action to a lunge, engages the gluteals more than just a sagittal plane lunge, and more than just a twist with the torso upright. Engaging the gluteals is vital to controlling femoral movement and maintaining knee alignment. Decreased activation of the gluteals may be a contributing factor in ACL injuries.

Instructions: Lunge forward and reach across the body with the opposite arm. Change the height of the lunge for variety.

Cutting in Place

This is a great agility drill to do when space is limited because it teaches planting and cutting mechanics without having to move around. A lot of athletes are not comfortable transferring weight onto one foot during a change of direction. When performed properly, this drill can help improve this important skill.

Instructions: Leave one foot on the ground and perform a “jab-step” action with the other foot, bouncing that foot off the ground and bringing it back to neutral. Emphasize keeping both feet parallel and bending your knee during the plant. Put as much power into the ground as possible, working on quick deceleration and re-acceleration. Many athletes will not put their weight into it, so try having them pick up the support leg briefly to get the feel of transferring their weight.

As a variation, perform several bounces, then take off for a short sprint. You can also cross over after the push off, or bounce at different angles.

Jumps in Place

Instead of always emphasizing jump height during plyometrics, I like drills that keep the athletes low and emphasize quickness off the ground. This kind of movement has also been shown to enhance the synchronous co-contraction of the quadriceps and hamstrings, which may protect against knee injuries.

Instructions: For this exercise, jump forward into a 90-degree turn, then jump back to the starting position, keeping the body low and quick. There are endless possibilities, so use your imagination to come up with variations that address the needs of your athletes. For example, athletes can jump forward and backward, side-to-side, on diagonals, and incorporate twisting.

All of the above exercises take a minimal amount of time, but can be a huge boost to your athletes’ performance. Be sure to make the drills interesting by only spending a short time on the exercises and using plenty of variation. You’ll quickly notice your athletes’ hip mobility improve, and they will thank you for helping them stay healthy.

The author would like to thank: Gary Gray for developing the concepts this training is based upon, and for his support and encouragement; Anne Yoches for helping me explore these ideas; and soccer coach Peter Langens for helping me introduce the ideas to athletes.

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