Jan 29, 2019Prioritizing hip strength in training programs
Though it’s an often-overlooked area in the weight room, the hips are vital for explosiveness & overall performance.
When was the last time you heard an athlete say they needed to work on strengthening their hips? Rare is the athlete who thinks about training this vital area. Instead, they often focus on training the “glamour” muscles like their biceps and pecs.
But the truth is, in most sports, enhancing hip strength and power is a key aspect of improving performance. Strong hips are required to transfer force effectively from the lower body to the upper body in many sports, including volleyball, basketball, soccer, field hockey, throwing events in track and field, and football.
In addition to playing a main role in sports performance, hip strength is also important for injury prevention. While athletes may not suffer injuries to their hips as often as their knees or shoulders, just like other joints, the hip joint is susceptible to injury when weak. Working on this overlooked area isn’t difficult, and can be accomplished as part of a well-rounded plan. The key is picking the right exercises and making sure they’re done correctly.
Before discussing hip strengthening techniques and designing the right training programs for developing strong, explosive athletes, it’s important to understand the different movements the hips are capable of, as well as the muscles involved in each movement. The hip is a ball and socket joint, so a large number of movements are possible.
Flexion of the hip occurs when the angle between the thigh and the torso is decreased. The primary hip flexor for flexion is the psoas. The iliacus assists, and the pectineus, adductors longus, brevis, and magnus, and the tensor fasciae latae are also involved in the movement.
Extension occurs when the angle between the thigh and the torso is increased. The gluteus maximus is the main hip extensor in this movement, though the inferior portion of the adductor magnus assists.
Both flexion and extension are important for running. Strength in each area is a critical aspect of performance in sports like football, basketball, baseball, soccer, lacrosse, track and field, and many others. Explosive hip extension is necessary for the jumping and landing required of basketball and volleyball players, as well as in track and field jumping events.
Extension strength is key to movements such as blocking and tackling in football because it allows a player to absorb contact from an opponent. And when performing a heavy squat or clean, strong extension of the hip allows the lifter to lower the bar with control.
Hyperextension of the hip occurs when the thigh is moved posteriorly beyond the midline of the body. The gluteus maximus and inferior portion of the magnus are both involved. Sprinting is a great example of an athletic movement that involves hyperextension of the hip. The greater pressure an athlete can apply against the ground, the faster they can propel themselves forward.
Lateral rotation occurs when the anterior portion of the thigh is turned outward. Muscles involved include the externus and internus obtuators, piriformis, superior and inferior gemelli, and quadtatus femoris. Assisting in lateral rotation are the gluteus maximus and the inferior portion of the adductor magnus. To picture lateral rotation of the hip, imagine a “duck walk” where the heels are turned in toward each other and the toes are pointed out, turning the backs of the thighs outward.
Medial rotation occurs when the thigh is turned inward. This rotation is performed by the gluteus medius and minimus and tensor fasciae latae and assisted by the adductors brevis and longus and the superior portion of the adductor magnus. An example of medial rotation would be when a water polo player or synchronized swimmer does the “egg beater” kick to elevate their body out of the water.
Hip abduction occurs when the thigh is opened and moved away from the centerline of the body. The gluteus medius and minimus are both involved in this movement. Hip abduction is important in lateral movement, which is employed often in sports like volleyball, basketball, football, and softball.
Hip adduction occurs when the thigh is moved toward the centerline of the body. The adductor brevis, adductor longus, adductor magnus, pectineus, and the gracilis are all involved in adduction. Think of kicking a ball with the side of the foot instead of the toe for an idea of what hip adduction looks like.
I am a strong believer in specificity of training and selecting exercises that mimic in-game movements as much as possible. I keep three things in mind when designing any training program, including one that involves hip strengthening exercises.
First, because most of the athletes I train are playing their sport in a standing position, we rarely (if ever) train the hips in a seated or prone position. This eliminates most machine exercises and all stability ball exercises from our programs for hip strength. The only exception occurs when an athlete is injured and using a machine is the only viable training option.
I also limit exercises that involve movement at only one joint. Training one joint in isolation does not reflect what occurs during athletic movements. As I tell my athletes, even throwing a dart involves movement at more than one joint. As a result, performing hip flexion and extension movements on a multi-hip machine are not a point of emphasis. Instead, I select exercises that involve multiple muscle groups.
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Finally, since my ultimate goal as a strength coach is to help athletes become as powerful as possible, I select exercises that are performed explosively. The more an athlete trains like they play, the better gains they will make, and this usually means training for explosiveness.
Based on these three stipulations, my preferred hip strengthening exercises are the weightlifting movements (cleans, jerks, snatches, and associated variations), performed either with a barbell or a dumbbell. No other human activity develops as much power output as the weightlifting movements. These exercises also develop eccentric strength in the hips because during the catch phase, the athlete has to slow down, control, and stop the barbell on its downward path.
The jump squat is another option that meets all three criteria, especially when training for high power output. As a safety measure, I prefer to have my athletes perform jump squats with dumbbells instead of barbells because it eliminates the opportunity for the barbell to bounce on an athlete’s back.
Squats — back, front, single-leg, and lateral — are all great hip strength developers. Back and front squats are not fancy or new, but they are tried and true exercises that add muscle mass and make athletes stronger. In short, they work.
When choosing which squats to use, I prefer to progress from less specific exercises to more specific exercises as an athlete’s competitive season approaches. I usually add single-leg squats to an athlete’s program when they are three to four months away from their competition phase.
Lateral squats are important because most sports involve lateral movement. They wouldn’t be high on my list for a 100-meter sprinter, but they are for virtually every other athlete I work with. Performed with a wide stance, our athletes alternate sides with each repetition.
Lunges — front, back, arch, and side — are also great exercises for hip strength. Lunges force athletes into a single-leg support position, which occurs in competition often. As useful as front lunges are, most athletes don’t always step directly forward in competition, so I make sure to include side and arch lunges as well.
These exercises make up the core of any program I design for hip strength. However, because the ultimate goal is to make athletes as powerful as possible, I also incorporate plyometric training to help facilitate the transfer of increases in strength to increases in power.
The primary plyometric drills to use for power development in the hips include box jumps, lateral box jumps, drop jumps to box jumps, and lateral drop jumps to lateral box jumps. In each exercise, emphasis should be placed on getting great speed off the floor and assuming an athletic stance upon landing.
Instead of having athletes perform plyometrics as a stand-alone activity, I have them use complex training, which means they move directly from a strength training activity to a plyometric activity. For example, they will do squats followed immediately by a set of box jumps.
I do this for two reasons. First, evidence suggests that complex training may produce superior results when compared to plyometric training alone. Second, we have a small space with a limited number of boxes for use. Complex training allows two athletes to work at each station at once since one athlete is jumping while the other athlete is performing the associated strength/power training movement.
Weight room applications
To give you a better look at how to incorporate hip strengthening into a team workout, included in this article are two example workouts. The first is an early off-season workout for the skill position players in football, and the second is the final cycle of an offseason workout for the larger position players on the team. Hip strengthening is a key part of our offseason football training and is included in each of our three workouts per week.
The skill players include running backs, quarterbacks, receivers, defensive backs, and kickers. Two of the workouts for this group (Monday and Friday) are dumbbell oriented, while the other workout (Wednesday) is barbell oriented. I have our skill position athletes work with dumbbells twice a week because of the additional balance and motor skills required. The idea is that if these skills are trained in the weight room, they will transfer to the field.
I use a two-scheme format so that the athletes have a primary and secondary emphasis each training week. For this group during this training cycle, the primary goal (scheme one) is to increase muscle size and the secondary goal (scheme two) is to increase muscular endurance and strength.
For our larger position players, including the offensive and defensive linemen, linebackers, and tight ends, there is more emphasis on increasing size and strength and less emphasis on balance and motor skills. During the late-stage cycle detailed, scheme one focuses on power development and scheme two focuses on maintaining hypertrophy and muscular endurance.
We reverse the program in terms of training modality and have the larger players train with barbells on Monday and Friday and dumbbells on Wednesday only. This allows the athletes to use heavier loads on Mondays and Fridays during this cycle, so they perform more sets with fewer repetitions per set.
Because football players begin their on-field movement based on an auditory or visual cue, we use “command” training for one of their weightlifting movements each day during the power cycles. For that day’s command exercise, each repetition is started by a visual command like a coach’s movement or auditory command like a teammate calling out the snap count instead of the athlete self-initiating the movement.
Though developing strong, powerful hips is a key to improving performance, great strength and power in the hips without flexibility is of little value for an athlete. Simply stated, high quality movement is not possible without good hip flexibility.
The ability to move quickly and efficiently is directly related to hip flexibility. Moving the body occurs by moving the legs and movement of the legs occurs at the hip joints.
Having good hip flexibility is also important for athletes because the ability to correctly perform many exercises that strengthen the hips is dependent on it. Exercises such as cleans, snatches, squats, front squats, single-leg squats, lateral squats, and lunges all require a good level of flexibility if they are to be performed correctly.
When coaching the athletes I work with, I emphasize that all of our exercises be taken through a full range of motion. For example, when an athlete cleans, squats, or lunges, I look for their hips to go lower than the knee joint, and this requires a high degree of flexibility.
Because dynamic flexibility is more specific to athletic performance than static flexibility, and because static flexibility has negative consequences to subsequent dynamic activities, we emphasize dynamic flexibility prior to activity and static flexibility post-activity. Walking lunges, reverse lunges, side lunges, and crossover lunges are all examples of dynamic flexibility movements we use to increase range of motion in the hips.
Static flexibility is effective at increasing flexibility and is appropriate as a post exercise activity for athletes. These movements include static knee tucks, lunges, and butterflies.
While it may not be glamorous, developing hip strength, power, and flexibility is critical for most athletes. Once athletes begin to understand why, you just may hear them walk into the weight room and say they are ready to work on their hip strength.