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10 Hip Mobility Exercises to Improve Functional Movement

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 01 September 2020
Hits: 4730

One of the most important and also very challenging areas of the body to work with is the hip and pelvic region. This part of the body is involved in almost every movement we make, and a constant switching between mobility and stability is required in order for us to move efficiently free of pain and limitation. The hips are designed to be very mobile and withstand both direct loading stresses and large rotational forces with weight-bearing activities, whereas the pelvis is more concerned with stability in order to preserve neutral alignment of the spine and lower limbs. This constant interaction between these two joints can very easily be disrupted by poor movement strategies or inactivity. When this happens we often see a loss of hip mobility first, as the body uses stiffness as its alternative to stability to protect the spine and pelvis from damage. Restoring it back to normal takes more than just a hip stretch and in this article we show you 10 ways to get this back.

Why It Is Important To Work on Mobility First?

I have covered this question many times in previous articles relating to posture and injury where there is battle between tonic muscles and phasic muscles creating what is known as muscle inhibition. In Vladimir Janda’s book “Assessment & Treatment of Muscle Imbalance” who first coined the terms tonic and phasic muscles he explains in great detail how muscle inhibition works.

  • In simple terms tonic system muscles are prone to tightness or shortness and are more concerned with stability, posture, and working for long periods. They are made up mostly of slow twitch fibres and are easily facilitated with constant repetitive movements.
  • On the other side is the phasic system muscles who are prone to weakness or inhibition and more concerned with fast and powerful movements. They are predominately fast twitch muscle fibres and require specific movement to keep them functional.

The tonic muscles by way of their design begin to develop a method of overworking and dominating all movements and in essence “shut down” or "steal" the phasic muscles workload completely. This creates an imbalance within the body as muscles like the piriformis which are not capable of performing various movements continue to work excessively eventually developing trigger points and tightness, while at the same time other muscles like the gluteus maximus are becoming weaker due to a lack of work.

This means that mobility and stability problems can exist at the same time. The big mistake many people make is to try and work on the stability problems first before improving mobility. True functional stabilization will not be achieved while there is a mobility restriction present which is why you must address your mobility problems first.

You can read more about this in the article – Mobility and flexibility which comes first and why

What Does Poor Hip Mobility Look Like?

There are many stretch assessments like the Thomas test that are used by many therapists to determine if there is a loss of hip mobility. And while these are useful and can give you a good measurement to compare against normal flexibility they are not a reliable indicator of mobility restrictions seen during movement. They are also difficult to do by yourself. Most people think the hips are only at the front of the body and most people are constantly trying to stretch out the front of their hips with a stretch like the one pictured below.

I very rarely find this stretch is useful or even needed. If anything it can be the source of the hip problem itself as it forces the head of the femur into a terrible alignment and potential hip impingement. Unfortunately, the consequences of using this stretch creates what is known as "anterior femoral glide syndrome" where the femoral heads have moved excessively forward and overly compressed in the acetabulum. This stretch will have a direct impact on your ability to centre the head of the femur within the hip socket as seen in the picture to the right.

Once you have lost this centration your body will create stiffness to prevent further damage. This is where your instincts may betray you.  When we feel pain and tightness at the front of the hip we immediately conclude we need to stretch it out, however, it is not tightness but the head of the femur smashing into the bone of the acetabulum. The tightness is actually coming from the gluteal region.

You can read more about this in the article – Understanding anterior pelvic tilt and its importance to hip function

And it is this area that we regularly see requiring mobility that frees up the hip for full range of motion. You can see a video of this in action below where the squat movement is ruined by the posterior tilt of the pelvis. It is difficult to blame this solely on poor hip mobility for it could be from poor coordination or even weakness at other muscles or joints. It is difficult to blame a single muscle for a movement problem but this gives you a good visual of what poor hip mobility looks like. The second video on the right shows poor hip flexion that is due to poor pelvic stability.

Poor Bending & Lack of Hip Extension

Anyone who comes to see me for either back pain or knee pain I am highly suspicious of a hip mobility being a factor. The lumbar spine and the knee joint are both primarily concerned with stability and the joint that sits between the two is the hips and as we have mentioned already it is designed for mobility. Any loss of motion at the hips will be made up at the knee or lumbar spine by sacrificing its stability to find the extra movement.

This is a perfect recipe for injury and regularly where we see a bulging disc in the lower back or patella tracking and more severe injuries like an ACL tear in the knee. Below are two examples of poor form where poor hip mobility is present and a contributing factor to creating an injury.

We cannot dismiss that weakness and poor stability may be the underlying cause but we cannot go straight to correcting that without releasing any stiffness or trigger points first. These exercises will often become tests to measure any improvement and ensure you are on the right path. I regularly use the deadlift and the single leg squat as tests with clients on the first day for this very reason. And these two exercises are usually the very movements that will restore their movement to normal and eliminate the trigger of their pain.

The big difficulty with these exercises is that there is so many moving parts that mistakes are inevitable and it can be very frustrating in the early stages. This is where your mobility work comes in handy as you can use these between sets of the stability and movement exercises to enhance how they move. And you will find in ALL of my online programs there is a constant combination of mobility and stability exercises for this very reason.

The deadlift is arguably the best corrective exercise for most hip related problems as it improves hip mobility and gluteal strength at the same time. The big problem is that it can be difficult to go straight to this when mobility restrictions do not allow good form to be used.

You can read more about the deadlift and see video demonstrations of several versions in the article – Which deadlift version is best for you?

Working on Mobility by Itself Will Not be Enough

You must instantly follow up with the corrective exercise to ensure your stiffness does not return.

This is the big mistake many health treatments make that focus solely on manual therapy and stretching. For the person may appear to be improving greatly on the table or on the floor, and perhaps they are, but when they stand up the body has not been taught a better way to stabilize and just resets back to the old settings of stiffness. This is also why people repeatedly keep hurting themselves, for they think it is all good once the pain has gone and go back to what they were doing and just end up in the same place.

You must teach your body how to move better, by remaining mobile in a position that also requires stability. It is your job to teach your body how to "switch on" the stabilizers and not resort back to using the hips to do the work again.

A great quote that sums this up by John Gibbons, author of the book The Vital Glutes is: "Tight muscles show themselves lying down, whereas weak muscles show themselves standing up".

You will find a great article that explains this in great detail here – How to improve pelvic stability

The glutes are often the weakness that is the end result of hip stiffness and there are many exercises and methods you must use to rectify this. You will find the FREE checklist below invaluable for regaining your lost strength. Just remember to do this after you work on mobility and stability first. Click the banner below to get your checklist.

Now that you are clear on what poor mobility looks like within a movement pattern it is time to find out what to do about it. The first four exercises are purely stretches and require no stability to complete them correctly. The drills shown in number 5 to 9 are a combination of mobility with stability and begin to include movements.

The last exercise is the multi-directional lunge itself which is technically a strength exercise but due to its unique requirement for hip internal and external rotation I classify it as a mobility exercise. Arguably the deadlift could be included as a mobility exercise as well for the hip extension it demands is paramount to good movement.

Anyway let’s take a look at the ten drills you can use. These are in order of easiest to hardest.

Hip Mobility Drill #1 – Swissball Hip/Quad Stretch

One of the easiest hip mobility stretches is the kneeling Swissball hip and quad stretch. When testing hip mobility at the front of the hip I will often test knee mobility at the same time as this rules out any restriction for the rectus femoris muscle. The rectus femoris is a unique muscle in that it crosses two joints and can influence movement at both the hip and the knee.

This stretch is a great way to determine if there is a problem at just the knee or if it is at the hip. If hip extension is limited regardless of the knee position then this leans toward a hip problem. If however the knee flexion is limited and hip mobility is not, you may assume the hip is not the issue at all but the knee. You may be looking more for mobility problems in the glutes forcing the knee to work too much as we saw earlier in the video of the squat.

Hip Mobility Drill #2 – 90/90

This is a great exercise to use for the person lacking a lot of mobility in the posterior muscles of the glutes. It is a great choice to begin with for it is much easier to get into position and does not cause as many problems as some of the following stretches do. Just like the first stretch this does not require any stability in order to complete it effectively.

You will find this stretch featured in the first two minutes of this video.

Hip Mobility Drill #3 – Glute Stretch with Band

This is a favourite stretch of mine to use for people stuck in posterior tilt but especially for people suffering from FAI hip impingement. It is very similar to the 90/90 stretch we just looked at although it is a lot more difficult to do. It is sometimes referred to as a pigeon stretch. The purpose of the band around the groin is to pull the head of the femur back into the socket to improve centration of the joint.

This is a very effective drill to use between sets of the deadlift that allow the person to position perfectly in the anterior pelvic tilt position and activate the large powerful gluteal muscles that will hold the hip in alignment. A perfect exercise for anyone with piriformis syndrome or back pain.

Hip Mobility Drill #4 – Adductor Stretch

Adductor muscles otherwise known as groin muscles can very easily become short and tight and restrict movements like squats, lunges, deadlifts in the gym. These can be very difficult to mobilize at times and many of the stretches used can actually cause more harm than good.

In the video above I actually show you 2 ways of doing this. The first is with more of a static stretch and the second is with more of a dynamic mobilizing drill where instead of just stretching the adductors we include stretching of the opposite quad in combination with activation of the opposite glute.

Hip Mobility Drill #5 – Hip & Thoracic Mobility

This is the first of a few drills that begin to progress from basic mobility or flexibility of one joint to now requiring mobility and stability at several joints at once. These drills are not ideal to use when a person is in severe pain or is very restricted with their movement, however they are great to use when you have progressed in your program and beginning to use movement based exercises.

These work much better than isolated stretches when you are in the movement stage for they mimic the action that the joints and muscles are used during a movement. This timing is everything in terms of restoring their true function. For this reason they are also great to use as injury prevention drills or as a dynamic warm up before your workout.

This particular drill works great for people in rotational sports like golf or tennis, but also a fantastic exercise for improving thoracic mobility for a person with neck or shoulder pain.

Hip Mobility Drill #6 – Hip & Ankle Mobility

This particular dill I like to use in combination with squats and lunges. The ankle is a joint that is designed very similarly to the hip in that it provides multi-directional movement and is prone to stiffness. During a squat movement the ankle must provide adequate dorsi-flexion in order for the knee and the spine to be positioned correctly to execute the movement efficiently.

Any break down at the ankle will compromise the stability at the knee or the lumbar spine. This drill works so effectively for once again it mimics the timing of the squat movement as seen in the video above.

Hip Mobility #7 – Hip Switches

The video above shows you how this drill works but also how it relates to a functional movement.

This is a very unique dynamic version of the 90/90 stretch we saw earlier. This is arguably more about stability than mobility as the hip is constantly going into external and internal rotation all while trying to maintain a good postural alignment.

This is a lot harder than it looks and I would not use this with people who are suffering with a hip impingement or severe hip alignment problem. It can be a great addition for the person who has improved their mobility already and is in the maintenance stage.

Hip Mobility #8 – Kneeling Hip Lifts

Another drill that arguably is more about stability than mobility. Watch the video above from the 4:00 mark to see this in action.

This begins to test the capability of the glutes and the pelvic stabilizers to maintain the stance leg in a kneeling position while simultaneously testing the mobility of the leg in the air. The beauty of these exercises are that they relate very closely to the action of walking and as a result will have a greater chance of improving the stability in these patterns of movement.

This would be a good choice for the person who demonstrates great flexibility with the stretches but struggles to maintain good form when they stand up. The kneeling exercise is unique in that it is the “in-between” movement that can help bridge the gap.

Hip Mobility #9 – Standing Hip Lifts

This is basically the standing progression of the previous drill. I also used another comparison video to show you how this can be used as a dynamic warm up or even between sets of a functional movement like running.

The standing exercise is much more difficult as it now brings into play foot stability as a potential factor and also the compression on the joints from standing poses more stability problems.

I suggest starting with a small height to lift your leg over before gradually progressing to a height that will challenge your hip mobility. To get this right you MUST NOT lose your lumbar curve. If your pelvis rolls under at any point of you lifting our leg the box is too high and you must make it smaller or work more on your specific stretches shown earlier.

Hip Mobility #10 – Multi-Direction Lunge

This is the only exercise that demands some degree of strength. Technically it is more of a strength exercise than a mobility one, but the biggest challenge most people face when trying this for the first time is the lack of mobility. The lateral and diagonal lunges that force the hip into external and internal rotation present the most difficulty for people and this is where any weakness is instantly revealed.

It is very common for me to assess a person with all the hip, quad, and hamstring stretch tests and find nothing out of the ordinary yet when they complete this exercise everything stiffens up. This is an example of where weakness is the reason for the stiffness and what you are seeing is not really a tight muscle at all.

This is a great exercise to use for athletic development with sports and you can read more about this in the article – Why the multi-direction lunge is so good for sports

Even if you do not play sports this is a great exercise to include in your workout for it will become a movement that enables you to remain flexible without even stretching.

Do You Need More Help

If you currently suffer with hip or back problems you will find our online programs shown below a great resource that take you through all of the assessments and corrective exercises to get you back to full strength and out of pain.

  

Summary

As you can see from this article there is a lot more to stretching the hips than you may have thought. Combining simple flexibility focused stretches with mobility drills and most importantly movements is the real secret to restoring full mobility to the hip region. If you look after hip and pelvis joints you give your body every chance of maintaining full strength and efficient movement for the rest of your life. And you can enjoy fitness training without fear of injury or limitation.

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 200 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily.

If you do need specific help with your exercise program please feel free to reach out to me for help and we can set you up with your individualised program. International readers can request a Zoom call.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specializes in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • The Psoas Solution - By Evan Osar
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Back Pain Mechanic - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Core Stability - by Peak Performance
  • The Vital Glutes - By John Gibbons
  • Athletic Body in Balance - by Gray Cook
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek