If you’re like most people, your hips feel tight most of the time, especially near the top of your legs.
And, without fail, they tend to become more irritated and tight whenever you perform lower body exercises like squats, leg press, or deadlifts.
Why do we feel this tightness and what muscle is causing this pain?
We’ll answer these questions and more as we discuss all things hip flexors.
What is a Hip Flexor?
As the name implies, a hip flexor is a muscle that assists in hip flexion. More specifically, the hip flexors allow you to bring your leg or knee up towards your torso, and they also allow you to hinge at the hip (bend your torso forward).
And, while we tend to refer to our hip flexor as a single muscle, in reality, the hip flexors are a group of muscles, including:
- Adductor Brevis
- Adductor Longus
- Rectus femoris
- Tensor fasciae Latae
They are located near the top of your thighs and connect your upper leg to your hip.
The hip flexors in one of the most heavily utilized muscles in the body as they take part in virtually every kind of lower body movement you perform, including squats, deadlifts, lunges, and hip hinges. They’re even involved in upper body exercises, like the bench press and overhead press, too!
What Causes Pain in Hip Flexors?
Most of you reading this article have experienced pain or aching in the hip flexors at some point or another. And, when you “consulted Dr. Google” as to the cause of your discomfort, you were likely told it was either:
- A “shortening” of the muscle due to too much sitting,
- Overuse, or
However, when you start to look into the research, you’ll see that sitting can’t “shorten” your hip flexors. This is due to the fact that muscles cannot change in length; they just get smaller or bigger in response to training (or lack thereof) and diet.
Overuse also is an unlikely candidate for blame since studies note that resistance training actually serves as a tool for rehabbing aches and pains, and it also enhances the function of muscles and tendons.[2,3]
Finally, research also finds that pain or tightness in the hip flexors isn’t caused by weakness in the musculature, either. Besides, other studies also show that tightness isn’t due to weak muscles either...
So, where does that leave us?
Unfortunately, science has yet to reveal precisely why muscles pain or tightness exists.
It could be due to a discrepancy between agonist-antagonist muscle groups (i.e. hip flexors, lower back/hamstrings) or it could be something completely different.
The good news is that you don’t have to suffer with tight or painful hip flexors much longer.
We’ve got 5 exercises to strengthen your hip flexors and help stretch them out.
Before we get there though, let’s be clear that mild discomfort (tightness) in the hip flexors is very different from an actual strain of the hip flexors muscle group -- which can happen from time to time in the gym.
Symptoms associated with hip flexor:
- Mild pain and/or a “pulling” sensation in the front of the hip.
- Sharp pain or cramping
- Difficulty walking and/or getting out of a chair
- Bruising, swelling, or spasms in the hip flexors
- Loss of strength in the front of the hip
- Decreased mobility
5 Exercises to Strengthen Your Hip Flexors
Bet you thought you’d see a bunch of kooky exercises to strengthen your hip flexors, didn’t you?
Fortunately, you don’t need to do anything kooky or crazy, or even buy any weird fitness gadgets.
Many of the best exercises that train the muscles of the lower body also help strengthen and mobilize the hip flexors.
Here are 5 of our favorite exercises to strengthen your hip flexors:
Squats are the king of exercises, period.
They work a tremendous amount of muscle in the body (including the hip flexors).
Basically, if you’re not performing some form of squatting pattern in your training program you’re missing out on building stronger glutes and firmer legs.
Now, if you’re not comfortable squatting with a barbell on your back, you can try any one of these other squat variations, including:
- Goblet Squats
- Split Squats
- Front Squats
- Landmine Squats
- Hack Squats
- Dumbbell squats
- Kettlebell squats
Bulgarian Split Squat
The bigger, badder, and crueler step-brother of the traditional squat is the Bulgarian Split Squat.
What makes the Bulgarian Split Squat so devious?
You’re essentially performing a one-legged squat.
When performing the Bulgarian (or rear foot elevated) split squat, one leg is placed on a box, bench, or split squat stand while the other leg remains in contact with the ground and has to perform all of the work.
After completing all reps on one side, take a short break (30-60 seconds) and repeat on the other side.
Compared to the first two exercises on this list, the lunge is a bit more dynamic and complex as you have to step forward while carrying a load and maintain an upright posture. As such, the lunge is an incredibly athletic movement that helps build muscle, strength, and stability in the muscles of the lower body, as well as the hip flexors.
If you’re new to lunging, it’s best to start with just bodyweight lunges. Once you feel comfortable handling your bodyweight, progress to holding dumbbells or kettlebells and ultimately work your way up to a barbell.
Not only can lunges be performed by taking a step forward, but they can also be performed by taking a step backward.
Advantages of the reverse lunge are that it taxes the glutes and hamstrings a bit more than the traditional walking lunge and also allows for a great stretch on the hip flexors -- a very welcome bonus for those of us who struggle with tight hips and/or hip flexors.
Finally, the reverse lunge may be more suitable for those who deal with knee pain during walking lunges. The reason for this is that in a reverse lunge, you’re stepping backwards and keeping a more vertical shin angle on the working leg, both of which help reduce shearing forces on the knee joint.
Band-Resisted Knee Drive
Lastly, we have a more “isolation”-type exercise for the hip flexors that also helps you work on generating power in the band-resisted knee drive.
Loop a resistance band around a column, sturdy object, or use a door anchor attachment at ankle level.
Stand facing away from the anchor point with the band around your right ankle. Drive your right knee up until your thigh is at least parallel to the floor. Hold for a count of one and then slowly lower your leg back to the ground.
Do three sets of 10 reps on each side.
- Blazevich, A. J., Cannavan, D., Waugh, C. M., Miller, S. C., Thorlund, J. B., Aagaard, P., & Kay, A. D. (2014). Range of motion, neuromechanical, and architectural adaptations to plantar flexor stretch training in humans. Journal of Applied Physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985), 117(5), 452–462. https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.00204.2014
- Andersen, L. L., Andersen, C. H., Zebis, M. K., Nielsen, P. K., Sogaard, K., & Sjogaard, G. (2008). Effect of physical training on function of chronically painful muscles: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Applied Physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985), 105(6), 1796–1801. https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.91057.2008
- Kjaer, M. (2004). Role of extracellular matrix in adaptation of tendon and skeletal muscle to mechanical loading. Physiological Reviews, 84(2), 649–698. https://doi.org/10.1152/physrev.00031.2003
- Casartelli NC, Leunig M, Item-Glatthorn JF, Lepers R, Maffiuletti NA. Hip flexor muscle fatigue in patients with symptomatic femoroacetabular impingement. Int Orthop. 2012;36(5):967–973. doi:10.1007/s00264-011-1385-5
- Arab AM, Nourbakhsh MR. The relationship between hip abductor muscle strength and iliotibial band tightness in individuals with low back pain. Chiropr Osteopat. 2010;18:1. Published 2010 Jan 13. doi:10.1186/1746-1340-18-1