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When you think about getting strong and jacked, the hip flexors are not one of the first areas that come to mind. The big muscles like the chest, back, quads, and glutes get all of the love. But, hip flexor exercises can make a big difference, meaning this muscle group deserves some attention too.
Muscles like the hip flexors act synergistically to assist indirectly in many movements. In fact, the hip flexors are involved in nearly every lower body activity. This means you can't be as strong as possible if you have weak links in this area.
The hip flexors are important for another reason, too. With how much we sit, it's common for our hips to become incredibly tight and immobile. Try squatting heavy with tight hips. It's not fun. Warming the hips up properly before lower body workouts is a secret of the pros.
The good news is it doesn't take much to get your hip flexors moving better and stronger than ever. You can improve things significantly with the proper hip flexor exercises and programming.
Table of Contents:
The hip flexor muscles are on the front top of your thigh in the pelvic area. They function by bringing the knee closer to your chest and work with the hip joints, which are ball and socket joints. This movement is called hip flexion, hence the name. The hip flexors play a crucial role anytime you sit, squat, run, or ride a bike.
Up to eleven muscles are involved in hip flexion. The primary hip flexors are the iliacus, psoas (iliopsoas), pectineus, rectus femoris, and sartorius.
Tight hip flexors, hip pain, and hip flexor strain are among the more prevalent complaints you hear in the gym. But what causes tight hips?
In today's society, it is common to live a sedentary life. Besides being a leading cause of obesity, the lack of activity also creates tight hips1. Above all else, sitting all day causes the hip flexors to shorten and become tight. Short and tight muscles do not generate as much strength and power as lengthened muscles. When it comes time to walk, run, or squat, they might resist or not work as they should.
You can also get tight hips from activity. We know, we know. Sometimes with hip flexors you can’t win.
Any time you bring your knees toward your torso, your hip flexors are working. Activities that require repetition of this motion can result in strain, leading to tightness in the area. Running, skating, kicking, and a weight-lifting workout split can all cause tight hips.
Having poor posture can also lead to tight hips.
A clean indication that your hip flexors are tight is they feel tense when you try to stretch them or perform an activity.
There are other less obvious signs too. When the hip flexors are tight, they can impact many areas of your body. Some of the common symptoms are:
To perform the test, lie face up on a sturdy table or bench so your legs hang off. Bring both knees toward your torso so your lower back lies flat against the table or bench. While holding the right knee close to your chest, slowly straighten your left leg and let it relax downward. Sometimes it helps to have someone hold that leg for you.
Your hip flexors are okay if you can fully extend the thigh, so it's parallel to the ground, and the other knee is bent to 90 degrees without the other thigh rising. It indicates tight hip flexor muscles if you struggle to prevent the relaxed leg from coming up.
The video below shows you exactly how to do the Thomas Test.
The first thing you need to do is use the Thomas Test above to determine whether your hip flexors are tight or weak. If they're weak, this section is for you!
One Reddit commenter explains that stretching doesn't do anything positive for weak hip flexors, so it's important to identify your true issue. "I'm highly against stretching your hip flexors until you're 100% certain they are tight. Stretching your hip flexors while having weak hip flexors instead of tight ones will only worsen the problem. Please check if they are tight first, most of the time hip flexors are just weak." (source)
If you've determined your hip flexors are weak, I'm sure you're ready to dig into the best hip flexor strengthening exercises. Let's get into the 9 best hip flexor exercises!
The straight leg raise improves hip mobility, stability, and strength. It is one of the most used exercises during physical therapy following hip and knee injuries. That said, it is also a great exercise to improve healthy hips and increase hip mobility.
How to do the Alternating Leg Raise:
The back-supported leg raise, also referred to as The Roman Chair or Power Tower, is one of the best overall ab exercises you can do. The movement explicitly targets the lower section of the abdominals but also incorporates the hip flexors.
The back support protects the lower back and helps keep the movement strict. You'll need to look for this equipment at your gym. And don't forget to do some ab stretches afterward!
How to do Back-Supported Leg Raises:
The decline sit-up is another great ab and hip flexor exercise. It allows us to use gravity to make the standard sit-up more challenging and effective, which is great for addressing weak hip flexors.
One error many people make when training the hip flexors is sticking to easy exercises and performing them with high reps in the muscular endurance range (typically 16+ reps).
Remember, the hip flexors are muscles that respond to resistance like other muscles. To build muscle, you need to train with high resistance. If you need to, start with bodyweight. Otherwise, make this more challenging by holding a weighted plate.
How to do Decline Sit Ups:
The walking lunge is a great dumbbell leg exercise. One of the most significant benefits of this movement is that it works to improve balance and muscular strength.
How to do the Walking Dumbbell Lunge:
The Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat (BSS) is a single-leg exercise that is a great lower body developer. One of the best benefits of this movement is how safe it is. The BSS is commonly used as a replacement for the back squat if people have a lower back injury or another limitation.
How to do Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squats:
Although it is a great movement to strengthen your psoas, you can also use it in your warm-up. If you want to make this exercise harder, place a resistance band around your feet for an extra challenge.
How to do the Psoas March:
The dumbbell step-up is a great lower body exercise to include in your leg workouts as it develops muscle, strength, and balance. Use a box or bench 12 to 18 inches (30-46 cm) or high enough to create roughly a 90-degree angle at the knee joint when the foot is on the box.
How to do the Dumbbell Step Up:
The barbell rollout and ab wheel are underused and underappreciated, but there is no doubt they are brutally effective.
You can pick up an ab wheel online for cheap if your gym doesn't have one. It's worth the investment to have one in your gym bag. You can also use a barbell with 10-pound plates on each side and roll out.
How to do the Barbell Rollout:
Last but not least is the standing knee raise. Although the standing knee raise is hard to load, it is one of the best ways to target the hip flexors directly. Think of it as a slow-motion, standing-in-place march.
How to do the Standing Knee Raise:
Stretching is a tool to reduce muscle tightness and improve range of motion. However, there is debate over the best method and time to implement it. For a long time, static stretching, where you stretch a muscle and hold it for a period, was believed to be a great warm-up activity.
Most coaches and trainers have recently switched to dynamic warm-ups. And, for most muscle groups, this is the right approach.
That said, the hip flexors are unique. A 2021 systematic review with meta-analysis examined the influence of stretching the hip flexor muscles on performance parameters.
Unlike other muscle groups that decreased performance with static stretching pre-activity, the meta-analysis found no detrimental effect and improved performance in some cases2. The researchers hypothesized that hip flexor stretches leads to better positioning for the lumbar spine and pelvis.
With this in mind, it is beneficial to include dynamic and static hip flexors stretches as part of the warm-up. Additionally, if your hip flexors are tight, it makes sense to have hip flexor stretches in the cool-down for extra work.
Warm up tight hip flexors with these two dynamic hip flexor mobility exercises.
Leg swings are a dynamic warm-up exercise that prepares your muscles for those tough barbell leg exercises you're about to tackle. Unlike static stretches, where you hold one fixed position, dynamic stretches allow you to move through a range of motion.
The dynamic nature of the movement not only reduces the chance of injury but can also help improve performance in lower body exercises.
How to do Leg Swings:
The lunging hip flexor stretch is one of the most common hip flexor stretches, and for a good reason. It is effective and is also a great glute stretch.
How to do the Lunging Hip Flexor Stretch:
It is just as essential to stretch and lengthen your hip muscles post-workout with some cool down stretches and exercises. You can also include these as part of your warm-up. We promise they'll feel great!
The couch stretch, made famous by physical therapist Kelly Starrett, is a great movement to stretch the quad and hip flexors. It is highly versatile.
You can do it to cool down from a brutal workout or on muscle recovery days if your legs or hips are tight. Hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds on each side.
How to do the Couch Stretch:
The hurdle stretch has been a staple in physical education classes all over the country for years because of its ability to stretch the hamstrings and hip flexors.
How to do the Hurdle Stretch:
Since the hip flexors are involved in many exercises, proper programming can be tricky. Here are a few pointers to help you out.
I just went over my favorite exercises and stretches, but it's also useful to see what fellow gym goers have found success with. Here's some additional advice on how to best improve hip flexor tightness and weakness!
One Reddit commenter offers the following advice: "You can train them with squats and leg raises, along with a few other exorcises. Any movement that involves raising your leg. Hanging leg raises from 0 - 90 degree (legs parallel to floor) will work them. Above 90 degree is when it becomes an ab exorcise. Just standing and raising your legs as high as you can to the front and side works great, add a light ankle weight for added difficulty. Or stand with you foot on a box about waist height and try to raise it from there. The biggest issue people have with hip flexors is not lack of strength but lack of flexibility. Ballet has some great hip conditioning exorcises." (source)
Another Redditor adds: "Hopefully your gym has a heavy bag. I love just roundhouse kicking the shit out of the bag with some punches and all that. Crescent kicks, glute bridges, and just flat out kicking the bag with all your strength like Spartacus (and keep your focus on your core). And kick at head level. Good for the confidence." (source)
In addition, this Reddit user recommends the following: "Your quads have 4 muscles. The top one is a hip flexor while the other 3 are more knee oriented. You do have other hip flexors as well though. In addition to the exercises others have listed, I really enjoy "Monster Walk" as a good supplement to my running." (source)
Different things work for different people, as everyone is built differently. Try experimenting with different stretches and strengthening exercises to find your best match!
There is no shortage of benefits that come with including hip flexor exercises in your training program. Hip flexor exercises:
It is easy to forget about the hip flexors. The muscles are hard to see, pronounce, and don't get much attention. That said, neglecting the hip flexors is a big mistake.
If you want to perform at your best in the gym, weak and immobile hip flexors may be the missing link to mastering those hip hinge exercises you've been working on. Additionally, start stretching and strengthening your hips if you have back pain before you go to the chiropractor.
After reading this article, you have the knowledge and blueprint for success. All that is left is to get to work.
Interested in more great hip-focused content? Check out our articles on How to Fix Hip Pain When Squatting and the 6 Best Hip Internal Rotation Exercises And Stretches.
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