3 SIMPLE TIPS TO LOOSEN YOUR HIPS
Booty, buttocks, bum, keister, badunkadunk, derriere – whatever you call it, you’ve got one (and if you’re in TFGG, it’s likely a nice one, AM I RIGHT?!). Your glutes are responsible for so many of your daily actions like bringing your leg back into extension, rotating your foot/hip outwards, rotating your foot/hips inwards, and bringing your leg up and out to the side. They also contribute significantly to low back, hip, and leg tension. If you’re like a large portion of the general public, you’re probably thinking “my butt doesn’t hurt, it isn’t tight” - but you would most likely be wrong. That’s why I’m here! To help you understand why you might have been targeting all the wrong spots in your rehab in the past, and how to make simple changes going forward!
Fun fact: the body does a fantastic job at diverting your attention away from the actual cause of your pain, rather than pointing it out clearly to you. My very first anatomy teacher gave our class this simple analogy – when a crime is committed, who reports it? Does the person who DID the crime call it in, or are the people who are AFFECTED by the crime going to report? Exactly. The muscle that is causing the problem doesn’t typically give itself away, so when you feel a pull or pain in one area it’s important to remember that it is usually just the symptom rather than the root cause. Just like feeling tension in your low back typically points to glute tension, a feeling of tension in your hamstrings is almost always the result of tight quads/hip flexors.
I’m going to throw another analogy at you, so bear with me. Imagine your body is a seesaw, with a base in the center and a seat on either side; your skeleton is the base of the seesaw, the muscles on the front of your body are the seat on one side and the muscles on the back side of your body are the other seat. Ideally, your body wants all muscles to be of equal length/pull, which is a principle called Tensegrity (another topic for another time), which would cause the seesaw seats to be equal to one another in height. Are you still with me? Great. Now if one side of the seesaw goes up, the other side must go down. This is the same with your muscle lengths. If the muscles on one side of your body get shortened and “tight” the opposite side muscles must lengthen. While lengthening might not sound like a bad thing, this is actually the cause of most muscle discomfort. Imagine taking an elastic band and pulling it to its max length – now try to strum that elastic. Words like “snappy” and “taut” come to mind. That’s basically what the majority of the general population has going on with their hamstrings.
So to tie all analogies together, your hamstrings are feeling tight because your quads have shortened (due to daily activities, life postures, structural differences, etc.) causing your hamstrings to OVER lengthen which produces that pulling feeling, increasing your risk of injury/strain since there is no more give in the muscle, and actually reducing your range of motion (this is the exact reason why you may never be able to touch your toes regardless of how often you try and forward stretch to get there). Evil genius, isn’t it? Now if you’re still with me after all of that, you may be saying “Okay, but what do I do about it now that I know where the tension actually is?!”. Good question. Keep reading.
Whether you spend all day at a desk job, studying for school, driving long hours, or devote yourself to multiple day-long Netflix binge sessions in a row (okay, that last one might be just me…), you’ve probably felt the twinge of low back pain from time to time. While there are several more in-depth routes you can take to your rehab, and sometimes more severe concerns that need to be addressed, these tips are designed for the average person who has discomfort but isn’t prepared to do a major lifestyle overhaul just to get some relief (…again, just me?!). If you feel “tight” in your low back, a pinch in your hips, or a pulling sensation down the back of your leg, listen up!
Tip 1: GET MOVING
This one might sound like a given, and you might be thinking “but Lauren, I work 8 hours a day at a desk job with tight deadlines to meet, I can’t be walking a lap every 15 minutes” – I know. And you don’t have to! The truth is that our bodies are meant to move – basic physics tells us that a body in motion stays in motion, a body at rest stays at rest. If we aren’t regularly moving our muscles they shorten up leaving you feeling stiff and achy in places you’d rather not be. The best way to combat this is to switch things up – don’t let your muscles get too comfortable. Everyone knows how to squeeze their butt, and that’s the bare minimum of what I am asking you to do. Yes, ideally you would get up from a seated position at least once an hour to take a quick stroll across your office, or even just your immediate work vicinity so that your legs can get a stretch, but at very least all you need to do is activate your muscles by interrupting the signal they are sending to your brain while in a static position. Do you know how to flex? Good. Do it. Even if you can’t get up from your seated position, I want you to shift your position – rock from side to side, slightly raising one hip at a time. Flex your quads. Flex your glutes (this is the bum squeeze I was talking about). Bend forward in your seat to touch your toes. These tiny movements can make a big difference if you are doing them often enough. Try doing them at least once every hour that you are stuck in a seated position.
Tip 2: STRETCH
If you’ve gone to a manual therapist or personal trainer before you’ve probably been asked the dreaded question – “how often do you stretch”? Truth be told, it’s a bit like the “how often do you floss” question at the dentist. They can tell. So can we. The majority of people don’t stretch enough - but some people really are trying and simply end up focusing on the wrong areas or have poor form that doesn’t reach the right muscles. The most important areas to stretch for low back pain are your quads and your glutes – everyone please stop stretching your hamstrings so much. I repeat, STOP STRETCHING YOUR HAMSTRINGS. Remember that seesaw analogy from before? The vast majority of people with low back pain have shortened quads and hamstrings that are already at their max length – trying to stretch something that is already at its max length is not only useless but it can also damage your muscle if you are pushing the stretch too deeply or aren’t properly warmed up. By all means, once your QUAD muscles are warmed and lengthened you can move onto hamstrings, but please stop wasting your time starting with the hams. You’ll thank me!
So, let’s talk quad’s. This first stretch might seem very simple and I’m sure we’ve all learned it at some point in our life, but if you are someone who has flexibility in your hip you may be missing the stretch altogether. I have a handy trick to make sure you are actually targeting the muscle you want.
- Stand upright on a sturdy flat surface. If your balance isn’t great, feel free to hold onto the top of a chair, desk, or put a hand up against the wall to steady yourself.
- With the palm of your hand grasping the topside of the foot, bring your foot to your bum. If you’re unable to reach your foot with your hand alone, you can use a belt or towel around your foot to add length to your arm. Do not pull your foot any closer than is comfortable – it is okay to feel a pull in the front of the leg but if you feel pain at the knee stop this stretch.
- Make sure that your knees are as close together as they can be – you don’t want your hip jutting out to the side – and keep a nice tall, straight back.
- This is the step that most people miss, and is arguably the most important. SQUEEZE THAT BOOTY! By activating your glutes, you are forcing your pelvis into slight posterior rotation which helps to add that extra length to the muscle from the top half, rather than just the lower muscle fibers that you are pulling towards the knee.
- With the glute contracted, hold the stretch for 15-30 seconds at a time (or longer if you can handle it). This can be repeated as many times per day as necessary and should be done on both legs even if you are only feeling a pull on one side.
Next is the seated piriformis stretch. When your piriformis is tight it can cause pain down the back of the leg, sometimes as far down as behind your knee and into your calves, and is often termed Piriformis Syndrome. This feeling so regularly gets misdiagnosed as a more severe nerve problem called Sciatica. The biggest difference between these conditions is that sciatica is an issue with the sciatic nerve which runs the full length of your leg from your lumbar spine to your big toe and comes from the root of the nerve in your spine – it can be caused by disc herniation, trauma to the vertebrae, or simply irritated from improper posture and is a fairly severe condition causing debilitating pain. Similarly to sciatica, when you have tight glutes/piriformis, the muscle can also compress the sciatic nerve to some degree which causes that same irritation down the back of the leg. The tension is often described as an extreme pulling sensation, or even like putting your hamstrings or calf muscles into a vice grip – not comfortable, but a hell of a lot easier to fix! This stretch is a great one because it is simple, extremely effective at easing that pulling pain immediately, and can be done from the comfort of your seat. Therapists typically call it a “Figure 4” or “Tailor Stretch”, but it goes by many names and has many variations. This is my favorite version because it is the easiest to incorporate into your daily life with minimal disruption to your activities.
- Sit on the edge of a firm surface like a chair or bench.
- Bring your ankle up to lay on the knee of your opposite leg.
- Lightly apply downward pressure to the knee of the crossed leg.
- Keep your back straight, and slowly start to lean forward – you aren’t trying to bend over your lap so make sure to keep your head up and back straight. You should feel a pull on the outside edge of your leg and hip, and into your bum. You may feel a dull achy sensation which is completely okay. Ideally hold this position for 30 seconds, but any amount of time is better than none.
- Repeat on both sides, and as often as needed.
Tip 3: RELEASE
What is the difference between a stretch and a release, you ask? Mainly, a stretch has you trying to manually pull a shortened muscle into a longer position, while a release has you put compressive pressure directly into a tight muscle, which can be in either a shortened or lengthened position, with the purpose of interrupting the signal being sent between a mechanism called mechanoreceptors in your muscle, and your brain. It’s complicated, but there is a difference, and in some areas a release is far more beneficial than a stretch can be – like in the glutes!
This release is my favorite – I do it several times a day and recommend it to all of my patients. It can be done with a tennis ball, lacrosse ball, or acupressure ball depending on the level of pressure you can tolerate, and can also be done laying on the floor or standing against a wall, based on your own mobility needs. Accessibility is key for longevity!
- Pick a ball, any ball. Tennis balls are great because they have a lot more give to them which means less intense pressure to the muscle, plus they can also be purchased at any dollar store (so the cost is extremely low). A lacrosse ball or accu ball will provide more resistance and can be used if you find the tennis ball just doesn’t reach deep enough into the muscle.
- Lay flat on your back, feet flat on the ground, knees bent.
- Lift your hips and place your ball under one side of you bum. The best part about this release is that you will know when you’ve found where the ball needs to go. It is entirely up to you in how tight the muscle feels, but once you have found a sore spot simply sink down and allow your full weight to compress on the ball.
- Aim to find two or three different spots on each side and hold each one for about 60-90 seconds. You can find spots on the inner edges, near your sacrum (tailbone), or on the outer edge near your TFL (tensor fascia lata, which is like a squishy deck of cards that sits next to your hip bone)
o To INCREASE the intensity, bring the ankle of the leg you’re working up onto your opposite as seen in the photo above.
o To DECREASE intensity, you can do this same release by simply standing up against a wall and placing the ball between the wall and your bum, backing into the wall with as much pressure as you can stand to use.
And that’s it, folks! Like I said at the beginning, there are TONS of different stretches, releases, and all around nifty tricks you can use to ease hip tension - these are just my go-to beginner level rehab tips to get you feeling looser in your everyday life with minimal cost or commitment on your part.
If at any time you feel like your pain is beyond that of normal muscle tension please visit a health care professional for further assessment.