I often hear older adults say that sore or tight hips, more than any other joint, make them “feel their age.” In working with my older clients, tight hip flexors in particular are very common — especially among runners. Luckily, we can increase mobility in the hips by performing targeted stretches.
The hip flexors are a group of muscles that flex the hip joint. These muscles also work to stabilize the pelvis, and are involved in all activities requiring leg movement, including running.
Healthy hip flexors help us maintain good mobility and decrease injury as we age. Tight hip flexors can cause low back pain and decrease mobility. This makes movements like descending into a full squat — a fundamental human movement pattern and one of the most important strength exercises — difficult, if not impossible.
Keep in mind that there are many possible causes of tight hip flexors. Very often, weak glute muscles are the culprit. This is why our first exercise involves stretching the hip flexors while also strengthening the glutes. An unstable spine and under-developed core muscles can also lead to tight hip flexors. Add a dynamic movement like running into the mix and these problems can worsen. If your hips feel tight despite stretching, consult with a physical therapist to identify the root cause.
3 Stretches for Tight Hip Flexors
1. Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
This exercise allows you to stretch your hip flexors while also strengthening the glutes. Strong glutes are necessary for an effective running gait, powerful sprinting and running uphill. My beginner older clients start by performing this as a body weight move. Once they can master 10 repetitions on each leg with good form, we start adding dumbbells for added resistance.
Stand facing away from a sturdy bench (or chair). Place the ball of your left foot onto the bench, with your right foot forward and on the floor. Tilt your pelvis by contracting your abdominal muscles and flattening out your low back as much as you can. Maintain this pelvic tilt throughout the movement. Squat down by flexing your right knee and hip. Your right knee should form a 90-degree angle, and left knee should come close to the ground. You should feel a stretch along your left hip flexors and quad muscle. Push through your right foot to return to the starting position. Complete repetitions, then switch sides. Aim for 3 sets of 10 repetitions.
2. Foam Roller Hip Flexor Stretch
Here’s a unique hip flexor stretch that I often do with my older clients who have knee issues. This stretch is great to do before or after a run or after a long day of sitting.
Start with the foam roller sideways, under your pelvis (so your body is perpendicular to the roller). Bend your knees and place your feet on the floor, hip width apart. You’ll be resting on your upper back, shoulders and head. Engage your abdominals and raise your right knee and hug it into your chest. Then slide your left foot along the floor until your leg is straight, heel still on the floor. Keep your abdominals engaged throughout in order to prevent your back from arching. In other words, try to maintain a slight posterior tilt of the pelvis as you extend your left leg along the floor. Hold this position for 30 seconds, then slide your left foot back to the starting position and repeat on the other side. Aim for 2 sets of 30 seconds on each side.
3. Dynamic Wall Hip Flexor Stretch
Often used as a warm-up or cool-down after running or cycling, this kneeling hip flexor stretch will increase mobility in both your hip flexors and quad muscles.
Place a folded yoga mat or towel in front of a wall. From a kneeling position, place your right knee on the mat, 6 to 8 inches from the wall and rest your foot against the wall. Plant your left foot on the ground in front of you and perform a posterior pelvic tilt (engaging your core and glute muscles). Lean forward, maintaining the pelvic tilt, until you feel a stretch in your right hip flexor and quad. Hold for a few seconds, then return to the starting position. Aim for one set of 8 to 10 slow repetitions per side.
In all three of these moves, maintaining a posterior pelvic tilt at all times is very important. This helps to engage your core and glute muscles, stretch the hip flexor muscles, and prevent hyperextension of the low back. To get a sense of how a posterior pelvic tilt works, stand with your feet and head against a wall. Now flatten your low back against the wall so there’s no space between it and the wall. You should feel your pelvis tucking and your glutes and abdominals contracting slightly.