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  • Deepen Your Forward Bends Using The
    Hip Flexors

    Hip flexors generally tend to be thought of as the psoas, rectus femoris, tensor fascae latae, sartorius.

    All of these muscles can be used to flex the hips but they also work on or are affected by other joints.

    • The psoas crosses the joints of the lumbar spine.
    • The rectus femoris crosses and acts on the knee.
    • Likewise tensor fascae latae and sartorius.

    Single Joint Hip Muscles

    The muscles that I'll focus on first in this article are normally considered hip stabilizers. They are all single joint hip muscles which means that the only joint that they actually cross and act on is the hip joint.

    And to refine the idea of single jointedness even further, muscles that cross or act on the si joint (or lumbar vertebrae) are not included in this group.

    And so the hip flexors that I'll focus on are muscles that attach to the hip bone portion of the pelvis and the thigh bone.

    (The hip bone is the "side" of the pelvis. It's actually made up of three bones fused together, the ilium, pubis and ischium.)

    Because these muscles attach directly between the pelvis and the thigh bone they can be used to directly control that relationship.

    For myself (and some of my students) learning to feel and use these muscles has made forward bending easier. They give more "solid" control of the pelvis.

    Hip Flexion

    Anatomists use the term hip flexion. You can think of this as forward bending at the hip.

    • In a seated forward bend that means the pelvis tilts forwards relative to the thigh bone(s).
    • In a standing forward bend the same thing can happen, the pelvis tilts forwards relative to the thigh bone.

    In a seated position where you are using your arms to lift the leg, then that too is hip flexion if you use your arms to help move the front of the thigh towards the front of the pelvis.

    However, rather than using the hip flexors to flex the hip, in this case you are using your arms.

    The Psoas and the Lumbar Spine

    psoas side view, hip flexor, but not a single joint hip flexor

    When I first started working on forward bending form an anatomical perspective, I always used to focus on the psoas major, thinking that it was much more important than the rectus femoris as a hip flexor.

    And so I'd teach people to focus on drawing their lumbar spine towards the inner thighs as they bent forwards.

    Later on as I began to explore the single joint muscles of the hip, I realized that perhaps it's these muscles that can be most helpful in a forward bend.

    Now what I'd suggest is learn to control the single joint muscles first, and then learn to add multi joint muscles on top of that.

    Advantages of Single Joint Muscles

    Rather than stretching all the way to the knee (as the rectus femoris, sartorius and the tensor fascae latae do) or rather than attaching to a potentially changeable structure like the lower back (as the psoas does) most of the single joint hip muscles attach close to the hip joint and have angles of attachment that give them much better leverage for tilting the pelvis forwards relative to the thigh bone.

    Not only that, these muscles (to a large extent) aren't dependent on whether the knee is straight or bent, or on whether the lumbar spine is curved backwards, bent forwards or held straight.

    All that is required is an awareness of the thigh and pelvis, and for one or the other of these to be held stable so that the hip flexors have a stable foundation from which to work. They can then either tilt the pelvis forwards relative to the thigh or swing the thigh forwards relative to the pelvis.

    Reference Points

    Knowing some reference points on the pelvis can make it easier to learn to feel and control the hip flexor muscles.

    • The pubic bone is perhaps one of the most easy to identify landmarks of the pelvis.
    • The sitting bones are also easy to identify (you feel them when you are sitting down.)
    • Attaching the pubic bone to the sitting bones are the ischiopubo ramii. You can think of the ischio puboramii as being like the rockers of a rocking chair.
    • Just above and behind the sitting bones are the ischio tuberosities.
    • And just above these are the ischial spines. (This separates the upper sciatic notch from the lower sciatic notch. The obturator internus passes through the lower sciatic notch, the piriformis passes through the upper. Note that the piriformis isn't a hip flexor.)
    • At either side of the top of the pelvis are the iliac crests. I like to think of them simply as the hip crests.
    hip bone and sacrum, side view of pelvis, sacrum, coccyx, greater sciatic notch, ischial spine, lesser sciatic notch

    Reference Positions (Not the Anatomical Position)

    Rather than using the standard anatomical position as a reference I'm going to invent a reference position.

    The Standing Reference Position

    The first position is standing with feet hip or shoulder width apart, feet and knees pointing straight ahead and upper body horizontal. The hands are beneath the shoulders and are resting on the floor or blocks.

    The assumption is that the hip extensors are flexible enough to allow the pelvis to tilt further forwards from this position.

    Weight is even on both feet and the arms support the weight of the upper body.

    The Seated Reference Position

    A variation is to sit with the legs straight and hip width and the torso vertical with hands "resting" on the floor.

    In either case, the hip flexors can be used to tilt the pelvis forwards relative to the thighs. Meanwhile the hip extensors offer just enough tension so that the hip flexors have something to work against.

    Hip Flexors

    Illiacus

    The iliacus "originates" on the inside of the pelvic bowl.

    It wraps around the front of the pelvis and then reaches down and back to attach just below the lesser trochanter. In the seated reference position, this muscle pulls the top of the pelvis forwards and down.

    Because it folds around the pelvis, this may give the muscle extra leverage. In addition, it attaches to a large portion of the inside of the pelvis giving it even more leverage.

    hip flexors, single joint muscles of the hip, iliacus, side viewhip flexors, single joint muscles of the hip, iliacus, front view

    Pectineus

    Pectinus has a similiar angle of attachment as the iliacus but instead of starting at the inside of the pelvis it attaches to the outside of the pelvis.

    In the seated reference position this muscle can be thought of as pulling down (and back) on the pubic bone.

    hip flexors, single joint muscles of the hip, pectineus and quadratus femoriship flexors, single joint muscles of the hip, pectineus, front view

    Obturator Externus

    Obturator externus originates at the sides of the bottom of the pelvis, behind the pubic bone. It passes under the neck of the thigh bone, wraps around the back of the neck.

    Because of the way it wraps around the neck, my feeling is that this muscle still has room to tilt the pelvis forwards even when the pelvis is tilted forwards relative to the thigh. Activating this muscle can feel like you are pulling the pubic bone down and back in the seated position.

    hip flexors, muscles of the hip, obturator externus, side viewhip flexors, muscles of the hip, obturator externus, front view

    Obturator Internus and Gemelli

    The obturator internus like the iliacus originates on the inside of the pelvis. However this hip flexor attaches to the lower back portion of the inner pelvis.

    It folds around the pelvis at the lower sciatic notch. It attaches to the inside of the greater trochanter, where it joins the neck of the thigh bone.

    This muscle is"joined" by the gemelus superior and inferior. The superior muscle originates from the ischial spine. The inverior muscle originates from the top of the ischial tuberosity.

    In the seated reference position these muscles act to pull the sitting bones up.

    hip flexors, gemellus superior and gemellus inferior, muscles of the hiphip flexors, single joint muscles of the hip, gemellus superior, gemellus inferior, back viewhip flexors, muscles of the hip, obturator internuship flexors, single joint muscles of the hip, obturator internus back view

    Gluteus Minimus

    Gluteus minimus originates on the outside of the upper front portion of the pelvis. Where the iliacus is on the inside, this hip flexor (more or less) is on the outside.

    And like the iliacus the gluteus minimus pulls the top of the pelvis forwards and down in the seated reference position.

    hip flexors, muscles of the hip, gluteus minimus, side viewsingle joint muscles of the hip, gluteus minimus, front view

    Adductors

    single joint muscles of the hip, adductor magnus

    I almost forgot to talk about the adductors, in particular adductor brevis, longus and magnus.

    All of these muscles attach to the inner thigh. More importantly they attach to the front of the bottom portion of the pelvis.

    Along with the pectinues and obturator internus these hip flexors can be used to pull the pubic bone down and back in the seated reference position.

    Note that the adductor magnus has an attachment to the sitting bone. This portion of the muscle can actually be used to tip the pelvis backwards relative to the thighs.

    Hip Flexing from the Standing Reference Position

    In the standing reference position you can think of the illiacus and gluteus minimus pulling the top of the pelvis down. The pectineus and obturator internus pull the pubic bone back, between the thighs.

    The obturator internus and gemelli pull the sitting bones up.

    Using the Hip Flexors to Stretch the Hamstrings

    So how do you actually go about using the hip flexors to stretch the hamstrings?

    How do you learn to activate them?

    I've included the exercises that I've found most helpful in teaching Active hip flexion in my new book Active Stretching. This book covers how to activate the hip flexors as well as the muscles that oppose them, the hamstrings and glutes. It also shows you how to recognize when these muscles are active so that you know whether you are using them or not.

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