Golfers reach. Waiters bow. Deadlift. Warrior 3. Airplane. Forward fold. Rock backs.
What do all of these activities have in common? They require isolated movement of your hip joint, also known as a hip hinge. Bending from the hips helps you to maintain a neutral position of the spine which is a critical movement for function. As humans, we often need to get close to the floor – for gardening, to pick up laundry, to lift grocery bags, to pick up your children (you get the picture). If your hip doesn’t hinge well in its socket or your hamstrings limit this movement, the next set of joints that allow you to move lower are in your back. While bending the spine isn’t a dangerous or bad thing, we need stability in the spine when lifting or leaning.
A common exercise myth I’ve heard in the clinic is that this movement is bad for your back. My counter-argument for this is that the hip hinge, when done correctly, off-loads your back and puts work into your hips. A correctly performed hip hinge is also a great trunk stability exercise. In this position, your spine is essentially in the plank position.
When we perform a hip hinge, the ball of your hip must roll and glide deeper in the socket. This can be a stiff movement if you don’t regularly do it. When we sit in a chair, we don’t get into that much hip flexion. At least not enough to get you all the way to the floor. There are rotational glides that also have to happen to get to end-range. These can vary depending on your unique anatomy which can explain why the “normal” range is so varied.
As a side note, we most often think of hinging at the hip into flexion, but the hip also needs to be able to hinge on the sides as well.
Hamstrings & Glutes
When we look at how people move when bending forward in the clinic, one thing that we commonly see and hear about is tight hamstrings or glutes. When performing a hip hinge, the hamstrings and glutes must perform an eccentric contraction. An eccentric contraction is when a muscle must maintain tension to slow you down. But rather than the muscle shortening, the muscle actually elongates while it activates. Working on your hip hinge is a great way to achieve an active stretch as well as strengthen this elongated position which can decrease “tightness”.
Common mistakes when trying to hinge at the hips
Externally rotating vs flexing: This will look like you are opening to the opposite side vs staying in the same plane.
Flexing your spine vs your hip: This looks like hunching forward and tucking the hips and can feel like back tension.
Flexing your knee vs your hip: This looks like you’re doing more of a squat rather than an isolated hip hinge. (Side note–its certainly ok to bend your knee, but the movement should be focused at the hip).
Overextending your thoracolumbar junction: This looks like thrusting your chest forward vs keeping it in neutral
There are probably other compensations out there depending on the person, but these are just a few of the most common things I see in the clinic. The good thing is that the hip hinge can be modified to make it accessible to everyone.
Easy modifications if you’re struggling to hinge at your hips
- Make the range of movement smaller
- Decrease the weight
- Use your hand for support on a wall or trekking pole
- Bend your knees more or move to hands and knees–bending your knees takes the tension out of your hamstrings
- Get feedback by using a broomstick along the length of your back to make sure you are staying in neutral and just moving from your hip
- Go deeper by compressing your front pants pockets and sticking your butt back
Remember, hip hinges are important for moving well throughout your life, not just for Olympic weightlifters. If you need help with your hip hinge or are experiencing pain with this, please see your physical therapist.
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