Are You Sitting Too Much? Hip Flexors Don’t Lie
Nothing is certain but death and taxes.
Let me add to this famous axiom: nothing is certain but death and taxes…and laying down and walking, and sitting.
When it comes to physical activity, we are only guaranteed to do three things every day. We lay down while sleep; we walk; we sit. Exercise matters, yes, but it’s a voluntary choice. All other movement is necessary. So, you want to make sure your day-to-day movement is serving your body well.
Literally and figuratively, sitting is a pain in the butt. Not only that, too much sitting can wreak havoc in the muscle group known as the hip flexors.
What are the hip flexors?
The hip flexors are known as the iliopsoas and consist of three muscles: the psoas major, the smaller psoas minor, and the iliacus. They attach to, and thereby affect, the lumbar spine and the femur.
Collectively, these muscles flex and externally rotate the hip. Think: kicking a soccer ball using the inside of the foot.
Posturally, the iliopsoas extends the lower back or lumbar spine. In other words, the muscle contracts to return the spine in a neutral position from a slouched position.
What can go wrong?
You’ve probably heard that pain in one part of the body can be caused by dysfunction in another part of the body. Personally, I believe that to be too general a statement. That being said, if any muscle can wreak havoc in – seemingly – unrelated regions, it’s undoubtedly the iliopsoas.
This pesky muscle can lead to pain, dysfunction, and confusion in both practitioner and layperson alike. When functioning optimally, however, the iliopsoas can allow the body to perform amazing feats by integrating the lower body with the upper body.
Due to its extensive attachments, it’s no wonder that this muscle is implicated in most, if not all, cases of lower back pain. When the spine is injured due to excessive or repetitive flexion, the iliopsoas can rapidly pull the lumbar spine back into extension protecting the discs and other ligaments. If the injury is severe or persistent enough, the muscle remains in a constant state of protective spasm.
Similarly, when we sit for a long period of time, the muscle becomes used to this shortened position. The dysfunction in this latter case is centred around the hip joint, rather than the lumbar spine.
During exercise or heavy lifting, the iliopsoas must contract in conjunction with the erector spinae to position the spine properly. If the erectors were to contract without accompanying contraction of the iliopsoas, the spine would lose its intrinsic stability.
Why it’s important to have healthy hip flexors
That’s a mouthful! Not only does having strong hip flexors prevent back pain, but they can also lead to main other benefits.
The iliopsoas (aka the hip flexors) attach to the fascia surrounding the lungs. Simply, fascia is the continuous network of thin connective tissue that surrounds muscles and organs. When the hip flexors are tight, they pull on this fascia, restricting inhalation.
Additionally, the iliopsoas is anatomically related to the diaphragm, the body’s main breathing muscle.
The iliopsoas also merges with the fascia of the pelvic floor. The muscles of the pelvic floor are responsible for stabilizing the pelvis, as well as controlling urination. A weak and/or tight iliopsoas can result in difficult and painful urination.
Fix the hip flexors
Fortunately, keeping your hip flexors healthy is simple by following this four-step approach:
- Sit less and sit better:
Sitting is inevitable, but we can reduce the effects of sitting by improving our sitting posture and by taking frequent sitting breaks.
When possible, sit with your “sit” bones facing backward and your knees lower than your hips. Using a kneeling chair will help facilitate this posture.
Sitting breaks simply involve getting up and walking.
Which leads us to step two.
- Walk with purpose:
A simple way to stretch the hip flexors while walking is to keep your big toe in contact with the ground as long as possible. This forces the hip into extension and internal rotation, thus, stretching the hip flexor…with each step!
- Stretch the hip flexors:
Start by laying on your back and bringing your opposite knee to your chest. Contract the butt and hamstring by pulling your thigh towards the floor or mat. Hold for 15 seconds and repeat three times.
- Strengthen the hip flexors
Lay on your back with your hip in external rotation (knee turned out). Lift the thigh six inches off the table and return to the starting position.
Perform 3 sets of 15 repetitions.
Remember, your hips didn’t become tight overnight and they won’t become supple and strong that quickly either. Consistency is key. Try by incorporating at least one of these tips and then work your way up in baby steps until you’ve developed a hip-loving routine that you can stick with.