Today’s post is a guest article from Joe Giandonato, CSCS, a great coach located in the Philadephia area.
For the past few years, the glutes have stolen the limelight, so much so, that fitness professionals and researchers have dedicated a bulk of their time to investigating their impact on injury reduction and performance enhancement and rightfully so. I can attest that getting my glutes stronger over the past couple of years alleviated my chronic lower back pain while helping me add several inches to my vertical jump and nearly a hundred pounds to both my deadlift and squat. Influenced by the great minds of Bret Contreras, Eric Cressey, and Mike Robertson, I’ve programmed direct glute work for all of my clients and athletes throughout the years, ranging from low intensity activation drills, such as bird dog variations, one-legged kick outs, and supine unilateral leg raises, to heavily loaded barbell hip thrusts and glute bridges.
On the flipside of glute training and all the benefits it bestows is the psoas, which too has garnered attention in recent years, mainly negative, as tight psoas muscles have been implicated in begetting a quandary of postural issues and impeding performance.
Yes, I’m in agreement that the psoas is a major player in Lower Crossed Syndrome as its tightness contributes to the hips anteriorly tilting, causing the lumbar spine to slip into extension. Hip extension virtually becomes non-existent as the glutes (primary hip extensors) and hamstrings (secondary hip extensors) become inhibited. We know this. But what we overlook is the psoas and its role as a hip flexor.
The psoas, or psoas major, is actually one of two muscles that make up iliopsoas. The second muscle, the iliacus, originates from the inner surface of the ilium, whereas the psoas has attachments spanning from transverse processes of T12 to L5, which also include the intervertebral discs. The fibers of iliacus and the psoas blend together, anterior of the femoral head and insert at the lesser trochanter of the femur. The iliopsoas, which is essentially the only muscular link between the upper and lower body, is capable of generating tremendous amounts of hip flexion at femoral-on-pelvic or pelvic-on-femoral perspectives. However, the potential strength of the iliopsoas is never achieved, as many people are locked into crappy posture throughout the day, thereby disrupting lumbopelvic rhythm, creating compensatory movements of the hip joints and lumbar spine. A tight iliopsoas will also interfere with hip and trunk extension patterns, overtaxing the extensor muscles and apophyseal joints and discs of the lumbar spine.
Strong iliopsoas muscles can also assist in stabilizing the lumbar spine provided they are not anteriorly tilting the pelvis, in absence of rectus abdominis strength. Strength must be appropriately distributed throughout the lumbopelvic hip complex in order to stave off injury and to effectively absorb, generate, and transfer force. While I’ve seen many programs which lack hip extension through direct glute work and abdominal training consisting of flexion exercises only, most if not all programs I’ve seen prescribed either ignore or inappropriately work the hip flexor muscles, namely the iliopsoas. We roll them, we stretch them, but we don’t strengthen them once we work hard to restore the hip flexors back to their natural resting lengths. We target our glutes by activating and strengthening them. We train our core musculature in multiple vectors, yet we target our hip flexors with a battery of generic stretches and call it a day.
Having hip flexion strength, particularly unilateral hip flexion strength, can enhance hip separation which impacts sprinting gait, leaping ability, and acceleration. Among the hip flexor group the iliopsoas is the only muscle that is active beyond 90 degrees, which is why it’s vitally important to train to improve athletic performance.
I’ve compiled a list of a few exercises that I prescribe to my athletes and clients to achieve hip flexion strength.
- Wall Supported Alternating High Knees
I really like these as they prevent excessive lumbar or hip extension as seen with high knees performed in dynamic warm ups. I’ll typically cue my athlete or client to forcefully drive their knee up to their chest as fast as possible. I might also tell them to hold at the top for 1-3 seconds.
- Sled Pull High Knees
One of the most underrated, yet valuable training tools are training sleds. Don’t have a sled? A tire with a rope will suffice. Just be sure that the rope and leg attachment is long enough so the tire doesn’t hit your feet or lower legs. If you have a training sled, attach a strap to one of your legs and perform a unilateral high knee. For example, you’ll take a step with your unstrapped or free leg and then pull your strapped leg forward and up. Be sure not to load the sled too heavily during these.
- Banded Monster Walks
Another great exercise, which simultaneously stretches the hip flexors and resists them in flexion are banded monster walks. These can be performed as part of a dynamic warm-up or to finish off your hip flexors after more challenging movements, which I’ll describe ahead. I like alternating these with band stomps before a squat or jump session.
- Seated or Standing Dumbbell Hammer Marches
The hip flexors should be targeted from seated and standing positions. When seated, it’s easier to achieve greater flexion without compensation of the hips or lumbar spine. With that said, I’ll place heavier dumbbells on my thighs while seated and bring my knee up, as high as possible one leg at a time. The standing marches are a bit more challenging, as you must lock your lumbar spine and hips in place, so I’ll go lighter on these. Not only will you activate the hip flexors, but challenge the core musculature as well.
- Elevated Resisted Mountain Climbers
Position yourself in front of a cable tower or sturdy column or pole and attach straps or bands to your ankles. You might want to consider elevating yourself, supporting your torso with two lower plyo boxes or steppers, to achieve a greater range of motion. Performing resisted mountain climbers with an elevated torso, best simulates firing off the blocks or from a sprinter’s stance during a sprint.
- Any unilateral leg exercise with an extended ROM
Range of motion overload is a concept that deserves greater attention in the strength and conditioning community. As it pertains to overload, many coaches are locked into set and rep schemes with progress usually load driven. On the other hand, increasing a client or athlete’s range of motion presents a great challenge of muscular stability, specifically core stabilization on lower body movements, joint mobility, specifically mobile hip and ankle joints during lower body lifts, and flexibility. As it pertains to the article, full ROM unilateral exercises with or without loads are necessary to establish hip separation (simultaneous unilateral hip extension and hip flexion). Here I’ll chose from an assortment of high box step ups, performed either linearly or laterally, to be performed with a knee kick or without, Bulgarian Split Squats, Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats, and Curtsey Lunges to Elevated Step. In advanced athletes, I’ll throw in Russian Lunges, where you alternate legs as quickly as possible. I’ll also add in bilateral movements, such as low box squats, medicine ball squats to underhanded tosses over the head, and Olympic squats. I’ll sometimes toss in a leg press, such as the Hammer Strength alternating leg press machine and load it with bands to keep the tension constant throughout a full range of motion.
The movements above work to address hip flexion strength should be concurrently incorporated with glute activation and strengthening exercises. Hip flexion strength in athletes is as critical as hip extension strength; therefore, hip flexion strength training should be prioritized within one’s programming. (12029)