Coach Mark Breaks Down Hip Mobility
Have you ever wondered what sets a Division 1 college athlete apart from a world-class Olympic athlete? The majority of their success is not due to their superior genetics (even though this cannot be denied as a valuable asset), but due to flawless hip mobility and efficiency.
A great percentage of the body’s mass is centered on muscles that attach on or around the hip. The muscles that have commanded the most attention in the fitness and medical industry are the 3 hip stabilizers and extensors (Glute medius, minimus and maximus) and the primary hip flexor (iliopsoas). Our sedentary lifestyle in today’s society creates an imbalance of power between the hip flexors and the hip extensors/stabilizers. We spend more hours per day sitting compared to sleeping. Sitting tips the scale in favor of the hip flexor, leaving the glutes to fend for themselves.
Here is the basic anatomy necessary to explain this imbalance. The psoas (hip flexor) attaches to the front of the lowest 6 segments in the lower back (lumbar vertebrae) and descends to attach to the front of the hip. The psoas activates to flex the hip (bringing the knee up toward the chest) and to also extend the lower 5 or 6 segments of the lower back. Similar to when women wear high heels shortening their calves; we sit with the hip flexed to shorten the hip flexor. When we sit for longer than 20 minute intervals, it is essentially like locking our hips into flexion and our low back into a sway-backed and extended position. This is equivalent to putting vice grips on the muscle that attaches to every bone in our lower back and our hip.
The tension in the hip flexor may be why it is difficult for you to get up out of a chair until you take three or four steps. It may also hurt for you to lay on your back with your legs straight because the tension on your hip flexor translates to compressive force on your lower back’s discs and articulating joints. If your hips become less flexible than your spine, your spine will be pulled in any direction your hips decide to pull it into.
The glutes, all three layers, were designed to extend the hip, stabilize the hip, sprint and lift heavy objects. They were not meant to be laminated together at one hundred degrees against a chair, couch or car seat for 16 hours a day. This little conflict prefaces our problem as to why our hips, low back, and knees are in such bad shape.
Our brain is our master organ and control center of our bodies. If you are trying to perform explosive hip movements like a snatch, clean or anything else in functional fitness, the brain will limit the maximum force elicited by the glutes until the full hip mobility is achieved.
Think of it this way: Your car will not let you drive full speed down the highway with your emergency brake on without some repair costs. Similarly, if the body allowed the glutes to contract to full capacity without full hip mobility, you would have some repair costs on an operating table because your psoas would be destroyed. In order to keep our brain from shutting down our athletic potential, or more specifically our glute potential, we need to work on hip mobility daily. You likely watch television, text, update your Facebook status, and practice countless other relatively unproductive habits on a daily basis. Now you get to stretch your hips daily so you don’t end up crippled. You can even do it while watching TV, texting, and checking in on social media.
Let’s break down the squat and how it relates to hip mobility and everyday life. Squatting is nothing more than flexion and external rotation about the hip joint. Any deviation from that will ruin your lower back and knees. If you lack true flexion or external rotation of the hip, the body will achieve this through lumbar flexion and rotation. This is the most common mechanism of injury for a lumbar disc herniation. The body may also use medial knee deviation (caved knees), which is the most common cause of acute knee injury. To simulate poor hip mobility, just picture trying to put on a pair of socks or squat in extremely tight jeans.
I am sure you have heard someone tell you to stop doing squats because they ruin your knees and lower back. But I could not disagree more.
Here is a great quote from Mark Rippetoe on squatting:
“The full squat is a perfectly natural position for the leg to occupy. That’s why there’s a joint in the middle of it, and why humans have been occupying this position, both loaded and unloaded, for millions of years. Much longer, in fact, than quasi-intellectual morons have been telling us it’s ‘bad’ for the knees.”
In my opinion there is no faster way to rehab a knee or low back than squatting often and properly under the watchful eye of a quality coach. You should earn the privilege to squat with weight in the gym; it isn’t a right just because you show up. You must possess adequate hip (and ankle) mobility to not hurt yourself to earn your squat pass. To all those advising against squats, I would ask the following: How do I get out of bed to get dressed in the morning? How do I go to the bathroom? How do I get in and out of my car to drive? How do I sit and get out of the chair?