The Best (and Worst) Exercises for Tight Hip Flexors

Spoiler alert: Stretches such as pigeon pose and happy baby won't actually solve the problem. Read on for the best exercises for tight hip flexors.

If you're dealing with pain from tight hip flexors, chances are you know what's causing it: too much SoulCycle or too much time sitting at your desk, to name two likely culprits. What's less clear is which exercises you should be doing to stretch tight hip flexors and ease the pain.

Maybe you've tried going for a walk or doing stretches after your workout class, but those probably haven't helped ease the ache very much. That's because the problem isn't actually in your hip flexors — it's in your glutes, according to Allison Heffron, D.C., chiropractor and owner of Adjust Your Performance in Springfield, New Jersey. And you don't need to stretch — you need to strengthen. Luckily, that's easy enough with the right exercises for tight hip flexors. (

What Causes Hip Flexor Pain?

Have you ever felt a sharp pain running from the front of your pelvis down to the very top of your thigh every time you lift your leg? That's what you'd call tight, sore hip flexors. Quick anatomy lesson: Your hip flexors are a group of muscles that attach your pelvis to your femur (the bone in your upper leg) and help it lift and lower, as well as do every micro-movement in between, according to research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The largest of the hip flexor muscles are the psoas muscle, which wraps from the back of your spine around the front of your pelvis to the top of your femur, and the iliacus muscle, which connects the top front of your pelvis straight down to the same tendons on the femur as the psoas. (

"Typically, hip flexors tighten because they're overactive as a response to something else being underactive — usually your glutes," says Heffron. Thanks to activities such as sitting all day or rushing through your squats with improper form, your glutes aren't always taught to fire properly. Sure, you really feel like you're engaging your glutes when you're working out, but if you're suffering from sore hip flexors, that's a major sign that they aren't engaged enough.

"It's almost as if your glutes are the power switch to turn off the hip flexors. When you're working out or even just walking and you focus on activating the glutes, it inhibits overactivity of the hip flexors. This allows the hip flexors to rest and be less taxed while the glutes do the job they are meant to do," says Heffron.

Think of your hip flexors as the muscles controlling the front half of your leg, and your gluteal muscles (all three of them — maximus, medius, and minimus) as the ones controlling the back half. When the two sets of muscles are firing and working in sync, all is good. But when one set doesn't do its job, the other has to pick up the slack.

It might also help to strengthen your core, according to Heffron. "The hip flexors attach to the front of the spine and cross over the front of the hip, so if your core is inactive, then you will either slouch or hyperextend into your low back, creating more tension in the hip flexors and less activity in the glutes," she says. Same problem, different trigger.

Spin and cycling classes are high on the list of offenders for causing tight hip flexors, but it's really all tied to sitting. Whether on the saddle, on an airplane, or at your desk, parking it in a seat most hours of the day puts your hip flexors in a contracted and shortened position while also inhibiting your glutes from activating. Trying to use your hip flexors when they're tight exacerbates the problem — and, therefore, the pain. (

"By no means does this mean you need to avoid spin or riding your bike," assures Heffron. It just means you need to do a little extra strength work — including some of the exercises for tight hip flexors below — to fight those muscle imbalances.

The Worst Exercises for Hip Flexor Pain

If you're feeling the tightness every time you walk up the stairs or sit down, your instinct has probably been to Google "hip flexor stretches." But pigeon pose and happy baby — two of the most common stretches that will come up from a quick search — don't actually solve the problem. To be frank, they may even make the hip flexor pain worse.

These kinds of moves are called static stretches, which are exercises without any sort of dynamic movement. "Think of stretching a rubber band for a long period of time. As it stays stretched, it starts to lose its elasticity, so when you let go, it won't be as effective or stable. Similarly, static stretching begins to decrease the elasticity and stability of the muscles," says Heffron.

So, should you never static stretch? Well, it's fine to do, say, post-run when your body is super pliable. But most physical therapists and trainers agree that static stretches aren't the best choice when your body isn't already warm — such as when you're trying to relieve pain at night or first thing in the morning. (

You'll also want to avoid any exercises where you're bringing your legs up toward your torso, such as starfish crunches or mountain climbers. These shorten the hip flexors, and you want to lengthen to relieve tension. Strengthening your glutes and core, on the other hand, trains both muscle groups to fire efficiently, taking the pressure off your hip flexors without destabilizing them entirely.

The Best Exercises for Tight Hip Flexors

If your hip flexors are aching, try the simple routine below first thing in the morning after your body is warmed up and flexible, advises Heffron. You should start to see relief after just a week or two, though the longer you do this hip flexor workout and the more you progress, the more long-lasting relief you'll experience.

A few notes: You want to go slow and controlled, really squeezing your core and glutes with each move to increase stability. Think "rehabilitation" over "workout." And while you're probably used to doing more reps or holding a plank for longer than this routine prescribes, the squeeze-and-release happening here (called isometric contraction) helps build endurance in your muscles and recruits more muscle fibers to aid in stabilization, says Heffron. Translation: Work slow now, and when you're ready, you'll be able to effectively activate those glute and core muscles when you're doing faster movements and more reps. (And if you still have hip flexor pain, try these yoga hip openers as well.)


Glute Bridge

A. Lie on back, feet hips-width apart and flat on the floor, arms straight with palms flat on the floor. Tighten abs, aiming to hold this gentle contraction throughout the exercise while still breathing.

B. Keeping shoulders and feet on the ground, squeeze glutes and press hips up toward the ceiling until body forms one line from chest to knees.

C. Pause, then slowly lower back to starting position.

Do 3 sets of 8 reps

Dead Bug

A. Lie on back with arms extended in front of shoulders, pointing toward the ceiling. Bring knees to a 90-degree angle. Tighten abs and press lower back into the floor.

B. Take a deep breath in and, while exhaling, slowly extend left leg toward the floor and bring right arm overhead.

C. Keeping abs tight, slowly return arm and leg to starting position. Switch sides; repeat.

Do 3 sets of 8 reps on each side

Banded Bodyweight Squat

A. Slide a medium-strength looped resistance band over feet and place right above knees.

B. Stand with feet slightly wider than hips-width, toes turned slightly out. Tighten abs, aiming to hold this gentle contraction throughout the exercise while still breathing.

C. Keeping chest and head high, shift weight back into heels, squeeze glutes, and push hips directly back and downward. When lowering hips, continue to press knees outward to keep tension on the resistance band.

D. Once thighs are parallel to the floor, use glutes to rise back up to starting position, continuing to press knees out and engage core.

E. Pause at the top; repeat.

Do 3 sets of 8 reps

Forearm Plank

A. Start in a push-up position, but on forearms instead of hands. Lower hips so body forms a straight line from shoulders to ankles.

B. Tighten core and squeeze glutes as tight as possible. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds while breathing deeply.

C. Release and pause; repeat.

Do 3 sets of 8 reps

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