Before we get into why you want strong hips and how to get them with hip strengthening exercises, let's do a little Hip 101.
The hip joint is a ball-and-socket type joint that's formed where the femur (thigh bone) meets the pelvis. The femur has a ball-shaped (or club-shaped) end that fits into a bowl-shaped socket formed by the pelvis called the acetabulum. There are large ligaments, tendons, and muscles around the hip joint that hold the bones (the good old ball and socket) in place and keep it from dislocating—ouch!
Ideally, there's a smooth cushiony piece of material called hyaline (or articular) cartilage covering the femoral head and the acetabulum. The cartilage is kept slippery by a liquid called synovial fluid, which is three times more slippery than ice. The synovial fluid allows us to flex, move and wiggle our joints, even under great pressure, without too much wear and tear. But when the cartilage is damaged, whether from osteoarthritis (which is the wear-and-tear type arthritis) or from some sort of injury or trauma, the hip joint motion can become painful and the result is usually a limited range of motion.
A healthy hip can support the weight of you standing and walking and allow you to move without pain.
A healthy hip can support the weight of you standing and walking (which can equal up to five times your body weight) and allow you to move without pain. But changes in the hip (including injury or weakening) will alter your gait and place unusual amounts and types of stress on the joints above and below.
Now, don't worry, it takes some seriously great force to damage the hip irrevocably. But that's not what we are focussing on here. We are focussing on the stuff we can control like strength and mobility.
Why worry about your hips?
Strength, stamina, and speed are awesome, especially if you're an athlete, or even if you just pretend to be one on weekends. But every single one of us, regardless of our age or fitness level, needs to have the ability to move our bodies through a full range of motion. Not everyone is interested in picking up a kettlebell, going for a killer bike ride, or playing hockey, but we still want to (or indeed have to) get around in our multi-surfaced world.
To truly thrive on this planet, we need to pay attention to the full, unrestricted movement of our human meat sacks (aka our bodies).
To truly thrive on this planet, we need to pay attention to the full, unrestricted movement of our human meat sacks (aka our bodies). One of the best ways to do that is to regain, and then maintain hip strength and mobility.
A report called Importance of Comprehensive Hip Strengthening, written for the Journal of Strength and Conditioning back in 2012, outlined very nicely why having strong hips is an important part of being an athlete and also being a fit and healthy individual on this planet. This is what the report said:
"It is important for athletes to have strong hip muscles that will provide forceful movements in 3 degrees of freedom: flexion/extension, abduction/adduction, and internal rotation/external rotation. It is also important that these muscles are strong to stabilize the pelvis, which will allow a stable foundation for lower extremity kinetic chain movements. An unstable hip can cause serial distortion patterns, which are predictable patterns of dysfunction throughout the kinetic chain that lead to inevitable injuries. "
The report went on to say that many of the most common strength training programs can cause imbalances like the hip extensors becoming much stronger than the hip flexors. Or that a weak gluteus medius can lead to an increase in the line of pull of the quadriceps muscle group. So, even if you're engaging in some sort of strength training program, it's worth taking a look at how that program may be effecting your hips.
Hip strength and mobility are even important for runners
Many runners blame their feet or their footwear for the more common injuries but these problems more often are caused by something further up the kinetic chain. Yup, I mean the hips! Frequently, the physiotherapists I know tell me that they usually look first at the hips and pelvis for the biomechanical causes of loads of running injuries.
Sure, sometimes there's a problem with a runner's feet, but by promoting good hip function, using a focus on strength, mobility and, most importantly, stability can be extremely effective for good running form.
Sitting makes it worse
Sitting in a conventional chair (or on a couch) causes your hip flexors to shorten. When we sit for more of the day than we stand, this shortening becomes an issue. And no, that 45-minute yoga class a few times per week is not enough to undo the damage.
And no, that 45-minute yoga class a few times per week is not enough to undo the damage.
Sitting also weakens our glutes and both our glutes and our hip flexors are an important part of activating of our hips. When our flexors are tight and our glutes are weak the lower back is forced to take over for them. This is bad because the lower back (lumbar spine) is built for support and stability not a ton of activity.
On the other hand, our hips are built to generate a lot of strength and power. They are made for activity and mobility, but when we sit too much and let them get weak, the other joints and muscles have to pick up the slack. This type of load balancing that the body does is cool and important, but it's not a long-term solution. We don't want to go through life letting one part of the body go on vacation while the other parts get overused and worn out. It's just not good body economics.
Keep your hips moving
The hip region includes several large, overlapping muscle groups. If any of them are allowed to get too tight, it can cause problems. There are a ton of stretches and complicated yoga poses you could do, or you could just remember to get up on at least an hourly basis and unfurl those poor contracted hip flexors.
Aside from that very easy and basic maneuver, three of my favorite hip exercises that you can pretty much do anywhere and anytime are Hip Hikes, Fire Hydrants, and Hip Bridges.
Hip Hikes or Hip Hitches
Hip hitching requires two joint actions. One hip is lifting because of spinal lateral flexion, or the lateral flexors lifting the ilium. The other hip performs an abduction movement to assist through the frontal plane by moving the pelvis from the femur. I know that sounds complicated, but all you need to know is this:
Stand with one foot on a stair or a block with the other foot hanging over the end and dangling free
Lift and lower the free leg and hip through a full range of motion, in an up and down movement
Keep the rest of your body as still as possible
Repeat this 10 to 15 times per side for three sets
The fire hydrant is an excellent exercise for strengthening your gluteus maximus. Because your glutes are the biggest muscle in your pelvis and hip region, it is responsible for the three major hip movements: hip extension, hip external rotation and hip abduction. The fire hydrant involves all three movements, which is why it is such a great movement.
To do a Fire Hydrant:
Get down on your hands and knees
Align your shoulders with your hands and your hips with your knees
Keep your neck neutral and look straight down at the floor
Lift one leg up and away from your body at a 45-degree angle while keeping your knee at a 90-degree angle. Yup, just like a dog who just walked past a fire hydrant
Lower your leg back down to the starting position and do it again
Do three sets of 10 to 15 reps on each leg
Make sure you keep your hips flat and parallel to the floor. Don't cheat by rotating from the waist. The movement should be all in the hip.
The main target muscle in the Hip Bridge is the erector spinae which runs from your neck to your tailbone. Doing this exercise stretches and engages your hip abductors, gluteus maximus, and hamstrings. On the other end of the movement, the rectus abdominis, obliques, and quadriceps get a workout due to the need to stay stable.
Start on your back with your knees bent and your arms by your hips
Feet about hip-width apart with your heels as close to your buttocks as you are comfortable with
Push up through your heels and lift your hips off the ground while contracting your glutes
At the top of the movement, you want to create one straight diagonal line from your shoulders all the way up to your knees
Pause in that diagonal position and lower back down—slowly. Don't rush this one
Do 10 to 15 reps for three total sets
A healthy balance of hip strength and mobility is very important to ensure everyday stability and also to prevent overuse and athletic injuries. Achieving this balance isn't a problem if you keep it in mind, don't sit too much for too long, and occasionally weird out your coworkers by laying down in the conference room and doing some hip bridges!