October 2, 2011

The Hips, And How They Affect Performance

Repetitive stress injuries within the athletic population are no rarity these days, and amongst the most popular of them are hamstring and groin injuries.

Because of their dual role as both hip extensors and knee flexors, the hamstrings, and their ability to forcefully contract, will dictate just how fast one can run/sprint, as well as how high/far one can jump. As a result of their contribution to explosive movements, injuries to them are a hell of a lot more common to the athletic population, as opposed to the rest of the population.

Hamstring or groin injuries lead to the assumption that the hamstrings, or adductor muscles are either weak, or tight. Logical as it may seem, this is often not the case, as the injury itself is the effect, not the cause. Generally the cause for repetitive stress comes from imbalanced development of the pelvic musculature.

While hamstring and groin injuries are a greater threat to the athletic population as a result of a tilted pelvis, lower back pain is a legitimate concern for the rest of the population with the similar pelvic alignment. It’s likely that anyone reading this probably knows more than one person who is directly affected by low back pain.

As logical it is to assume that a hamstring injury is the result of weak hamstrings, it’s just as logical to assume that lower back pain stems from a weak lower back. However, in reality the lower back is generally one of the strongest areas of the body, and pain is the result of overuse from the lower back doing more work on a daily basis, than the rest of the synergistic muscles surrounding it.

The Relationship Between The Musculature Of The Hips And Performance

The hips, and surrounding muscles of the hip, are highly influential in how our bodies move and perform in the gym, as well as everyday life, therefore making balanced development between them of significant importance. If there is an imbalance in the musculature of the hips it can become a limiting factor which could lead to chronic, or acute injuries.

The primary movements that take place at the hip are flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, external rotation, and internal rotation. If the corresponding muscles for any of these movements are tight, weak, inactive, etc, compensatory patterns will take place throughout the entire body in one way or another.

The upper body and the lower body meet at the hips, therefore imbalanced development of the musculature of the hips can present a host of unfavorable side effects that would otherwise be preventable. Because this is the middle ground between the upper and lower, this is often where problems originate.

The Anterior and Posterior Pelvic Tilt

On one end of the spectrum, as it relates to imbalanced development of the pelvic musculature, you have the anterior pelvic tilt (APT, not to be mistaken for A”T”P). In this case the top of the pelvis is shifted/rotated forward towards the front of the body. On the opposite end the spectrum lies the posterior pelvic tilt (PPT). In this case the top of the pelvis is shifted/rotated backward towards the back of the body.

While the anterior pelvic tilt is more common, primarily due to the lifestyle choices we as humans make, imbalanced development leading to APT, or PPT can negatively impact everyday life in more than one way.

The Relationship Between Force Production And Anterior Pelvic Tilt

Lordosis is the term used to describe the exaggerated arch in the lower back indicative of anterior pelvic tilt. This is quite prevalent in this day and age as a result of the amount of sitting the majority of the population do on a daily basis. Remaining in a seated position for a sustained period of time results in the muscles responsible for flexing the hips becoming tight (which doesn’t mean strong, by the way), which ends up pulling the top of the pelvis forward into a tilted position.

Locally, when the hip flexors are tight/short, the opposite muscles (hip extensors AKA glutes), become inhibited to a certain degree by default of being in a constant lengthened position. This negatively affects force production, and thus performance.

If the muscles responsible for flexing the hip are tight, they will provide resistance to the muscles responsible for extending the hip, as well as place them in a mechanically disadvantageous position (lengthened position), which means you won’t be able to lift with as much force as possible, or move as fast and jump as high.

Also, since the glutes cannot fully contribute to extending the hips, the spinal erectors will have to take on a greater amount of stress and act as hip extensors, due to the glutes not being able to fully activate. This generally the cause of chronic low back pain, and also increases the chance of sustaining an acute injury.

The Relationship Between Chronic Low Back Pain And Anterior Pelvic Tilt

Aside from performance decrement, as in not being able to lift as much or move as fast, the rest of the body is negatively affected as well.

Proximally (above the hip in this case), the muscles of the core (spinal erectors, abdominals, etc.) will be impacted, as flexion of the hip will put the abdominals in a pre-stretched/disadvantageous position (their weakest position), leaving the short/tight spinal erectors (lower back) left with taking on a greater percentage of the weight of your upper body all day long.

Over time the lengthened muscles (abdominals) get progressively weaker, while the shortened muscles (erectors) get progressively overworked, and the cycle feeds itself from there. While this may not present itself as a problem initially, over time you can bet that the repetitive stress placed upon the erectors as the result of the abdominals not “doing their job” will present itself as seemingly never-ending, chronic low back pain.

The Relationship Between Tight Hamstrings And Anterior Pelvic Tilt

Distally (below the hip in this case), the glutes, hamstrings, and adductors are also pulled into a disadvantageous pre-stretched position, exposing them to repetitive stress during gait. This is something that is of greater concern to the athletic population.

The reason hamstring and groin injuries are as common as they are, is NOT because these muscles are weak muscles, but because they are constantly being stretched from their origin (where the start) through to their insertion (where they finish) due to the imbalanced position of the pelvis. Combine this with the high impact activity which usually causes the injury, and it’s no wonder these injuries are amongst the most common.

When the hips flexors are tight, and the hip extensors are inhibited, the hamstrings, as well as adductors (inner thigh), are left to take on a more than optimal amount of the load.

Just like the muscles above the hips (spinal erectors) have to “pick up the slack”, the muscles below the hips (hamstrings) also need to help out with hip extension movements. Overloading these muscles with more stress than they were ever intended for during everyday life/sport will ultimately become overwhelming, and the risk for injury is elevated.

Acute injuries are generally in the works long before they present themselves because other muscles (ex. glutes) fail to “carry their weight” for far too long. More often than not, when an injury occurs, the individual will usually say something like “This has never happened before”, and “I’ve always been performing (insert exercise here) that way”.

In most cases, the injured individual is confused as to why the injury occurred in the first place, never realizing that the injury is the “straw that broke the camel’s back” if you will, as a result of overloading a certain muscle at the expense of another, and it just couldn’t take it anymore. In this case, the hamstrings and/or adductors have been overworked due to the glutes not doing their job because the alignment of the skeleton beneath them is out of kilter.

Coles Notes Version Of Anterior Pelvic Tilt

(Short/Tight/Hyperactive Muscles on the left – Lengthened/Weak/Underactive Muscles on the right)

Spinal Erectors – Abdominals

Hip Flexors – Hip Extensors (Glutes)

Quadriceps – Hamstrings

Commonly Injured/Sore Areas as a result of an APT – Hamstrings, Low Back

Rounding Of The Lower Back Can Lead To A Hernia As A Result Of Posterior Pelvic Tilt

Posterior pelvic tilt is a lot less common, but comes with its own unwanted side effects which can negatively affect you in and out of the gym.

If it isn’t already obvious, the posterior pelvic tilt is basically the exact opposite of the anterior pelvic tilt. In this case it is the glutes and abdominals that are in a tightened/shortened state (which does not mean they are strong), and this puts the lumbar spine (lower back) into flexion (the segments are rounded forward).

While a flexed lumbar spine is not so much a direct problem if you are never involved in any sort of heavy lifting or physical activity, those that are have an increased chance of sustaining a hernia. Under load, the lumbar spine is supposed to remain arched and stable, and anything less than this increases the chance of injury, tenfold.

The Relationship Between Rounding Of The Upper Back And Posterior Pelvic Tilt

The effects of PPT can travel relatively farther up the spine to a greater extent than that of the APT, resulting in a rounding of the thoracic spine, which is referred to as kyphosis.

In this case, hernias are still a concern if you choose to lift heavy, but the increased risk of shoulder impingement is of greater concern, and more of a limiting factor when it comes to exercise selection.

When the upper back is flexed (rounded forward), the shoulder girdle is usually somewhat protracted as well, and it’s this protracted position that promotes shoulder impingement, as any time the arm is internally rotated, raised, or both, the subacromial space (small space between all three bones that make up the shoulder joint and connective tissues that run through the joint) is compromised.

Coles Notes Version Of Posterior Pelvic Tilt

(Short/Tight/Hyperactive Muscles on the left – Lengthened/Weak/Underactive Muscles on the right)

Abdominals – Spinal Erectors

Hip Extensors (Glutes) – Hip Flexors

Hamstrings – Quadriceps

Commonly Injured/Sore Areas as a result of a PPT – Hernias, Shoulder Impingement

The Fix

While fixing the problem may seem simple and somewhat obvious, in actuality it’s a very time consuming process, as it took quite some time for these imbalances to develop in the first place. Without constant application of corrective/preventative measures, you will only be reinforcing poor motor patterns and bad posture.

Regardless of whether you have APT, or PPT, the easiest way to remember where your focus should be to correct muscular imbalances is to stretch, and in some cases strengthen the short/tight muscles, and activate and strengthen the long/weak muscles.

Glute Activation

More often than not, when dealing with APT, the glutes are inactive, or just don’t fire optimally. By simply activating the glutes prior to exercise, especially hip extension exercises like deadlifts, and squats, performance is tremendously improved, and risk is dramatically reduced, as the glutes are needed to generate high levels of force as well as provide stability.

When the glutes are active and doing their job, you can train them through a full range of motion which will help strengthen them further so that they begin to take on an optimal amount of tension during everyday life/sport, thus preventing/reducing back pain, and hamstring and groin injuries.

Glute Activation Technique

It is important to warm up the muscles surrounding the hip prior to activity (load bearing, high-impact sports) to ensure optimal shock absorption.

To do this exercise you need a partner. You lay on your back on a mat or the floor with feet roughly shoulder width apart and knees bent at 90 degrees as if you were going to do a sit-up. Your partner stands over you, trying to push your legs together. As you resist, and activate the external rotators of the hip (glute med), press your pelvis up off the ground as high as you can while pushing through your heels, to activate the extensor muscles of the hip (glute max). Do as many reps as needed, usually 5-10 are suffice.

Then have your partner place their hands on the inner part of the knee and try to push your legs apart from each other. As you resist, and activate the adductors, press your pelvis up off the ground as high as you can, just as you did while pushing outwards. Do as many reps as needed, once again 5-10 should be suffice.

This exercise activates all the major muscles around the hip so they can take on more stress while load bearing. There is no rule that says you can’t do this exercise prior to every set if you want. Its purpose is to simply activate the glutes and increasing the firing rate to that muscle, so use it as needed.


YOUR HAMSTRINGS AREN’T TIGHT! Your pelvis is out of alignment, which puts your hamstrings in a stretched position creating the illusion that your hamstrings are tight.

YOUR LOWER BACK ISN’T WEAK! Once again, your pelvis being out of kilter leaves the lower back to take on a greater percentage of your bodyweight.

Imbalanced development of the pelvic musculature will mask your true strength. Training without correcting the imbalanced development will lead to faulty recruitment patterns to which there is NO long term positive outcome. You can’t expect to perform at your absolute best if certain muscles are not functioning optimally.

Activating inhibited muscles, like the glutes, will drastically improve performance and reduce the risk of injury by helping to correct pelvic imbalances. Just because an exercise is “supposed” to target a certain area, doesn’t mean that area will do what it’s supposed to, especially if the muscle isn’t “activating”.

If you have any questions about the hips, and how they affect performance and/or everyday life, feel free to contact me at ben@paramounttraining.ca. I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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