A few weeks ago, I was working with a female runner who asked me, “Will I ever run pain-free again?”…
You might have experienced hip stiffness and discomfort after a challenging workout, long car ride, or sitting at your desk for several hours. Given that this is common challenge for fitness professionals and their clients, it’s beneficial to understand the underlying causes of hip tightness, how to address it, and how to identify if you should seek medical advice for the issue.
To understand the causes of hip tightness, it helps to you where your hips are located.
Many people use the term hips as a general way to refer to the area around the pelvis. Anatomically however, your hip is defined as a ball and socket joint, where the head of the femur (or thigh bone) fits into a rounded socket called the acetabulum. The acetabulum is where the ischium, ilium, and pubis, or bones of the pelvis meet.
The articulating surfaces of the hip joints are covered in smooth cartilage, which allows the bones to glide against each other with ease during movement. The hip is surrounded by ligaments, tendons, and muscles, which hold the bones in place and prevent it from dislocating. Your hips support the weight of your body when standing, walking, running, and squatting and are responsible for the movement of your upper legs.
Spatially, you can also think of your hips as the creases, created when you sit, between your upper leg bones and the front of your pelvis. If you’ve ever experienced hip stiffness or discomfort, it was probably located around this area. Sometimes, this will also be described as tight hip flexors.
While many people will describe hip discomfort or stiffness as tightness, it’s important to note that tightness isn’t a clinical term and can’t be quantified and measured. However, there are several factors that can contribute to what is often described as hip tightness.
In some cases, there is an underlying condition that is causing hip stiffness or pain. Some of these conditions include arthritis, bursitis, tendonitis, and hip labral tears. If you experience audible clicking, grinding, or ongoing pain and stiffness in your hip, which doesn’t get better with rest, then it’s recommended that you consult a medical provider for a diagnosis and treatment.
However, many of us will experience mild to moderate hip tightness without there being anything wrong with the joint. In this case, the experience of tightness is often the result of not using our hips in their fullest range of motion, and weakness or instability around the joint.
This happens because for most of us modern life requires that we sit for at least part of our day. While sitting isn’t inherently bad for your hips, if you sit in one position for long periods of time, it means that you are only using your hips in a limited range of motion.
Furthermore, you are only strong in the ranges of motion that you use on a regular basis. If a large percentage of your day is spent sitting or standing in a single position, it makes sense that your hip muscles will be weaker in the ranges of motion that go beyond those positions, which you don’t use as frequently.
It is believed that your nervous system will send a signal of stiffness or discomfort when it senses weakness around a joint to protect you from moving into a range that you can’t control, which could result in injury. Your nervous system might also send these signals when it has difficulty sensing where a joint is in space. This is sometimes referred to as a loss of proprioception and has been associated with assuming repetitive postures such as sitting.1
This is also why stretching doesn’t always create lasting relief from hip tightness. In many cases, the issue isn’t caused by short or tight muscles, and it is possible to feel tight while having normal range of motion in the hips. In this scenario, feelings of tightness may be due to weakness and lack of movement around the hip joints.
As mentioned above, you should consult a medical provider if you experience chronic hip pain or stiffness that doesn’t resolve with rest or worsens over time. However, many of us can use movement as a way to reduce feelings of tightness and discomfort.
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, here are some approaches that you can explore to address hip stiffness.
While foam rolling or massaging your tissues won’t make your muscles longer, it can create some relief if you feel stiff and sore after a challenging workout. Foam rolling also creates a temporary increase in range of motion or flexibility, which you can use to prepare your body for exercise. However, to maintain these changes, you will want to follow up with strength work to teach your body how to use and control this newfound range of motion.
Much like foam rolling and massage, static stretching can improve flexibility and decrease feelings of tightness or discomfort. However, if you already have a lot of flexibility or if stretching doesn’t relieve the symptoms, you might want to consider layering in strength and mobility work to train your body how to control the flexibility that you’ve created by stretching.
You can think of mobility drills as dynamic stretching where you move your hips through full ranges of motion. These exercises usually involve little to no weight and can increase body awareness and control through the hips. Stability exercises are also typically unloaded and focus on training the smaller postural muscles that help track your joints when you move. Oftentimes, increasing stability will improve mobility. Some examples of pelvic stability exercises include neutral bridging, side leg lifts, bird dogs, and dead bugs.
As mentioned above, sometimes weakness can manifest as stiffness. Exercises such as deadlifts, squats, step-ups, and lunges require moving the hips through large ranges of motion with control. This can help increase body awareness, improve mobility, and strengthen the muscles around the hips to support the joints.
Hip stiffness can stem from a variety of places and the best approach for addressing it is an individualized one. However, if you are unsure of where to start, a good general guideline is to move and strengthen your hips in all directions. This would mean choosing exercises that involve hip flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, internal rotation, and external rotation. This might look like practicing stability and mobility exercises as part of your warm-up and then following up with lower body strength work.
If you try some of the suggestions outline above, notice what seems to decrease stiffness in the moment and how you feel the next day. This can give you insight on what works well for your body and what doesn’t seem to be as effective. Overtime, you can use this information to figure out what your best options for both workouts and recovery might be and to better understand how your body responds to different types of exercises and self-care tools.
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