Jordan Bierkos is a graduate of the University of Alberta physical education program and is currently a student at the University of Calgary in the faculty of law. He is a certified Olympic weightlifting and football coach; a strength and conditioning specialist; and was the head strength coach for the Edmonton Eskimos for two years.
Have you ever tried walking down the isle of a charter bus on a bumpy road? How about standing perfectly still on a balance board? Your movements will be dictated by the bus or the wobble board. Now picture you are one of your hamstrings, calves or any other muscle below your hip. You can only time your contractions in response to the big powerful muscles above you. This is why it is crucial to properly control and use your hip joint — it will dictate how the rest of your lower body functions. The hip joint is also the biggest joint in your body and the muscles that surround it are the most powerful.
It sounds straight forward, but having taught and corrected lifting and sprinting techniques of hundreds of athletes and fitness enthusiasts, it is astonishing to see how many people have some form of dysfunctional movement pattern of the hip.
A dysfunctional movement pattern is an inefficient co-ordination of the muscles. The most common error is the failure to distinguish between hip extension and lumbar spine extension — the results of which can lead to inefficient performance at best, and injury at worst.
This can be especially pronounced in students who spend hours sitting in class and studying. What happens from chronic sitting is a shortening of the muscles that flex the hip because they are constantly in a shortened position. When these muscles become tight, one result among many is an effect known as reciprocal inhibition, which means that when a muscle that does one function becomes active, the muscle that does the opposite relaxes. So when the hip flexors are tight and active, the hip extensors — most prominently glutes — stop recruiting as readily.
A second result of the tight hip flexors is the tipping forward of the pelvis, which shortens the spinal extensors. These shortened muscles then become overactive as well. The end result? Hips that don’t want to extend fully and a lower back that is all too willing to compensate. This altered movement pattern will become the ‘new normal’ with the neurological recruitment pattern — more commonly known as ‘muscle memory’ — becoming entrenched in the part of the brain responsible for muscle co-ordination. This new motor program is what is tougher to correct than the simple muscular imbalances that started the problem.
In day to day life, this may have minimal effects — aside from potential lower back pain. However, your body will be unable to reach its full potential when you start pushing it to move faster and lift more weight, and there is also risk of injury.
In the weight room, this is most commonly seen on the lifting platform when people are deadlifting and doing Olympic lifts. After the bar passes the knees, instead of extending the hips and bringing the pelvis to the bar, the lifter will extend their lower back instead, pulling their shoulders backwards and hyperextending their lower back. Proper recruitment would have the spinal extensors remain as postural stabilizers, and have the hips extend forward, going toward the bar, and the shoulders going straight up, not back.
However, you can fix this problem with three simple steps: 1) stretching to relax the hip flexors and spinal extensors, 2) exercises to cue and facilitate the glutes recruiting and 3) cuing during movements.
Firstly, when stretching the hip flexors, it is important to note that they will want to pull the pelvis forward, effectively negating the stretch. To correct this, think of your pelvis as a bucket of water that you don’t want to spill. To keep the ‘bucket’ upright, two things will help: flexing your abs and flexing the glute on the same side as you are trying to stretch. When kneeling on one knee, report the above mentioned tips and try to push your hips forward. You can also elevate the back foot to stretch the quad as well.
Second, do some exercises targeted specifically at the glutes to re-establish that neural pathway. This is one of the simplest and most effective exercises. Laying face down, bend one knee and try to lift that thigh off the floor without causing that pelvis to tip forward. To do this, flex your abs and concentrate on using your glute to do the moving. If you feel your stomach pressing into the ground or your pelvis rising off it, you are extending you spine, not your hip — drop your leg and reset. Don’t expect too much movement — the average is about 20 degrees, and you will get less if you have chronically tight hip flexors.
The key thing is just to get the glute to fire as much as possible. Do this exercise right after stretching your hip flexors, but before going for a run or lifting to wake up that dormant glute. As you progress, you can straighten the leg and try to lift it. Although your hamstrings will want to help more, you have to make sure that the glute is still doing its fair share.
Lastly, when doing any exercise — especially deadlifts and Olympic lifts — be mindful of this movement flaw, and consciously think ‘fire the glutes’ or ‘bring the hips forward’ and concentrate on having your hips extend independent of your lower back. It is especially helpful when deadlifting or doing Olympic lifting to think about your shoulders, and how you want them to go up, not back. The cuing shouldn’t be limited to these lifts. Remember that being the largest muscle in the lower body, the glutes should be doing a majority of the work in any lower body exercise, so make sure you are thinking about ‘firing that glute’ in all those exercises. Try these tips and see how it helps your health and performance.