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I’ve suffered from having tight hips throughout my life. Once, after a day-long out-of-state road trip, my right hip was so tight that my boyfriend had to cantilever me out of the car. Tight hips can happen to anyone, even yoga practitioners.
Hips become tight due to tension around the hip flexors, caused by posture, by lifestyle, and by muscular imbalances. There are many exercises you can do to release tension in the hips, plus ways to make healthy lifestyle changes to bring happiness to the hips every day.
The truth is, anyone can have tight hips, whether they’re an office worker, pro athlete, yoga teacher, or stay-at-home parent. It’s vital to help them release in order to decrease risk of injury and provide a healthy, sustainable future for the entire body.
How to Loosen Tight Hips
The path to unlocking tight hips involves both stretching the muscles around the hip and strengthening the muscles that support hip function. Stretching creates space in the joint itself, while strengthening the other muscles creates stability surrounding the hips. Ultimately, the hip is looser; plus, it doesn’t have to work as hard or take as much stress.
Loosening tight hips requires patience and determination. There’s no “easy fix” to unlocking them. That’s a good thing.
The hips are the largest joint in the human body. They play a critical role in mobility. Think about it – do you ever have a day where you don’t use your hips, even when you spend it mostly sitting on the couch?
Therefore, taking time with stretching the hip muscles & strengthening the supporting muscles is a safe, effective way to letting the body adjust to its new normal. Going all-in on pigeon pose might look like it’s a good idea, but it could backfire when our hips rebound more tightly than before!
Keep track of exercises, habits, and day-to-day activities that impact your hip tightness. You’ll start to notice what helps & harms your hips. Everyone’s body will respond differently to this exploration.
What Causes Tight Hips?
So here’s the deal – hip tightness can be caused by tightness in the hip flexor muscles, weakness in the core muscles, postural imbalances, and lifestyle.
To understand how this works we need to look at hip anatomy.
The hip joint is where the femur (upper leg bone) meets the acetabulum, the hip socket, at the pelvis. The round head of the femur fits snugly into the round hip socket. The fit between the bones makes this synovial-type joint one of the most stable joints in the human body.
Movement within the hip is controlled by the hip flexor muscles. They insert into the hip joint at different points to control its movement related to the legs and abdomen. This muscle group includes the psoas, the iliacus (both in the abdominal region), the tensor fasciae latae (TFL, near the outer hip), and the rectus femoris (a quad muscle).
The hip flexor muscles work with the core to create stability between the upper & lower halves of the body. The collaboration between the muscles, “allows them to flex the hip joint, anteriorly rotate the pelvis, and extend the lumbar (lower) spine”, according to The Barbell Physio.
Hip tightness comes when one of the hip flexor muscles gets tighter than the others. Common causes include:
- Core weakness: Hips can get tight when weakness in an inner core muscle (transversus abdominis, for example) causes the hip flexor muscles to bear the weight of stabilizing the hips.
- Postural imbalances: Natural posture habits can cause hip tightness, including leaning on one foot, jutting out a hip, sticking the butt out & hips forward (especially common in women), or walking with the feet pointed out.
- Lifestyle: Sitting in chairs, on couches, and in cars is a huge culprit for tight hips. Sitting for long periods makes the glute & hamstring muscles weak, which in turn makes the quads work harder, tightening the hip flexor muscles. Finally, sitting shortens the hip flexor muscles, which makes the hips tight. On the other hand, runners, dancers, and team sport players are susceptible to hip tightness due to overuse.
Hip tightness is a complex challenge that can take its sweet time to unwind.
Symptoms of Tight Hip Flexors
Tightness in the hip area isn’t always caused by tight hip flexor muscles. I’ve put together a list of ways to check if your hip flexors are what’s causing your hip tightness.
Check these symptoms against what you’re experiencing in your upper legs, outer hips, and the area just inside the iliacus (hip bone):
- Cramps/squeezing sensation in the upper legs
- Constant discomfort or pain
- Tingling or muscle spasms.
- Reduced mobility when moving the legs in different directions (up, down, left, right, etc)
- Difficulties with sitting down or standing up
If none of these symptoms apply to you and you’re having pain in your hips, it’s a good idea to check with a doctor or a physiotherapist about the cause. There may be another factor at play.
Beginner Exercises to Unlock Tight Hips
Yoga’s full of amazing exercises to unlock tight hips.
As you try these hip exercises, consider using a yoga strap (check out our recommendations) to make them easier. It’s better to use a strap to give your body more length, enabling you to hold the exercise for longer. Try using a towel if you’re at home.
Make sure to do both sides of every exercise.
Butterfly Pose / Baddha Konasana
- Sit on the floor with your knees pointed towards the ceiling and a straight spine.
- Use your hands on the outside of your knees to help your knees open out to each side, letting the bottoms of your feet naturally come together.
- If you would like a deeper stretch, you can choose to slowly fold forward over your front body.
Tip: Make sure to squeeze your outer butt cheeks (really!) to help your hips open in this pose. Strengthening the outer glutes helps the stressed-out hip muscles to release.
High Lunge / Crescent Lunge
- Stand at the middle of your mat facing its long edge. Spread your feet wide apart.
- Turn your right foot out & left foot in, allowing your chest to turn towards the right foot.
- Put your hands on your hips. Push backwards through the back heel, then bend into your front leg.
Optional variation is to do this pose with the back knee on the floor, and hands to either side of the front foot. I find that this variation can be hard on the bottom knee. Feel free to use a cushion if that helps.
Pigeon Pose / Eka Pada Rajakapotasana
- Start in downward facing dog, adho mukho svanasana.
- Bring the right leg forward so that your right knee comes to the floor just behind your right wrist. Align your ankle with your left wrist.
- Slowly bring your hips towards the floor. Press down through the hands to lift the chest.
- It’s best to cushion underneath your hip if it doesn’t go all the way to the floor (i.e., most people). Putting support will help the hip loosen up because it’s not holding the body in place.
- To come out, press through the hands, lift the leg into downward dog, and pedal the heels.
Supine Twist Variations
Lie on your back. Put your arms into a T shape. Then, do 1 of 3 options:
- Bring both knees towards the chest, then allow them to rest towards one side.
- Straighten one leg. Bring the opposite leg towards the chest, then allow it to roll over the straight leg side.
- Point the knees towards the ceiling. Cross the right thigh over the left. Move both knees towards the left.
Lifestyle Tips to Release Tight Hips
- Sitting is a huge culprit for tight hips. The more you can move, the better your hips will feel, even if it’s as small as walking to the office break room for an extra cup of coffee.
- Soft, cushy couches can cause major hip tightness. Not only do our muscles tighten up because we’re sitting, but we’re often sitting with bad, “comfortable” posture. Consider walking around the neighborhood in the evening rather than watching TV.
- The more often you sit on the floor, the better you’ll feel. Our body is made for this. It will loosen up over time; plus, the supporting postural muscles will get stronger.
- Most of all, know that having tight hips is a common challenge faced by yogis and non-yogis alike. Allow yourself to take time to explore stretches and strengthening exercises. Work with what helps your body feel good and you’ll eventually find your hips opening like never before.
Does unlocking tight hips cause emotions to release? – Psychology Today says yes. The body can store emotions long after we’re done experiencing them. So, know that it’s perfectly normal to be cranky or sad after a hip-opening yoga class.
Can tight muscles also be a sign of weakness? – Typically, tight muscles are a sign that the muscle is getting more stressed than the looser muscles around it. This often means that it’s stronger relative to the others.
Mary McGilvray teaches Iyengar-style Hatha Yoga & Advaita Vedanta meditation techniques inspired by her years studying in India under the great masters. Through her business, Satyaa Consulting LLC she empowers yoga studios to generate more revenue so that their owners have the time & resources to live the life of their dreams.