In Part 1, we discussed what “tightness” really is (and what it isn’t), why mobility is so much more than just flexibility alone, and how to address mobility restrictions in the thoracic spine. In Part 2, we discuss the big bad hip flexor muscles. Hip flexors have become a popular one to smash on, and with good reason for rowers, but there’s good reason to understand this muscle group, what it does for you in performance, and the specifics of how you can care for it. Rowers use the hip flexors almost all the time in training, so even if there isn’t a specific injury or condition, this muscle group can really benefit from a little extra care to facilitate recovery and effective training.
Restriction: Hip flexor
Location: Anterior upper thigh
Test: Test hip flexor tightness using The Thomas Test
Rowing fault: Poor compression at the catch, poor reach during recovery
Why Rowers Get Tight Hip Flexors
“The hip flexors” refers to main muscles of the rectus femoris muscle of the quadriceps and the tensor fasciae latae (“ten-sir fasha latay” or just TFL), as well as the psoas and iliacus. The rectus femoris is the biggest muscle of the quadriceps and does most of the work in terms of leg power. The rectus is a two-joint muscle, as it crosses both the knee joint (as a knee flexor) and the hip joint (as a hip flexor). I have heard rowers complain of tight hip flexors without knowing what “a hip flexor” actually was, let alone that there are actually several muscles in this group!
Hip flexor restriction is a major problem for rowers for a few reasons. Non-rowers have hip flexor problems from spending all day sitting in a chair, at a desk, at work, in the car, and on the couch at home. Rowers then sit for another couple hours a day on an erg or in the boat in a sport that, unlike lots of other standing sports, doesn’t train hip extension! Restricted hip flexor mobility is common, and this is a major cause of low back pain, poor function of the glute muscles, and inefficient drive mechanics. Tight hip flexors can also cause anterior pelvic tilt, which can result in tight hamstrings, weak glutes, and lumbar lordosis (arched low back), which all contributes to an inability to sit up straight while rowing, effectively transfer force in the drive, and increases risk of low back pain. Additionally, the hip flexors often contribute to another common and uncomfortable rowing injury, snapping hip syndrome.
Fixing Tight Hip Flexors for Rowing
Hip flexors are important for rowing performance, technique, and reducing risk of injury, so let’s get on a fix! Begin by foam rolling up and down the quadriceps muscles broadly, as well as the lateral (outside) portion of the thigh. Self-massage in this manner may feel nice on a heavily-used muscle group, and that alone is beneficial for recovery. The quadriceps are a group of four muscles–the vastus lateralis on the lateral (outside) side of the thigh, the rectus femoris down the middle of the thigh and up into the top of the hip, the vastus medialis on the inside of the thigh just above the knee, and the vastus intermedius underneath the rectus femoris. The rectus femoris is the only quadriceps that is also a hip flexor, but massaging the others feels nice and can still help achieve a general mobilizing effect.
Work up to the top of the pelvis, but avoid rolling directly on bones, as this can be painful. After a few broad strokes, get a lacrosse or tennis ball and work back up the rectus femoris before positioning it on the TFL muscle, located at the top of the thigh. Spend some time rolling over that area, attempting to find a trigger point and then holding it for 30-90 seconds, then do the same on the opposite leg.
Following the self-massage work, begin to stretch with either a lunge stretch or the 3-way hip opener. If these stretches are easy, proceed to the couch stretch. I suggest stretching each hip flexor for bouts of 2-3 minutes at a time, progressively trying to attain a deeper stretch throughout that period. A common error when stretching the hip flexors is to achieve extra depth by arching the low back. Keep the glutes and abs engaged (flexed slightly) while stretching to maintain a stable torso position and keep all of the stretch pressure on the hip flexors. I used to like the couch stretch a lot, demonstrated at 2:00 in the video below, but I found that too many athletes would arch the lumbar spine to get into position, and I have come to prefer the banded half-kneeling stretch more (at right).
Video: Hip Flexor Mobility for Rowers
Hip Flexor Strength Training
Hip flexor problems most often result from tightness, rather than weakness. Thus, strengthening exercises in this case is mostly about strengthening the muscles around the hip flexors so the hip flexors are relied upon less. Bilateral exercise can contribute to hip flexor tightness, as the hip flexors contract strongly to maintain an upright torso. Single leg exercises, on the other hand, stretch the non-active hip flexor (the back leg) while working the front leg. For this reason, as well as the fact that single leg exercises can help even out bilateral imbalances resulting from sweep rowing, single leg squats are a staple of my rowing programs.
Additionally, exercises that emphasize full hip extension will also move the hip flexors through a complete range of motion while strengthening muscles that badly need strengthening to maintain good posture. If you just stretch the hip flexors but don’t strengthen the other muscles around them, you’ll end up back in the same posture once the temporary effects of stretching dissipate. Train the hip hinge with exercises like the hip thrust, pull-through, kettlebell swing, and Romanian deadlift to develop good lumbopelvic rhythm, a strong posterior chain, and good posture.
In order to enact significant, lasting change, a dedicated comprehensive program that involves all modalities is critical. I recommend focusing on one problem area at a time, at least one 10-15 minute session per day. Spending 20 minutes a day working on mobility for 2-3 weeks while watching a TV show, for instance, is a great way to progress toward full function. Foam roll, perform self-manual release on specific trigger points, and stretch, then make sure to perform additional strengthening exercises while implementing proper form into your rowing and erging training. For example, taking thousands of strokes per week pulling yourself up the slide will contribute greatly to hip flexor problems, no matter how much mobility work you do outside of the boat. Finally, be cognizant of posture throughout the day. Many times, those with hip flexor restrictions or anterior pelvic tilt will spend much of the day hunched over or rounded at the lumbar spine. Once full function is achieved, daily maintenance is simply performing daily activities from that now-strong position that your body can now adopt as normal positions.
Last updated October 2018