Part 1: The Thoracic Spine
Part 3: The Glutes
Part 4: The Ankles
In Part 1, we discussed what “tightness” really is (and what it isn’t), why mobility is so much more than pure flexibility, and how to address mobility restrictions in the thoracic spine. Make sure you understand the introduction of Part 1 before reading on, as this series builds on that premise. In Part 2, we discuss the big bad hip flexor muscles.
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
The main muscles we’ll focus on include the rectus femoris muscle of the quadriceps and the tensor fasciae latae (“ten-sir fasha latay” or just TFL). Hip flexor restriction is a major problem for rowers. Spend all day sitting in a chair, at a desk, at work, in the car, then sit for another couple hours a day on an erg or in the boat in a sport that doesn’t train hip extension, and you get restricted hip flexors. This is a major cause of low back pain, common with many rowers, as well as poor gluteal function and inefficient drive mechanics. Tight hip flexors can also cause anterior pelvic tilt (APT), which results in slack hamstrings, weak glutes, and lumbar lordosis, which all contributes to an inability to sit up straight while rowing. Additionally, the hip flexors often contribute to snapping hip syndrome, a common complaint among rowers, which often results from a tight or restricted rectus femoris. I dealt with this as a rower and still have to perform regular work to avoid recurrence.
Begin by foam rolling the quadriceps broadly, as well as the lateral (outside) portion of the thigh. The rectus femoris muscle of the quadriceps runs right up the middle of the thigh and is the only quadriceps muscle to cross both the knee and the hip joint. It is very often restricted in rowers, especially in those who pull themselves up the slide. 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 tensor fasciae latae muscle, located at the top of the thigh. Spend some time rolling over that area, attempting to find a trigger point, then do the same on the opposite leg. Following the self-manual therapy, 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. The hip flexors spend so long in a shortened position (ie when sitting) that it can take a long time to enact change on these tissues.
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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 work the hip flexors through a complete range of motion. Banded good mornings, Romanian deadlifts, and hip thrusts or glute bridges are great for strengthening the posterior chain muscles and reaching full hip extension.
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.