The hip hinge for rowing is a key basic athletic movement that must be mastered to perform many strength training exercises in the weight-room to improve rowing performance. Squat, deadlift, push press, and Olympic lift variations all rely on the fundamental ability to hip hinge. Plus, a rock-solid hip hinge for rowing is the key to achieving reach in the stroke and power on the drive through the hips, rather than through the spine. The hip hinge is key to improving rowing performance as well as reducing low back pain injury, and it can even help reduce risk of rib stress injury. But more on that later! The hip hinge is the basis of the fundamental athletic position, but many rowers miss this part of early training and have to learn it for the first time later in their career.
What is the hip hinge?
The hip hinge is the movement of pushing the hips back and inclining the torso forward, maintaining a neutral spine with a slight bend of the knees, with bodyweight balanced between forefoot and heel. This is “the power position,” and is a part of almost every sport. Athletes hit this position when testing a vertical jump, baseball players prepare for a ground ball in this position, football and basketball players play defense from this position, volleyball players bump from a hip hinge, tennis players serve return from the hinge, Olympic lifters hang clean from this position, and of course, it’s the body-over and mid-drive position in the rowing stroke. The hip hinge is the point of maximal strength of the main muscles of the lower body and torso: calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.
The Importance of the Hip Hinge
The hip hinge is as close to a universal position for sport performance as we’ll get. Training hip hinge exercises also helps build great muscular strength and balance in the lower body. This is important for athletes who use the hip hinge in their sport, and even more important for athletes who don’t. Why? Athletes like rowers, cyclists, and long-distance runners, tend to end up with dominant quadriceps muscles and weak glutes and hamstring muscles. Over time, this imbalance results in a wrenching effect as the muscles on the front of the body over-power the muscles on the back of the body. Rowers then make this worse by spending all of their practice time in a seated position, with actively tensioned hip flexors to maintain upright torso posture. A common result of this is chronically tight hip flexors and anterior pelvic tilt, which can lead to poor technique, back pain, and time missed from sport due to injury. Strengthening the hip hinge muscles of the posterior chain can restore balance to the lower body and help reduce risk of these injuries.
Read More: Hip Flexor Mobility for Rowers
Teaching the Hip Hinge for Rowing
Some athletes will pick up the hip hinge intuitively. Others, particularly those with a limited athletic background or pre-existing weakness or mobility restrictions, will need more work. I have found a variety of cues to be effective, depending on the needs and background of the athlete.
#1. I’ll get the dumbest one out of the way first. The drinking bird toy is a great visualization of a hip hinge. It’s not a perfect example, but this can help athletes get the idea of what we’re looking for, particularly those struggling with going into a squat or being too back-dominant with the hinge. Key points that the bird helps emphasize is neutral spine and movement not coming from the knees as in a squat.
See the demonstration video above for the next two:
#2. Stand a few inches away from a wall or power rack, with a slight bend in the knees and then push their butt back until it touches the wall. At first, many athletes will attempt to squat down or bend their back down. Cue them to maintain no more than a slight bend in the knees and keep a neutral spine, THEN push the hips back.
#3. Hold a PVC pipe so that they have three points of contact: head, between the shoulder blades, and top of the posterior hip. Perform the same motion: knees slightly bent, push the hips back, while maintaining all three points of contact.
Training the Hip Hinge for Rowing
There are dozens of ways to train the hinge based on the demands of your sport, your personal goals and preferences, and your strength levels. The playlist of videos below contains some examples to get you started.
The hinge should be trained with a combination of heavier movements for strength and explosiveness and lighter movements for muscular development. Below is an example of a good training session for the hinge movement and muscles.
- A. Full-Body Warmup
- B. Deadlift: 5 sets of 3, smooth reps with good technique
- C. Romanian Deadlift: 4 sets of 8
- D. Kettlebell Swing: 4 sets of 12
Troubleshooting the Hip Hinge
A poor hip hinge can manifest in a number of ways. The most obvious is in a deadlift: the athlete will bend, not hinge, forward to the bar, then lift almost entirely with their back, usually involving a significant amount of lumbar spine rounding.
First, make sure that athletes know what a hip hinge is and how to correctly perform it. Education should always be checkpoint #1. Decrease the weight, focus on the hinge. Some athletes can fix a bad hip hinge with some good coaching and a couple weeks of reps to build a new, correct motor pattern.
If the athlete cannot do a deadlift with a good hinge technique, use a different exercise, like a Romanian deadlift, to re-train the motor pattern. It is often necessary to get away from the deadlift for a 6+ week phase of training while we work on building strength elsewhere. As a strength coach for the “no pain, no gain” sport of rowing, I’m regularly reminding athletes to use less weight so as to not sacrifice correct technique for more pounds or reps. Educating athletes on the benefit of good technique and how the hip hinge benefits rowing performance is also a big help here. Deadlifts and other hip hinge exercises are potentially great for rowing, but must be performed with good technique to build power on the drive, reach on the recovery, and reduce risk of injury to the spine and rib cage.
If the athlete continues to struggle, or is unable to attain the technique for even a single repetition, there may be a mobility restriction or muscular weakness preventing them from doing so. Rowers often have tight hip flexors, weak glute muscles, and poor motor pattern for the hinge. As strength coaches, we can address all of these, with mobility exercises for the hip flexors, specific strengthening exercises for the glute muscles, and hinge-specific motor pattern work. However, there are other muscles and factors that can contribute as well, and we should not be afraid to refer a struggling athlete to an athletic trainer or physical therapist for diagnosis of specific issues.
Last updated August 2022.