There are a number of chronic and acute pains and injuries in sports that result from a problem in the hips.
The hip girdle is quite complex, with its four directions of motion and dozens of muscles inserting, attaching, and acting on the various structures. However, don’t get bogged down in complex analyses of each individual muscle and joint. There are a few common practices that most athletes would benefit from in their training to enjoy happy and healthy hips for a long career and great performances.
#1. Warm-Up Thoroughly
This is an easy box to check, but many athletes roll out of bed or out of the classroom and straight off to practice without preparing their bodies for hard training. For morning-training rowers, extra care is needed to warm up the hips and back after a night of sleeping. Spinal discs swell with fluid overnight, taking advantage of the lack of vertical compression, and then naturally compress and lose that extra fluid throughout the day. While disc fluid is necessary to provide ample support to the vertebrae, freshly hydrated discs swollen beyond their normal level can create a great risk of disc herniation or other spinal problems. Athletes who practice, weight-train, or compete very soon after waking must stay dedicated to a warmup routine to reduce their risk of low-back and hip injury.
Athletes who practice or compete later in the day have naturally compressed the extra fluid out of their discs through daily activity, but have other considerations for preparing their bodies to train. If that daily activity involves a great amount of sitting, as almost any sort of student, employee, or commuter does, hip flexors and shoulder muscles are almost certainly feeling tight. Long amounts of sitting leads to tight hip flexors, slack glutes, and often tight hamstrings, so a good warm-up will work undo this–mobilizing the hip flexors and hamstrings and activating the glute muscles. A powerful posterior chain is key to good performance in almost every sport, so get those hips warm!
WATCH: Total Body Warmup
#2. Train Unilaterally
Very few sports rely equally on both sides of the body. Any sport involving a dominant hand or foot to kick, throw, serve, or shoot a ball will develop the dominant side of the body more over time. Most right-handed lacrosse players will develop stronger left-side rotational muscles, including the glutes and muscles of the lower back, from shooting and throwing. Most sweep rowers row one side of the boat and develop stronger outside arms, legs, and rotational hip and torso muscles from constantly leaning to one side to transfer force. If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know that these imbalances can add up to bigger injuries and that offsetting and preventing imbalances is a key to long-term performance.
Many athletes focus entirely on bilateral exercises in the weight-room like the barbell squat and deadlift. While these are great exercises for developing overall strength and power, a good training program for an athlete will go beyond these powerlifting basics and include specific unilateral exercises to even out sport-related imbalances. Balanced hip function is vital to preventing hip and low back injuries as well as beneficial for performance.
Work some of these into your routine and see where your imbalances are:
- Reverse Lunge, Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat, and Step-Ups
- Use bodyweight, dumbbell, or weighted vest
- Unilateral Romanian Deadlift
- Barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell
- Unilateral Hip Thrust or “Glute Marching”
- Bodyweight or small weight plate held in place
Not all of your training needs to be unilateral. A good pattern to follow would be bilateral main work for overall strength and power, then unilateral assistance work for muscular size and balance.
#3. Address Mobility and Tightness
Don’t resign yourself to living with tightness. Many athletes bemoan their tight hamstrings or hip flexors, but few actually take action to fixing it.
A real key here is consistent and sustainable effort. One mobility or stretching session a week isn’t going to make lasting change, no matter how intense. At least one 10-15 minute targeted session a day will make much more lasting change than a few longer sessions per week. Frequency works better than duration here–two sessions of 10 minutes a day will usually yield better results than one 20-minute session. Find a way to work it into your schedule, whether it’s a social event after practice or during a TV break on your own, and then commit to consistency.
#4. Train Your Weaknesses
“Yeah, I know I have weak glutes, but I always find a reason not to train it.” I’ve said those words myself, and heard similar from many athletes. Take a realistic assessment of your weaknesses, develop a training plan for them, and then execute it. The General Prep Block, or furthest training block from your competitive season, is a great time to go back and iron out some of these minor things that are easy to forget about during the season. An off-season spent strengthening weaknesses will result in a very strong competitive season.
Bonus Tip: Move!
Many sports train one plane of movement and that plane only. Don’t lose your overall athleticism, make sure to maintain movement. Loaded carries like farmer’s walks and sandbags are a great way to do this in the gym, but you can do it out of the gym too by playing another sport either recreationally or competitively. A couple times a week, try to move in a way that your sport doesn’t train or require.