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Hip flexor stretches are commonly used yet poorly understood by many trainers and athletes.
Their main function is to bend the hip forward so they’re quite active during running and abdominal exercises like planks.
Who should do hip flexor stretches?
As fatigued muscles often shorten for a few days after exercises, stretches generally can help relieve post-exercise tightness and associated soreness.
Hip flexor stretches are great for anyone who has performed exercise that has vigorously loaded the area.
Fast or downhill running, abdominal exercises and kicking sports (field sports and martial arts) are all examples of sessions that should benefit from post-workout hip flexor stretches.
Why might hip flexor stretches cause problems?
Contrary to popular belief though, the use of hip flexor stretches needs more caution in those prone to lower back pain or in stiffer body types.
This is due to the involvement of the spine as a muscle attachment point and the potential for other factors limiting the stretch.
During the stretching movement, the muscles pull firmly on the lumbar spine.
(They also tighten across the front of the hip and can cause a click – read more about that here).
If the spine can effectively brace itself, the stretch works as intended.
If the spine is fatigued and isn’t braced well, the joints in the back are compressed and can cause lower back pain.
In stiffer body types, hip flexor tightness is often caused by hip joint compression rather than muscle fatigue.
In a long lunge hip flexor stretch, the hip joint then limits the movement and prevents the muscles from stretching effectively.
The stretch then inadvertently overloads the hip joint and lower back, which needs to arch backwards to accommodate the hip stiffness.
In this situation, you’ll often hear the comment that the stretch isn’t felt in front of the hip regardless of how hard the stretch is pushed.
Who should avoid hip flexor stretches?
If hip flexor stretches are not felt in front of the hip and/or upper thigh, or if you feel it in your lower back or up through your abdominal area (read more about stomach muscle symptoms here), these stretches should be avoided.
(If you think your “tight hip flexor” feeling is actually an abdominal muscle strain, read this post on how to diagnose that injury).
If the stretch can’t be felt without really forcing the position, avoid it.
Otherwise if the stretch position is comfortable and only felt in the muscles in front of the hip and upper thigh, it’s worthwhile adding it to your regular mobility routine.