Working out large muscle groups is always fun. This is primarily because of two things: the amount of weight they can shift and the variety of exercise available to work them. The challenge, though, is isolating the smaller muscles in these groups to specifically target them. There is also the need to balance the opposite side of the muscle group one works on: Which is exactly why no one would recommend just working the biceps without touching the triceps, or why it is important to do tibialis raises along with all the calf raises.
A good example would be the lats in the back. While pull-ups and rows and pull-downs are all great exercises for the muscle group, very few exercises can isolate the lats. In a story titled Do These Isolation Exercises For A Stable Back And Strong Shoulders, I wrote about a specific exercise called lat prayers which does exactly this. Thing is, despite having a fitness routine for fifteen years now, I learnt about it only a year ago.
Which brings us to the largest muscle group in the body—the glutes—and balancing it by isolating the hip flexors. The human body’s natural response to weak hip flexors is to stretch them out in the hope for relief, and it is important to do so. “A carefully drawn out training plan that targets hip mobility must become the norm. Such a plan would include dynamic stretches, functional exercises like squats and lunges, explosive exercises, and some moves that result in a better range of motion,” I wrote earlier in another Lounge piece titled Why You Need To Work On Strengthening Your Hips.
But even while stretching and strengthening the entire hip area, the flexors in the front can be difficult to isolate. This is also because they are prone to muscle atrophy due to inactivity, which means they are difficult to feel or activate unless in painful ways, like when doing certain core exercises. “Staying seated for extended periods can cause weakness in the psoas muscle. This is because the muscle does not work as hard as if the person were standing,” states a Medical News Today piece titled Symptoms And Causes Of Weak Hip Flexors And How To Treat Them.
The first strength exercise to try is an isometric hold with a mini-band, or even a light kettlebell wedged into the tip of your shoe. Known as the standing hip flexion hold, it requires you to pull the knee up to a 90 degree angle while standing on one leg. You can do this without the band at first to test your strength and balance before adding band resistance. You can try this lying down as well, and that exercise would be called the lying banded hip march.
This is an easy starting point before moving on to other exercises, and one of the moves that seems popular for this muscle is the Bulgarian split squat with the support of a bench. The key is to rack the weight in front while doing this. “Most lifters know that hip mobility, upper back strength, and leg drive are essential elements for pulling heavy, and this exercise covers all those bases. Because the back leg is elevated, you go through a longer range of motion to help improve hip strength and mobility,” states a Barbend.com article calledThe 5 Best Hip Flexor Exercises For Your Leg Day Warm-Up.
If you are an absolute beginner, then even simple controlled single leg raises will work the hip flexor as it tries to maintain the form, but remember to progress with this muscle because of how little we use it in daily life.
Once there is enough strength in the hips using the three exercises mentioned above, it is time to try the sliding mountain climber. These are mountain climbers but adding a drag to them using sliders or simply done while wearing socks. My favourite hip flexor activation exercise before a run is take the support of a wall while kneeling and bringing each leg to the front in a circular motion and then returning it back to the starting position. This slightly circular motion recruits the hip flexor in a distinct way. Performance coach Lucas Diaz Colodrero, who has nearly 225,000 Instagram followers performs this on a Bosu ball in the video below, along with more advanced methods of the standing hip-flexion, but you can always start with the easier variations.
It is a surprise how hip flexor strengthening is uncommon even among stronger gym goers, especially given that they connect the upper and lower body. “It crosses the hip-joint from your lower spine to your inner thigh, and it is one of your body’s main back stabilisers,” states the Barbend.com article.
Stretching them is one thing, but it is imperative to get stronger as well. Isolating them per se might not be the problem, but it is the slow process of making them stronger which pushes even seasoned fitness enthusiasts away from working on them. Usually a stretch is enough to feel them loosen up, but over a period of time, stronger hip flexors would mean less pain in the area as the body gets older.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator, podcaster and writer.