Tight Hip Flexors: Causes and Exercises to Help Open Your Hips

Got tight hip flexors? Learn what causes them and which exercises can help open your hips, recommended by physical therapists.

Published Date: Mar 14, 2023
Woman-doing-lounges-at-park-during-work-out

Tight Hip Flexors: Causes and Exercises to Help Open Your Hips

Got tight hip flexors? Learn what causes them and which exercises can help open your hips, recommended by physical therapists.

Published Date: Mar 14, 2023
Woman-doing-lounges-at-park-during-work-out

Tight Hip Flexors: Causes and Exercises to Help Open Your Hips

Got tight hip flexors? Learn what causes them and which exercises can help open your hips, recommended by physical therapists.

Published Date: Mar 14, 2023
Woman-doing-lounges-at-park-during-work-out

Tight Hip Flexors: Causes and Exercises to Help Open Your Hips

Got tight hip flexors? Learn what causes them and which exercises can help open your hips, recommended by physical therapists.

Published Date: Mar 14, 2023
Woman-doing-lounges-at-park-during-work-out
Table of Contents

Hips don’t lie — so when you feel pain or stiffness in the front of your hips, there’s a fair chance your hip flexor muscles are tight. Hip flexors are composed of a group of four muscles along the front of your upper thigh that connect the upper leg to the hip, and they’re real workhorses. Next time you need to raise your leg (say, to walk) or bend at the waist, you can thank this muscle group. 

Considering your hip flexors’ key role, you can imagine how tight hip flexors can affect your daily life. And unfortunately, it’s a fairly common problem. While not usually serious, the tightness can become painful. And because it limits your range of motion, tight hip flexors may contribute to pain during activities like walking, running, and climbing stairs. 

Luckily, there’s a lot you can do to improve mobility and stiffness in your hips. Here, we’ll explain the most common causes of hip tightness, plus how to prevent and treat it — including simple lifestyle changes and at-home exercises from our physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.

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Hip Health: A Hinge Health Perspective

Hip flexors are essential for movement, and it’s no exaggeration to say that their well-being relies on movement. 

Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health
Muscles are a use it or lose it type of thing and that includes your hip flexor muscles.

Whether your hip flexors are tight or you want to avoid future issues, this isn’t a case where rest is best. Taking action, which often starts with moving more, is the key to improving your symptoms. As our Hinge Health care team says, movement is medicine

What Causes Tight Hip Flexors

Nowadays, tightness in the hips is very common. Here are a few of the main reasons:

Sitting for long periods. Spending a lot of time sitting can cause your muscles to feel tense, and hip flexors are no exception. (Frightening fact: The average American spends half their day sitting, which helps explain why two-thirds of participants in one study had tight hip flexors.) With too little activity, your muscles can temporarily lose the elasticity they need to move into different ranges of motion, explains Dr. Peterson. 

Your anatomy. While a sedentary lifestyle can be a major contributor to tight hip flexors, your anatomy — specifically the shape of your bones — may also play a role. “Some people have deeper hip sockets than others, which may make it harder to be in some positions,” says Dr. Peterson. While this isn’t something you can control, it may help to know that it’s unlikely to be the sole contributor to your hip pain and there are always other factors you can address to manage your symptoms. 

Overuse. This is a common contributor to tight hip flexors for athletes and active individuals. This is particularly true of cyclists and runners, who constantly use hip flexors to lift their legs. With overuse, hip pain is often accompanied by swelling. 

In these cases, the soreness is probably signaling you need to focus more on recovery for a day or two, or you need to adjust your workout intensity. Stiffness can be a protective mechanism as your body adapts to more frequent or intense activity. If you nudge into that limit too much, you may be pretty stiff and tight until you recover, but adding some stretching into your recovery routine can be helpful, says Dr. Peterson.

How Tight Hips Affect Your Body

On their own, tight hip flexors are nothing to worry about. But, at times, tight hip flexor muscles have the potential to affect your whole body. For instance, two of the hip flexor muscles — the psoas and iliacus muscles, which collectively create the body’s most important hip flexor — help stabilize the lower back. Tightness in them can contribute to lower back pain. (Read more here about how back and hip pain are often linked.) Similarly, tightness in the rectus femoris and sartorius muscles, both of which assist with knee extension, may contribute to knee pain.

Benefits of Exercises to Open the Hips

A “hip-opening” exercise is any move that stretches the hip flexor muscles. They have several key benefits, including:

  • Reducing back and hip pain. A 2021 review found that hip flexor stretching decreases tightness that can lead to pain.  

  • Increasing mobility. This means being able to do the things you want to do. “Increased mobility might mean getting you back to playing soccer, hiking, practicing yoga, or just doing activities that need more range of motion,” says Dr. Peterson. In some cases, for instance, if you’re rehabbing after a knee or hip replacement surgery, increased mobility may allow you to do things that require hip motion that you normally take for granted, such as walking up the stairs or getting in and out of the car. 

  • Reducing the risk of injury. Keeping hip flexors loose and flexible can help prevent problems with other muscle groups, like the quadriceps (the muscles in front of your thighs) or lower back. 

  • Improving balance. Research shows that a single session of hip flexor stretching has a positive effect on balance, which can help with fall prevention

How to Prevent and Treat Tight Hips

Even if you sit all day — whether behind a desk, in a car, or on the couch — there are ways to help protect your hip flexors and keep you pain-free and on the move.  

  • Daily movement. Prolonged periods of not moving, such as sitting, may cause the hip flexors to tighten, so finding even small ways to move your hips throughout the day — whether that’s a dedicated 20 minutes of walking or doing one minute of walking as a “movement snack” — will help keep your hip flexors supple. “Even standing up and sitting down in a chair without using your hands for support could be a good way to activate your hip muscles,” says Dr. Peterson. 

  • Warm up before exercise. Start a workout by engaging in dynamic warm-up exercises to help boost blood flow to the muscles around the hips and lubricate the joints and tissues. This may help you perform better with less effort and avoid injuries.

  • Stretching. Regular stretching keeps muscles long, lean, and flexible.

  • Massage. Whether you use a foam roller, tennis ball, or your own hands, self-massage helps reduce the amount of mobility-reducing tension that you may be holding in your hip flexors. To improve the effectiveness, incorporate some deep breathing techniques while you massage your hips, suggests Dr. Peterson. “Focus on relaxing those muscles by breathing and letting go.”

  • Hip Flexor
  • Clamshell
  • Lunges
  • Side Lunges
  • Standing Hip Extension

Those five exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists help your hips move into certain ranges that they normally don’t when you sit or walk. They activate a specific group of hip muscles that don’t always get challenged in our day-to-day activities, says Dr. Peterson. “Over time, that helps you grow to feel more comfortable in deeper ranges of motion.” 

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Go Beyond the Stretch

“Building flexible hips is not just about holding a stretch,” says Dr. Peterson. Getting active by doing something you love — whether it’s hiking, yoga, or Zumba dancing — or doing some bodyweight exercises, like pushups or squats, are also powerful ways to build flexibility in your hips and body.

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References 

  1. Four Hip Flexor Stretches to Relieve Tightness, from a PT. (2022, February 2). HSS Rehabilitation. https://www.hss.edu/article_hip-flexor-stretch.asp

  2. Psoas Major. (n.d.). Physiopedia. Retrieved from https://www.physio-pedia.com/Psoas_Major

  3. Rectus Femoris. (n.d.). Physiopedia. Retrieved from https://www.physio-pedia.com/Rectus_Femoris

  4. Sartorius. (n.d.). Physiopedia. Retrieved from https://www.physio-pedia.com/Sartorius

  5. Konrad, A., Močnik, R., Titze, S., Nakamura, M., & Tilp, M. (2021). The Influence of Stretching the Hip Flexor Muscles on Performance Parameters. A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(4), 1936. doi:10.3390/ijerph18041936

  6. Aslan, H., Buddhadev, H. H., Suprak, D. N., & Juan, J. G. S. (2018). Acute Effects of Two Hip Flexor Stretching Techniques on Knee Joint Position Sense and Balance. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 13(5), 846-859

  7. Hip Flexor Muscles Anatomy. (2022, November 23). American Hip Institute and Orthopedic Specialists. https://www.americanhipinstitute.com/blog/hip-flexor-muscles-anatomy-33981.html