When most women discuss their hips, they generally do so in reference to their size and shape for that hour-glass figure, but you’ll seldom hear a conversation between two female gym-goers about the importance of functional and mobile hips.
And that’s a bit of a problem because the hip hinge and extension are arguably the most important functional movements a person can perform. It’s what enables us to walk, run, bend over to pick up our kids, jump, skip and even sit down.
Sadly, due predominantly to our modern lifestyles, which are characterised by hours spent sitting, most of us are dysfunctional in this extremely important area.
As such, mastering the hip hinge, and subsequently improving all the structures around it, is vitally important, be it to correct imbalances, improve your functional strength, enhance mobility, or even just to perfect the exercises that will help to remodel your hips and the important muscle groups, aesthetically speaking, that surround it.
Hip form & function
Let’s forget about hip width, waist-to-hip ratio, and the desirable hour-glass figure most women want, for a second, and let’s discuss the functional elements.
The most dominant structure in the hip area is the pelvis, and there are significant structural differences between a male and a female pelvis worth noting.
A woman’s pelvis has two very important jobs – it enables you to move, and it is vital for natural childbirth. However, these two functions seem to be at odds with each other. A wider birth canal would ensure easier, safer passage for baby into the world, but it is supposedly less suited to optimal human movement.
This “obstetrical dilemma”, as it is commonly referred to, has resulted in an evolutionary trade off, one where women have developed a larger, broader pelvis than men. Whether this materially affects optimal biomechanics is being questioned, but it has generally been accepted that narrower hips make for more efficient movement.
The other key structural component is the hip joint, a ball-and-socket joint located between the hip bone and the femur – the large bone of your thigh. This important joint, second only to the shoulder in terms of range of motion, is what enables us to walk, run and jump, with the help of tough ligaments, and a few powerful muscles, of course.
And these muscles are numerous. The muscle groups linked with hip function are found in the lower back, abdomen (core), around the hip itself, and the upper thigh. Powerful movers like the glutes, quads, hamstrings, iliopsoas (a powerful hip flexor), rectus abdominis and the obliques (prominent ab muscles) are just a few of the muscles involved in hip hinge and extension movements.
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Why it’s important to hinge
Interestingly, many of us don’t realise that most of the power in human movement is generated in the hips, which is why the hip hinge and extension are such important movements to master.
The benefits to improving the mechanics of this movement have a beneficial spinoff in every aspect of life, and just about every activity we do in it.
There is also a growing body of evidence that suggests stronger hips can help to reduce other injuries, particularly those that affect the legs.
For example, a 2007 study conducted on collegiate female runners with patellofemoral pain syndrome, the most common knee injury in runners, found that the injury correlated with weaker hip abductor and hip external rotator muscles on the side of the injured leg.
Interestingly, subsequent studies suggest that the balance of strength in opposing muscle groups in the hips may be a more important determinant of knee injury risk in runners than the absolute strength in any single muscle group. Another common injury associated with hip strength imbalances is lower back pain, which can often be resolved with some degree of rehab using various hip hinge exercises, and the strengthening of the muscles associated with the hips.
So, with so much to gain, how can you incorporate more hip hinge movements into your programme? Well, the answer isn’t to dive into the first squat rack you see.
In fact, the squat is a quad-dominant exercise, and is often performed without a adequate hip hinge movement by a number of gym-goers.
The deadlift, and a number of its variants, are more suited to developing better, stronger hips. Other suitable options include kettlebell swings, and plyometric-type movements like box jumps and broad jumps.
How to do it: The hip hinge movement pattern involves sitting back – pushing the hips back – with minimal knee flexion, maintaining a neutral spine, and then “snapping” forward. Avoid tilting your pelvis forward, which positions you in a forward lean, during a hip hinge movement.
If you are struggling to perfect this movement then there are a number of ways to improve it, including instructional videos with a number of drills, or consulting a personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach who is a specialist in functional movement screening and coaching.
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.