Whether you’re an athlete or you’d just like to take a walk without pain, a clear path to moving better begins at the hips.
“The hips are an avenue toward more movement freedom, and life is always better when we have more of that,” says strength coach Kate Galliett, BS, FRCms, NASM-CES, founder of The Unbreakable Body program.
As the junction point between the top and bottom halves of the body, the hips play a key role in our movement, overall health, and quality of life.
At the same time, we’ve been led to believe that these ball-and-socket joints will eventually wear out and that we’re destined for hip pain, immobility, or even surgery. (For more on hip replacements, see “Get Hip” on page 14 of the October 2020 issue of Experience Life.)
But even if you’re currently dealing with hip dysfunction, or you’ve already replaced the joint, it’s not too late to turn things around. By paying more attention to the health of your hips, you can rehab from common health complaints that many of us assume are an inevitable part of aging — or prehab to prevent them in the first place. As a result, you’ll be able to move better.
Our experts provide an overview of the hips: how they work, what they do, and common issues that may crop up when time and our lifestyles take their toll. These recommended strategies can help keep your hips healthy, mobile, and pain-free for years to come.
6 Exercises for Healthy Hips
Incorporating a handful of mobility and strength moves into your routine can make a big difference in the way your hips feel and function over the long haul. “We see the greatest impact in bone density with resistance training,” says Galliett.
Even if you haven’t done any strength training, you can start now and reap the benefits in your bone density — resisting future losses, preserving current bone density, and possibly even increasing it. “It’s never too late,” she says.
Lower-body resistance training also strengthens the muscles and connective tissue around the hips, which improves day-to-day function of the entire body as well as athletic performance.
Perform the following three stretches every day, and the three strength moves two or three times weekly.
If you have moderate hip pain that doesn’t improve after two weeks, consult a physical therapist about targeted treatment. If you have already been diagnosed with an underlying hip condition, continue management with your medical provider before performing these exercises.
Same goes if hip pain creates an inability to walk or causes pain at night: Seek medical assistance before attempting these moves.
Half-Kneeling Hip-Flexor Stretch
This stretch targets the hip flexors and quads, which can feel tight and limit your movement if you sit for most of the day.
- Assume a low-lunge position, with your left foot and right knee on the ground, and both legs bent 90 degrees (use a cushion or folded yoga mat to support your knee, if needed). Rest your left hand on your front left thigh for support, if needed.
- Draw your bellybutton toward your spine to tilt your hips forward, and reach your right arm overhead. You should feel a gentle stretch in the front of your hip.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds before switching sides. Do two or three sets, two or three times per day.
This exercise not only stretches the muscles in the front of your body — namely, the quads and hip flexors — but it’s also a healthy move for the lower back. “It helps to oppose all the flexed postures that we’re in for the majority of our day,” Lensing explains.
- Lie on your stomach with your hands on the floor at shoulder level.
- On a big exhale, press through your hands to lift your upper body off the floor until your arms are fully extended, keeping your hips and legs on the floor. Try to keep your glute muscles relaxed.
- Pause before bending at the elbows to lower your chest back down to the floor. Perform three sets of 10 reps, two or three times per day.
Supine Figure-Four Stretch
This move opens the hips and stretches the glutes, Lensing says.
- Lie on your back with your right knee bent, foot flat on the floor. Bring your left knee toward your chest and gently guide that ankle to rest on the right thigh.
- Slip both hands around the back of your right thigh and gently pull your leg
toward your chest without letting your torso or head rise from the floor.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds, and then switch sides. Do three sets, two or three times per day.
Side-Lying Hip Abduction With Band
This exercise strengthens your hip abductors, a group of muscles — specifically, the gluteus medius and minimus — that help keep you stable while walking and running.
- Begin lying on your left side, legs bent, with a small resistance band around the lower thighs, above the knees.
- Roll your trunk forward and let your top leg fall behind your bottom leg. Let your head rest on your bottom arm. Place your opposite hand on the floor in front of your torso for support.
- To initiate the movement, lift your top leg until you feel a squeeze in your side-butt. Then lower your leg with control.
- Complete 20 reps before switching to your right side. Do two or three sets per side, two or three times per week.
- To make it easier, omit the resistance band. To make it harder, lift your upper body off the floor so you’re in a modified side-plank position.
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
This move gets you off the floor and uses your hips in a more functional position: standing on one leg. After all, walking, running, and even climbing stairs are technically single-leg movements. You should feel this exercise in the hamstrings and glutes, not in the lower back, Lensing says.
- Stand tall, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs, palms facing toward you. Then shift your weight onto your right leg.
- With a gentle bend in your standing leg, lift your left foot a few inches off the floor behind you.
- Keeping your back flat, sit back into your hips and hinge forward to slowly lower the weights toward the floor. As you lower the weights, allow your elevated foot to lift toward the ceiling. Stop when you feel a slight pull in the hamstrings.
- Return to start. Perform two or three sets of 20 reps on each leg, two or three times per week.
Single-Leg Bridge With Knee to Chest
The single-leg bridge engages your gluteus maximus — a key muscle for keeping your hips healthy — while the knee-to-chest portion helps stretch the hip flexors at the same time, Lensing says.
- Lie on your back with knees bent and feet hip width apart on the floor.
- Bring your left knee to your chest and push into the floor with your right foot to raise your hips, squeezing your glutes as you do. Lift your hips as high as you can without arching your back.
- Keeping your knee pulled into your chest, lower your hips back down to the floor. Complete 10 to 20 reps before repeating on the other side. Do two or three sets per side, two or three times per week.
Get on the Floor
It’s never too late to get your hips back on track. A strength-and-mobility routine will help your hip muscles become active and mobile again, working to prevent injury and age-related pain later in life.
Another way to mobilize your hips is to vary how and where you sit every day, since this will load your joints in different ways, says Lynn Shuck, a Minnesota-based yoga instructor who teaches an alignment-focused style of yoga known as Eischens Yoga.
For instance, when you’re watching TV with your family, try to sit as close to the floor as you comfortably can. “The lower you go, the more you’re asking your muscles and joints to do,” Shuck explains.
If you can’t sit directly on the floor, grab a cushion, ottoman, or low chair, but try not to get too comfortable: “The comfier the chair, the longer you can sit there without moving.”
When you do sit on a chair or cushion, try to sit forward. This builds core strength. It also allows the spine to maintain its natural curves.
“Most of us slump back against the chair or couch. This tucks the pelvis, which is problematic for the back, the hips, and the pelvic floor,” she says. If sitting forward is uncomfortable, elevate your hips by adding blankets or cushions to your seat. “This will change the angle of the thighs in relation to your pelvis.”
You can also mobilize your hips by making a tweak to the way you stand. “We tend to stand with our weight forward on our feet, which also tends to tighten the hip flexors,” Shuck explains. Try shifting your weight back onto your heels when you stand — chances are you’ll feel your lower back and hip flexors relax when you do.
This article originally appeared in Experience Life, Life Time’s whole-life health and fitness magazine.