Coaches and athletes weigh in on how to strengthen your hips and work through problems before they start.
Perhaps you’ve heard: Hips don’t lie. In fact, off-balance hips are a good indicator of muscle weakness and alignment issues, and, like lightning before thunder, bad alignment portends injury. Strong muscles and bones are swell, but if your leg's pivot center is off, odds are you're in for a world of hurt down the road.
“Hip injuries are common,” warned Emily Harrison. She’s a Nike Trail Team athlete, an accomplished marathoner, and a coach with McMillan Running. “Weak hips manifest as injury and also as fatigue. Late in races, the body tends to break down and you have a harder time keeping pace,” she said. Weak hips collapse, dipping on one side or the other with each step, putting undue strain on your knees as well as the rest of the system.
When training for his record-breaking thru-hike of the PCT in 2016, ultra runner Karel Sabbe said hip exercises were probably the most important component of his strength training regime. After sufficient strengthening, he was able to run the entire 2,660-mile-long trail without complaint from his historically troublesome hips. His workouts included single-leg RDL’s, modified side plank, and single-leg balances.
Sabbe, Harrison, and a physical therapist offer their top tips for healthy, strong hips.
How to tell if you’re on the road to injury? If you go for a long run and only one side is sore, that’s a good indicator that you’re off-balance. Similarly, if you find hip exercises more difficult on one side than the other, you probably have some asymmetrical weaknesses to work through, according to Harrison.
To be sure, have a friend videotape you running. Look at footage of yourself from behind and from the side. Your hips should remain parallel with the floor. If you’ve got a little unintentional sashay away from that parallel line, it might be time to add some strength training to your routine.
Go Up a Weight Class
Though you should make sure you’ve completely mastered one weight before going heavier, Harrison says you shouldn’t be afraid of maxing out. “For endurance runners, the old-school thought was to do a lot of reps at light weight, but I’ve definitely seen a lot of benefit from adding heavy weight to strength exercises,” she said. She suggests front squats, hip hinges, and deadlifts.
Improve Your Posture
While there are plenty of exercises you can do to strengthen weak hips, physical therapist and coach Douglas Wisoff cautions that while these are great for recovery, you should aim to graduate from them eventually and switch your focus to core-strengthening exercises to keep your body in proper alignment going forward. “You can do as many clamshells as you want, but they’re not going to do squat if your running form is bad,” he said.
He recommends exercises that strengthen the abdominal muscles, particularly the transverse abdominal. If you suck in your belly and pretend to blow through a straw, that’s muscle you feel tighten, deep in your core. Strengthen it with planks, leg lifts, and bird dogs.
Another strengthening recommendation: a bridge, but not the way many people are used to doing it. “Most people tighten the glutes,” Wisoff said. “You should be engaging your core and using the muscles just in front of your spine.”
Do These Exercises to Fix Your Hips
A strong core may be the secret to long-lasting alignment, but first things first: Try these to fix up dodgy hips. Here are Sabbe's top exercise picks.
Single-Leg RDL’s (Russian Dead Lifts) (12 Reps, 2-3 Sets)
Start standing on one leg and bend forward with both hands down on either side of the foot. Sabbe did these in sets of 12 on each leg without weight, and Harrison recommends adding dumbbells or kettlebells after you’ve mastered the motion.
Common mistakes include turning to the side (see left photo) or swinging one leg out too wide. Harrison recommends looking in a mirror to make sure both legs are parallel to one another and in line with the running motion.
“If you’re not feeling it deep in your hip, you’re not getting the positioning right,” said Harrison. “Either tweak your form until you feel it or challenge yourself a little bit more.”
Hip Hinges (8-12 Reps, 3-4 Sets)
Hold a light bar against your back with one hand just above your head and one at the small of your back. Bend at the knees and sit back, keeping your shins perpendicular to the floor and the bar in contact with your head, upper back, and low back just above your tailbone. Bend until your torso is at a 45-degree angle with the floor, then push the hips forward to stand. This is a great exercise to improve form for squats and deadlifts.
Deadlifts (8-12 Reps, 3-4 Sets)
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and grip a weighted bar with your arms shoulder-width apart. Lift with your legs, pushing your hips forward and tightening your hamstrings. Remember to keep a neutral back both when lifting and lowering the bar back to the floor.
Front Squat (8-12 Reps, 3-4 Sets)
Look straight ahead, keeping your back neutral, and squat with feet shoulder-width apart until thighs are parallel with the ground. Making sure your knees don’t rock forward of your toes. If you have trouble with this, try putting a foam pad (one inch or so) under your heels to keep you balanced.
Clamshells (5-10 Reps, 2 Sets)
“These are great if you’re at home or don’t have any weights around,” said Harrison. Lay on your side with legs bent at a 45-degree angle and an elastic PT band around your legs just above the knee. Lift your top knee as high as you can, keeping your bottom knee pressed to the ground. Lower slowly. Do five to 10 of these on each side.
Modified Side Plank (2 Reps)
Start with a classic side plank, making sure your body is in a straight line from head to heel. Engage your core to keep your hips from sagging. Sabbe suggests 15 seconds here, then lifting the upper arm and leg for 10 seconds before returning to another 15 seconds in the original position.
Balancing Exercises (2 Reps)
Level 1: Stand on one leg and put four socks in front, behind, and to either side of you. With the free leg, push each sock as far away as possible, then bring each back to the start. Repeat, then switch legs.
Level 2: “Advanced is to do this on a Bosu Ball, without socks but imaginatively pushing something away as far as possible,” said Sabbe.
Level 3: Repeat on an upside-down Bosu Ball.
Hip Stretches (20 Seconds per Stretch)
In addition to the hip-strengthening exercises he did, Sabbe found these three stretches helpful. First, lunge with both hands to the inside of your foot, then with hands on either side of your foot. Then, rotate until the outside of one foot is resting against the floor on the opposite side. Sabbe said he recommends spending 20 seconds in each position on each side.