There's something that 3,300 kettlebell swings in a week will teach you like nothing else: It's all in the hips. What's "all?" Everything. Anything. Whenever you move, whenever you stand or sit still, you are using your hips.
There are (at least) 17 different muscles that act on the acetabulofemoral joint. We generally categorize them into four main groups: the gluteal group, the lateral rotator group, the adductor group, and the iliopsoas group. These muscles act in concert to move the hip in every vector of human locomotion, as well as stabilize the joint globally when erect (like when you're standing around). To give you an idea of what I'm talking about here is a very high level breakdown of hip function (via wikipedia):
- Lateral or external rotation (30° with the hip extended, 50° with the hip flexed): gluteus maximus; quadratus femoris; obturator internus; dorsal fibers of gluteus medius and minimus; iliopsoas (including psoas major from the vertebral column); obturator externus; adductor magnus, longus, brevis, and minimus; piriformis; and sartorius.
- Medial or internal rotation (40°): anterior fibers of gluteus medius and minimus; tensor fascia latae; the part of adductor magnus inserted into the adductor tubercle; and, with the leg abducted also the pectineus.
- Extension or retroversion (20°): gluteus maximus (if put out of action, active standing from a sitting position is not possible, but standing and walking on a flat surface is); dorsal fibers of gluteus medius and minimus; adductor magnus; and piriformis. Additionally, the following thigh muscles extend the hip: semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and long head of biceps femoris.
- Flexion or anteversion (140°): iliopsoas (with psoas major from vertebral column); tensor fascia latae, pectineus, adductor longus, adductor brevis, and gracilis. Thigh muscles acting as hip flexors: rectus femoris and sartorius.
- Abduction (50° with hip extended, 80° with hip flexed): gluteus medius; tensor fascia latae; gluteus maximus with its attachment at the fascia lata; gluteus minimus; piriformis; and obturator internus.
- Adduction (30° with hip extended, 20° with hip flexed): adductor magnus with adductor minimus; adductor longus, adductor brevis, gluteus maximus with its attachment at the gluteal tuberosity; gracilis (extends to the tibia); pectineus, quadratus femoris; and obturator externus. Of the thigh muscles, semitendinosus is especially involved in hip adduction.
And as complex as that seems, with 17 muscles and 6 planes of movement, it's never really as simple as "this does that". Hell, you spend the first 9-12 months of your life learning to orchestrate the contraction of these muscles into a movement called walking! And as exciting as this moment was for our parents, it seems like we spend the rest of our lives squandering these gains.
Prolonged sitting, terrible posture, lack of use, and shortened range of motion all conspire to destroy the proper functioning of this magical joint. Look at a child pick up something off the floor or stick her toes into your mouth. That's perfect flexibility. So when a 27 year old comes to me and say that "it's impossible for me to squat all the way down," it pains me to think about all the performance they've lost on the alter of lazy functioning. Luckily, we can get it back. Even a dumb runner like me.
You should stretch every day. Let me repeat that. You should stretch every day. Static stretching, especially before a warm up, has gotten a lot of crap in the fitness world. A lot of very smart people have been harping on the futility and the impact that static stretching has on strength. But looking at the literature, we see that all the studies that investigated the impact of static stretching were simply looking at explosive or limit (1RM) strength. The people I see are not competing in Olympic lifting meets every day, but they do want to be able to touch their toes. Static stretching, especially cold stretching, has a very important role in expanding the range of motion of the hips. If you doubt that, go ask gymnasts how they get so flexible. They use a combination of static stretching and Active Isolated Stretching (more on that later) multiple times a day to expand and maintain their flexibility.
Mobility & Stability
The limit of static stretching is that your brain doesn't know what to do with all that new range of motion. You'll feel unstable and compensate with the same poor movement patterns. So you'll need to work on placing weight (bodyweight) in that range of motion and balancing in those new positions. As an example, I teach people how to squat by placing a box under their butt and telling them to tap it and pop up. The box gets lower as their range of motion expands and eventually they have the mobility and stability to do Ass-to-grass squats without the box. Of course, this wouldn't be possible if their hamstrings were locked up, which is why stretching is still important.
Coach, Just Tell Me What To Do!
- In the Morning
For range of motion, there is no better type of stretch than the Active Isolated Stretching. These are like regular stretches but you hold the stretch for 2-3 seconds and repeat 10-30 times. This also teaches also teaches the brain how to use the new range of motion so there is less chance of injury. Here is part 1 of a 5 part series on AIS from a massage clinic in Australia. So bonus for accents!
Do this for problems areas in your hips every day as a separate part of your workout routine. Many of my clients like to do it as soon as they wake up in the morning.
- Prior to Training
When it's time to workout, I recommend this great series of flexibility and dynamic mobility work from the Diesel Crew. It really gets those hips warm and ready for strength training.
- How to Train
You need to train the muscles of your hips and for that there is nothing better than squats, bridges, and swings. There is lots of other stuff you can do, but make sure you at least get squats and bridges in your routine 3x a week.