Functional hip flexors are key to the healthy movement of legs in relation to the body.
Located at the front of your hip, hip flexors are responsible for actions such as forward bending and leg lifting. They are integral to everyday activities such as walking, standing up from a chair, or picking something up off the ground.
So, let’s learn how we can best stretch and strengthen this vital area of your body with a few important poses and our custom-made yoga for hip flexors routine!
What Are Hip Flexors?
The hip flexors are a group of muscles responsible for the flexion movement that brings your legs towards the upper body.
There is a common misconception that the hip flexor is just one muscle when, in fact, it’s made up of 5 different muscles, including:
- Psoas major is a long, thick muscle running from the lumbar spine to the pelvis and thigh. In essence, the psoas connects the upper body to the lower body.
- Iliacus is a triangular muscle within your pelvis, with a primary function of flexion and rotation of the thigh. Psoas and iliacus join together to form iliopsoas.
- Rectus femoris is part of the quadriceps muscle group. It is responsible for knee extension and thigh flexion.
- Additionally, hip flexors include the pectineus and sartorius muscles, located at the groin and front of the thigh, respectively. They also contribute to the knee and leg flexion, as well as rotation and adduction of the hip.
When you sit down, the hip flexors are inactive, even though they are in a shortened position. Your seat is supported; therefore, the hip muscles don’t have to engage.
Spending extended periods of time sitting down, e.g., working a desk job, can lead to weakened and tight hip flexors. As a result, you can neither truly straighten up nor bend down. It can bring forth a variety of mobility issues.
Overworking your hip flexors can be as dangerous as inactivity. Too much strain on the area can result in pulled or even torn muscles. A hip flexor injury can be very painful and is often accompanied by cramps, spasms, swelling, and limited mobility.
Hip flexor injuries are especially common among runners, cyclists, and gymnasts.
The best way to prevent a hip flexor injury is through careful maintenance. Stretching and strengthening your hip flexors makes them more adaptable and less prone to strain.
Yoga recognizes the importance of hip mobility. As a result, it features many asanas that focus on improving the strength and flexibility of the hip flexor area.
When you bend forward, squat down, or take a step, the hip flexors are engaged (shortened). And so, if you maintain a certain level of physical activity, the hips flexors stay active and strong.
You’ll notice that you can achieve a deeper fold with less strain if you regularly practice forward bends and leg lifts.
From Uttanasana and Prasarita Padottanasana, to Janu Sirsasana and Paschimottanasana, many yogic postures focus on folding forward.
While the primary objective of these poses varies, they all have something in common. They draw on the strength of the hip flexors to bring the torso closer to the thighs.
It is important to keep that in mind next time you perform a folding asana. If you strengthen your hips, you’ll be able to bend further without compromising your spine or your hamstrings.
Boat Pose (Navasana)
Boat Pose is a perfect example of active hip flexion. In order to keep the legs raised while you balance on your sit bones, you need good core tension and strong hip flexors.
The great advantage of this pose is that it can be modified to cater to different levels of ability. As a result, you can gradually build up the strength in your hip flexor muscles with a lower risk of injury.
Standing Balance One Leg Raised (Utthita Eka Padasana)
An advanced standing balance, this asana usually follows the Hand-to-Toe Pose.
Once you let go of the foot, it’s much harder to keep the leg raised in the same position. The good news is that even if the leg isn’t parallel to the ground, you can still experience the benefits of this pose.
Furthermore, you can adapt this asana for beginners’ practice by removing the balance aspect and holding onto the wall of the back of a chair.
Chair Pose (Utkatasana)
Chair Pose is aptly named because it mimics the shape we make while sitting down.
However, the clear distinction is the active engagement in the hips and quadriceps. If we stop engaging our hip flexors, we simply fall back. Chair Pose really showcases the importance of strong, controlled hip flexors.
Goddess Pose (Utkata Konasana)
Similar to the Chair Pose, Goddess Pose is a squat that draws on the strength of the hip flexors, quadriceps, and pelvic muscles. With the knees positioned at a wide angle, this asana provides an extra dimension for strengthening the hip flexors.
Active Legs-Up-The-Wall (Viparita Karani)
In Viparita Karani, the hip flexors are relaxed because the legs rest against the wall.
However, it can change into an active, hip strengthening exercise with one simple adjustment. Take the wall out of the equation!
To perform this version of the pose, lie back on your mat and raise your legs to a 90-angle.
Similar to the traditional Legs-Up-The-Wall, the hips can be raised on a block or a blanket to make it easier for beginners and practitioners with poor mobility.
To keep your hip flexors healthy, it’s also important to counter the flexion with extension. The latter can be achieved by engaging the glutes to lengthen the front of the hips. That’s why many of the countering poses involve some form of a backbend.
Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
The Bridge Pose is a good example of active hip extension. The hips are raised using leg and glute muscles, which open and stretch the front of the hips.
This asana can also be performed passively using yoga props such as a bolster or a stack of blocks.
As long as the hips are lifted high enough, you can enjoy the lengthening action of stretching the hip flexors.
Camel Pose (Ustrasana)
In its shape, Camel Pose is not too dissimilar to the Bridge Pose. However, it is performed from the upright kneeling position, so gravity affects the body in a different way.
Here, the hips are pushed forward to maintain balance, and the hip flexors are stretched directly.
To facilitate the extension and protect the lumbar spine, it’s important to keep the glutes engaged.
Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana)
One of the simplest ways to counter hip flexion is Urdhva Hastasana. This asana is accessible to most practitioners and can be adapted to different levels of flexibility.
Like in Camel Pose, supporting the hip extension with active glutes is important.
Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana)
Any variation of the Low Lunge Pose is a good way to stretch the hip flexor muscles on the leg extended backward.
As well as taking advantage of the different variations (e.g., Crescent Lunge, Twisted Lunge, Side Bend Lunge), try the active iteration of Anjaneyasana. Before you sink the hips forward, hug your ribs in, tuck the tailbone under, and squeeze the glutes. The impact on the hip flexors will be much greater.
Lizard Pose (Utthan Pristhasana)
Another fantastic way to work on your hip flexor extension is the Lizard Pose.
Again, it’s one of those poses that can be adapted to suit your level of flexibility. With proper guidance and the optional use of props, you can really hit the sweet spot.
All it takes is regular maintenance to keep your hip flexors in check. This short yoga sequence can help you strengthen your hip flexors and keep them flexible.
Easy Pose (Sukhasana)
Start by sitting in a comfortable cross-legged position. This will allow your hips to soften, especially if you’re doing yoga towards the end of your day. It’s also good to let your mind settle and focus on the practice. Keep your back upright, and reach upwards through the crown of your head. Spend 2-5 minutes in Easy Pose, breathing and grounding yourself.
Beginners Tip: If your hips are tight, you may want to elevate your seat. Sit on a block or a folded blanket to help you sit upright. You can also spend some extra time settling into the pose. Just shuffle your seat, wiggle your knees, and do what you need to do to find the right position.
Staff Pose (Dandasana)
Extend your legs forward and readjust your seat so that you can remain upright. You may need to tilt your pelvis slightly as if trying to arch your back. The very act of keeping your torso upright requires active engagement in the hip flexors. Stay here for 5-10 full breaths.
Head-to-Knee Pose (Janu Sirsasana)
Starting with the right side, bend one leg, planting the foot into the opposite thigh. Square your torso towards the extended leg and open your chest. On the exhale, bring your upper body forward into a bend. Stay here for 3-5 breaths before lifting back up. Repeat on the other side.
Beginners Tip: Remember, the focus is on activating the hip flexors to bring the body forward. If your hamstrings are the limiting factor, you can soften slightly through the back of the knee. Avoid rounding your back; instead, lead with the center of your chest.
Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana)
Once you’ve completed Janu Sirsasana on both sides, come back to the Staff Pose. Take a deep breath in as you lengthen through the spine. Exhale and fold forward. Try to keep your upper body stiff and long. Keep your focus on the hip joint.
Beginners Tip: You don’t have to be able to touch your toes to do this pose! In fact, that shouldn’t be the goal. You could rest your hands on either side of your legs or use a yoga strap to help you fold. Avoid rounding your back.
Wide-Stance Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
Transition to a tabletop position. From here, lift into the Downward Facing Dog and carefully walk your feet forward. Step your feet wide, with the outer edges of your feet aligned with the long edges of your yoga mat. Soften through your upper body and grab hold of the opposite elbows. Gently sink your hips and sway a few times from side to side.
Beginners Tip: You can bend your knees as much as necessary in the forward bend. The goal is to maintain contact between the belly and the front of your thighs.
Garland Pose (Malasana)
Bring your hands down to the floor. Turn your toes outwards about 45 degrees. Inhale to lengthen through your spine. As you exhale, start sinking your hips into a deep Malasana squat. Open your chest forward and bring your hands together at the heart center for about five breaths.
Beginners Tip: Malasana can be tricky because it requires a lot of flexibility in the hip and groin, as well as ankle mobility, back strength, and steady balance. Take your time to find your groove. You may find that bringing your feet closer together and lifting the heels is helpful. You can take this variation further by adding blocks or folded blankets under the heels to support your balance. You can also keep your hands on the floor if that helps.
Lizard Pose (Utthan Pristhasana)
Bring your palms back down to the floor. Plant them firmly under the shoulders. Step one leg back and land your knee. Once you’re settled, you may fold even deeper by bringing your forearms to the ground. After about a minute, step forward into Malasana before switching to the other side.
Beginners Tip: You can cushion the back knee by folding your yoga mat or adding a folded blanket under it. Remember to keep your spine long and straight. Try not to tip your weight to either side of the body.
Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana)
After you complete Lizard Pose on both sides, return to Garland Pose and lift into standing. Bring your feet together and elongate through the spine. Inhale as you lift your arms overhead and gently arch through the upper spine. Keep your glutes engaged. On the exhale, come into neutral Mountain Pose. Repeat 3-5 times if desired.
Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
Come back down to your mat. You may perform a Vinyasa if you like or simply lower down into a seat. Lie back with your knees bent and positioned hip-width. Plant your arms on either side of the body. Engage your glutes and elevate your hips towards the sky. Stay here for five full breaths before returning to the floor.
Happy Baby Pose (Ananda Balasana)
Finish your practice by bringing your knees towards your chest. Open the knees towards the corresponding armpits, grasp your feet or big toes with each hand, and lift your shins perpendicular to the ground. Flatten the back against the floor and gently roll from side to side.
Beginners Tip: A great alternative to the Happy Baby pose is simply hugging your knees towards your chest and rocking on your back.