The psoas & iliopsoas, more commonly known as your hip flexor muscles attach the femur (thigh bone) to the pelvis as well as the lumbar spine and vertebrae where your floating ribs hang from. They perform several key functions, including bringing the knee towards the body (a mountain climber movement) while also providing support to bring the torso towards the knees (full flexion sit-ups). However, too often they are doing more work than they need to with many clients being overly tight causing a pull on the pelvis and moving the spine out of alignment.

Tight hip flexors mean that the top of the pelvis and the lumbar spine are being pulled forward and downward towards the thighs – resulting in the glutes (buttock muscles) sticking out and an increased arch in the lower back which is referred to as lordosis. This position can be a primary cause of lower-back pain. While proper stretching of the hip flexors and the glutes will provide immediate relief to over-engaged hip flexors - and the resulting lower-back pain - the most important task is to retrain the muscles to “switch off”.

Below are three fundamental exercises to work the core & abs without engaging the hip flexors:

Chest Curls

This sounds like a no-brainer, but if you have tight hip flexors they may just be trying to lift your head for you.

  • Lie on the floor with your knees bent, feet sitting hip bone distance apart, pelvis in neutral (gentle arch at the waist, pelvis weighted slightly towards the tailbone, ribcage wide and relaxed into the floor).
  • Without flattening the lower-back, use your abdominals, spinal erectors and the slide of your shoulders away from your ears to curl your head/chest off the floor in a small chest curl: now, look to see if your hip flexors are engaged.
  • IF they are, then return to neutral spine, disengage them and try again – make the chest curl smaller until you can do it without the hip flexors.

* Tip: to begin the chest curl, drop your lowest ribs into the mat – pressing backwards as curl you forwards.

Knee Stirs

This is a fundamental pilates exercise to wake-up the core & pelvis stabilisers without engaging the hip flexors.

  • Lie in the same neutral pelvis position as above. Keep the pelvis neutral and evenly weighted right-to-left.
  • Take your right knee in your right hand resting your left hand on your left hip bone/belly.
  • From this point, use your right hand to draw small circles with the knee (do NOT use ANY leg muscles to do this!) making the thigh bone move in the hip socket: feel how the pelvis rolls around with the leg?
  • Now engage the pelvic floor and core gently, making sure the left leg stays in a stable and neutral position.
  • Draw the same small circles with the right hand/knee, but don’t allow the pelvis to wobble. Perform 5 circles clockwise followed by 5 circles counter-clockwise before repeating on the left side.

Supported Roll-Backs on a foam roller

  • Start seated on the roller as though you were going to lay back along it with both your head and pelvis supported. Your hands remain on the floor to either side of you, feet are sitting-bone distance apart and the legs are centered in the hip socket (knees pointing in the same direction as the second toe).
  • Begin your roll back by scooping the pelvis – pulling the waist in a deep abdominal curl towards the roller: the key here is to use your arms as much as required in order to keep the hip flexors completely disengaged as you roll backwards (to the waist only).
  • Return by further abdominal scooping to roll upwards. Your arms are basically doing a tricep press in slow-motion, and you are watching the crease at the front of your hips for any sign of activation of the hip flexors.

*Tip - it should feel as though the legs are heavy and falling AWAY from you as you curl backwards and forwards.

In addition, below is an excellent hip flexor and quadriceps stretch to complement the exercises above. You will need a bench, couch, or bed that is firm.

  • Lie on your belly along the edge of the bench with one leg extended along the bench in line with your spine, the other leg will be in a deep lunge with the foot on the floor.
  • If you are stretching the right thigh then the left foot will be on the floor, your left hand/forearm under your forehead.
  • Reach back with the right hand and grab the right ankle. This may feel too intense If so, grab a strap – loop it around the ankle and hold onto the strap in order to draw the heel towards the right sit-bone/ceiling.
  • Anchor your pubic bone and hip bones into the bench, feeling length through the front of the right hip, and reach the knee along the mat away from your head. Try to keep the pelvis “square” – don’t allow the standing hip to sway outwards, draw it in underneath you.
  • Breathe slow and even! Inhaling to fill the stretch from inside, exhale to engage the core and lengthen the spine head to tail. 6-10 breaths.

*Tip – keep the stretching thigh/knee IN CONTACT with THE BENCH, this will help keep the lower back protected and provide a better stretch.