If we are going to talk at all about how training to be a better athlete is different than bodybuilding/strongman style workout programs, there is no greater difference than how hip muscles are trained.
The hips are the engine of athletic performance – sprinting, skating, throwing, kicking, hitting – these skills are all dependent on hip muscles that are both powerful and mobile. And if that isn’t enough, weakness or tightness in the hips often leads to lower body injuries, too.
To train the hips properly we must first know what they are, and what they do.
The psoas major, rectus femoris and iliacus make up what is known as the hip flexor muscles. They are perhaps the most important muscle group in your entire body.
For starters, they are the only muscles that connect the lower body to the upper body. When sprinting and skating, the power you generate with your arm swing is transferred to your stride directly through them.
As force producers, they primarily create the knee drive necessary to run and skate fast. They set in motion a faster, more powerful stride when they function at a high level.
But they play a second critical role in athletics, in that they lengthen to allow the trail leg to extend behind the body.
Today, as we live in a culture that sits quite often, most people have hip flexors that are tight. Tight hip flexors do not allow you to extend your back leg as well when skating or sprinting. Plus, shortness does not allow you to snap up to a high knee position with as much power.
Training to develop fully mobile and powerful hip flexors should be a top priority for athletes in all sports.
These relatively small muscles are also key players in athletic performance. Located on the sides of your hips, their athletic functions mostly revolve around side to side movements like cutting, shuffling, and skating.
But they have two other significant functions in the world of sports.
For one, they act as stabilizer muscles during a sprint stride. Any side to side movement in sprinting will slow you down, so a stable set of glute medius muscles will make you faster.
Perhaps even more importantly, though, they pull down to the knee joint to prevent it from buckling inward. It is this inward motion of the knee that causes the dreaded ACL tear, an injury seen far too often in youth sports today from non-contact situations.
Although the glute medius can get tight, a situation especially common with distance runners, most often this muscle is weak.
The ability to push off explosively when sprinting, cutting and skating is crucial to playing fast, and no muscle group contributes more to this than the glutes.
For younger athletes an emphasis on strength training will immensely help build horsepower, leading to more powerful sport-skills. Exercises like squats, glute bridges, mini band walks, and single leg work are great ways to gain strength here.
But as athletes mature they can run into a secondary problem here, which is progressive weakening of the glutes due to tight hip flexors. This can happen through a sedentary lifestyle outside of sports (too much time in sitting positions) or from poor workout programming which strengthens the quads and hip flexors more than the glutes and hamstrings.
The side effects of both are increased risk of hamstring pulls, because they must take up the work of the weaker glutes, slower athletic movement, and back pain.
Common Hip Training Mistakes
Your workout programming can increase or decrease your risk of injury.
And it can morph you into a slightly faster or slightly slower athlete each year, as well.
3 common hip training mistakes you’ll want to avoid are:
1. SIMPLY NOT DOING ANY HIP STRENGTHENING
They don’t all get worked in a squat, or its many variations, which is unfortunately what far too many younger athletes still focus on almost exclusively when training on their own.
Hit up some mini band work, add single leg drills (as shown below), different drills give you different benefits. Squatting only for legs is like eating broccoli all day. Yeah, its good for you, but you’re losing out on so many other key benefits from the things you’ve left out.
2. NOT USING FULL RANGE OF MOTION ON SQUATS
If you are determined to squat heavy weight, which for many athletes is important to their sport success, PLEASE make sure you never sacrifice depth for extra weight.
The lower part of your squat pattern is more glute and hamstring intensive, while the top portion stresses your quads far more. Full range strengthens all key muscle groups, keeps you in balance, and promotes both speed and health.
3. NOT DOING ANY LATERAL OR ROTATIONAL STRENGTH TRAINING
Most athletes need to cut, move laterally, and perform a variety of moves in all three planes of motion.
Yet typical bodybuilding-style workouts only emphasize strength in one direction – forward and backward.
Finding strength drills that help you moving side to side, or rotationally, are hidden gems in a proper sports training program that give you an edge in both speed potential and in lessening the risk of lower body injuries.
3 Exercises To Improve Your Hips For Sports
1. Mini Band Walks
A simple drill to strengthen your glute medius. Place a mini band or light tubing around your ankles and step to the side as shown. Hitting 10-15 reps in each direction while keeping the band wide enough to maintain constant tension can be a real eye opener in terms of how weak you may be in this area.
Maintaining a slight hip bend, as shown, will help you to more effectively target the muscles on the side of your hip.
2. Hip Flexor Mobility
Maintaining proper hip flexor range of motion, especially if you spend a good amount of time sitting each day, is highly recommended.
There are a wide range of exercises that stretch these muscles, and most put you in some variation of a split stance/lunge pose. As there are too many variations to list here, and all have value, I’d encourage you to either use what your teams use in warm ups or seek out the advice of a qualified coach to find a couple good ones for your specific needs.
3. Single Leg Squats
When done correctly, the single leg squat creates an incredible strength, stability and mobility demand on the hip muscles (among many others!)
And while the image here is the ultimate goal in single leg squat positioning, there are many other introductory variations for the vast majority of athletes who will not be able to do this correctly right away.
Supporting your back foot on a bench or starting with lunge patterns are recommended for all of us who struggle to balance and get this low.
If you asked me to name the biggest problem with old-fashioned lifting programs (and I know you didn’t, but it’s coming anyways), I’d tell you its the utter disregard for training the hips properly. They drive all movement, contribute greatly to upper body power skills (throwing, hitting, shooting, etc), play a huge role in preventing injuries, and help you to get faster.
Those are almost all the things athletes need to excel. They are the reason why some kids who look undersized can generate massive amounts of power, while other kids who look big and strong never play up to their appearance when game day rolls around.
All aspring athletes would be wise to make sure that they are maximizing their hip strength and mobility as a primary goal in their workouts, regardless of age or sport.