Having strong hips is the foundation of efficient and sustainable running. The hip complex is an important stabilizer to the leg, and is perhaps best known by runners as that group of muscles that controls and prevents pain — in the hip, itself, but also the knee and lower leg.
The hip is also the prime mover, generating both peak speed and endurance. Using a vertical motion strategy, the hip flexors and gluteal complex combine as the powerful propellers, projecting us from start to finish.
Despite the seemingly overwhelming evidence connecting hip strength to fast running, we know much less about the most effective exercises for creating the stable hips to strongly propel us.
The Force-Vector Theory and Running
We may get some guidance from something called the Force-Vector Theory. Promoted by Bret Contreras, PhDit postulates that the most optimal performance-enhancing exercises are those that align with the specific plan of action in which we perform our sport.
For example, volleyball and basketball — which demand vertical leap ability — may benefit most from exercises where the limbs move in bigger angles and in a vertical direction. Running, however, involves almost exclusively horizontal forward motion, so the most important exercises are those where the limbs move in relatively smaller angles in a forward-and-rearward plane.
Indeed, some of Contreras’s work (1) has shown significant and specific gains of horizontal exercise — in this case a hip-thrust exercise, which is a weighted version of a bridge — most improved horizontal jump performance, while a front squat most benefited vertical jumping.
Implications for running are that similar horizontal exercises are preferred for both peak running speed and endurance. Specific to running, it means strengthening hip extension at its most horizontal range of motion. This equates to roughly to the final 40 to 60 degrees of motion — from a flexed thigh, lifted roughly a third of its range upward, to a thigh that is equal to and in line with the spine, making a straight line.
This range functionally equates to the motion the thigh makes when we first land on the ground, until the leg pushes off — its functional pushoff and propulsive moment.
Challenges to Strong Hip Extension in Running
Working end-range hip extension has its challenges. The biggest is the key counterbalance between hip mobility and spinal stability. In short, we runners need our hips to move a lot, while our spine needs to move very little. However, that is far easier said than done.
A variety of factors challenge this balancing act between a stable spine and mobile hips:
- core stability weakness — A weak or inhibited core may not be able to counterbalance either strong or repetitive movements in the hips.
- hip stiffness — The tighter the hip and surrounding area, the more the neuromuscular system will try to move the spine to achieve the functional motion.
- Postural and positional deficits — How we position the body, particularly while running, will impact how efficiently this spine-on-hip system functions. Certain postures will inhibit hip motion, inviting excessive spinal movement.
Exercises to Promote Hip Extension for Running
Thus, when trying to exercise into end-range extension, it is far too easy to substitute lumbar motion, instead. This is the case for myriad common running exercises, including:
- All-fours leg extension
The Consequences of Juxtaposing a Mobile Hip and Stable Spine
If we fail to keep the spine stable, potential consequences include:
- low back pain — Repetitive hyperextension of the lumbar spine can cause compressive lumbar stiffness and pain. Deficient hip extension and lumbar extension substitution is a primary cause of low back pain for runners.
- hip and pelvic stiffnesss — Over time, substituting lumbar extension lets the hips off the hook. They will become stiffer, losing functional range. This, in turn, can worsen lumbar stiffness.
- nerve pain — Lumbar compression can cause nerve irritation, radiculopathy, and neurogenic pain.
- Impaired stride efficiency — Substituting lumbar for hip extension creates hyperactivity of our lumbar extensors. This imbalance can overpower our balanced running posture, pulling us out of hip hinge, into a more upright and less efficient posture. This, in turn, can create even more propulsive deficits and increased landing stress.
Below is a video describing the importance of horizontal strengthening and its challenges:
Core stability is crucial. But while training to stabilize the spine while doing hip strength is highly specific to running, having certain exercises where a runner can focus solely on achieving a strong — and full-range — hip extension movement, without concern for lumbar motions, is novel.
This was especially the case for me, both clinically and personally. I often struggle to teach isolated hip extension to clients — many of whom have lumbar spinal sensitivity. Personally, I also struggle utilizing full hip extension in my running stride.
I could not find an exercise that would allow aggressive and full-range hip extension strengthening without any risk of lumbar strain. So, I came up with my own.
Joe’s Pigeon Exercise for Hip Extension
This novel exercise is a related offshoot of my hip flexor stretch. By using maximal hip flexion of the opposite leg, this binds the lumbar spine into neutral, allowing full motion and aggressive strengthening of the movement leg.
- Adopt an all-fours position on the ground.
- Allow one leg to extend behind you.
- Lower your body toward the flexed knee and thigh, as if doing a pigeon pose in yoga.
- Balance on your hands in a push-up position, over that forward thigh.
- Flex the rearward knee, and point the toe upward toward the ceiling.
- Extend the bent leg upward, as high as it will go. The goal is a thigh that is parallel, in line with the line of the trunk.
- Hold the end-range position for at least one full second and upwards of five seconds.
One last tip, be mindful of hip rotation. In the frontal view, the shin bone should be vertical, or slightly out, into internal rotation. For most stiff runners, the hip will trend the other way, or angled medially, into hip external rotation. Hip internal rotation is a component of the pushoff hip pattern.
Here’s a video description of the exercise:
Hip Extension Progression and Application
If in trying the Joe’s Pigeon Exercise for hip extension, you find yourself unable to fully extend your hip, try the following:
- self massage — To use the end range, we first must find it. But stretching is often not enough. First massage the hip area. This includes the side doors of the medial and lateral thigh.
- Stretch — Use Joe’s Couch Stretch to safely and fully stretch the hip into end-range extension, with a fully flexed opposite hip. Both prolonged holds (over a minute) and high repetitions (four to six times or more) may be required.
- Strengthen — Immediately following a massage and stretch routine, perform Joe’s Pigeon Exercise to train your brain to find and use that new hip-extension range!
Next, you can apply all this to your running in the following ways:
The best first place to enhance functional hip extension is with hiking. As you did in the exercise, adopt a slight hip hinged posture, then engage the foot into a strong plantar flexion pushoff behind you.
This is a primary reason we focus on a toe-point plantar flexion during the exercise. Plantar flexion is neuromuscularly connected to hip extension in efficient gait patterning.
You may feel both a light opening stretch in the front of the pelvis, and some gluteal muscle engagement, or burn. Hiking up a light (2 to 5%) uphill is ideal to achieve this opening and gluteal burn.
Run Faster Uphill
Then, when it’s time to run, again place your focus on enhanced “opening” of the hip by pushing assertively with your foot behind you. Feel that same stretch opening as with hiking.
Fast running is the best time to initially feel and master enhanced hip extension. It will make you run faster! Try this technique first with short uphill sprints or intervals. There you can focus on the push-behind hip opening, while the hill makes it easier to maintain efficient posture and the reciprocal upward hip flexion.
Once you’ve mastered it with hiking and uphill fast running, try to apply to flat and fast running, then finally base-paced running.
The fastest and most efficient runners use their hips powerfully through a full range. Find and train your end-range hip extension, and then use it to propel you farther and faster along your way!
Call for Comments
- Did you try out Joe’s Pigeon Exercise? Did you find it helpful?
- What other topics would you like to see covered by this column?
- Contreras B, Vigotsky AD, Schoenfeld BJ, Beardsley C, McMaster DT, Reyneke JHT, and Cronin JB. Effects of a six-week hip thrust vs. front squat resistance training program on performance in adolescent males: A randomized controlled trial. J Strength Cond Res 31(4): 999–1008, 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27253835