The way most of our daily routines are set up, it’s likely we all have tightness in our hips to some extent. We unintentionally create shortening without doing enough to counterbalance. This creates a domino effect with how our muscles work together, and tight hips specifically correlate to how strong our core is. Regardless of how sought after nice abs are for aesthetics, they are essential for long-term health.
When hip flexors are tight, this means the pelvis is in a constant state of anterior tilt. This tilt creates an arch in the low back and lengthening of the abs. Essentially, when the abs are in this lengthened state, they are inhibited from contracting fully. Depending on how tight your hip flexors are, you may even experience low back pain or pain/soreness in the hips after doing core work. The tighter the hips, the more they will want to take over in abdominal exercises.
Ultimately, a strong core is essential for healthy movement, posture, alignment, and lifelong injury-prevention. Below are four things to focus on when performing ab exercises, plus a few exercise suggestions to eliminate excessive hip flexion and isolate the core.
Get familiar with doing a posterior pelvic tilt.
Lay on your back and rotate your pelvis by curving through your lumbar spine. Focus on touching each vertebra of your back to the ground so that your low back is flat and there is no gap between you and the floor. You should automatically feel your abdominal muscles activate.
Loosen and open the hips.
This will help to improve your posture, plus fix the imbalances that are preventing you from building stability. A good movement for this is a simple kneeling stretch. Bring one foot in front to form a 90-degree angle with your leg, and keep your body upright over your other knee. Activate glutes and abs, and focus on posterior tiling the pelvis. Again, there should automatically be a deep stretch happening in the hip flexors. (For those looking for an advanced version, lean the body forward and reach back for the foot of the trail leg while still keeping the chest open and core tight).
Use a full range of motion.
A healthy muscle is one that can be strong in a lengthened state. Exercises like crunches, for example, mainly compact the abdominal muscles in a limited range of motion. The cores function is to stabilize the entire body, so doing ab exercises on our back limits its full capacity. Instead, opt for a stability ball, TRX, or anything that lets your abs lengthen fully and rotate without lying your spine on the ground.
Keep the hips stationary and neutral.
Most times, when we do core movements lying on our back, they require excessive hip activation. For example, in an ab leg raise, the core is stable while the movement is through the hip flexors. Instead, it is ideal to move through the core while the hips stay stable in a posterior tilt. As you build core strength you can, of course, do plenty of amazing variations on the ground — but if you are learning to train your hip flexors to stay out of it, it’s best to get familiar with core activation without dynamic hip flexion.
Core Isolation Movements:
This is an excellent movement not only for how well it activates deep core muscles, but also the amount of variations you can make.
To start, use a cable machine (or anchor a band) and stand parallel to the machine. Step a few feet away to create resistance and brace your core. Bring the cable/band to your chest, then extend your arms back out straight. The resistance will try to make you lean — be sure you don’t let it by keeping your core tight.
Side Plank Hip Dips.
The amount of lateral strength it takes to stabilize in this position should not be underestimated. Not only does this movement strengthen obliques, but it will teach your core muscles to work together.
To start, place your elbow underneath your shoulder and make sure your body is in a straight line. Keep your ankles, knees, and hips directly stacked over one another. Push up through your obliques to contract them, then lower down without touching the ground. Raise your hips as high as you can again and repeat this motion on each side. For an added challenge, keep the hips raised holding a side plank and raise your top leg into a static hold for a side star plank.