Help Me Stop Gripping My Hip Flexors During Pilates Exercises

by | Jun 7, 2012 | Functional Movement, Pilates, Pilates Exercises, Techniques & Teaching Tips | 0 comments

How To Get the Most Benefits
from Your Pilates Core Training Exercises

Q & A from the Abs vs. Thighs Articles

I received a nice note from Kristi with some questions about her Pilates exercise technique and how to get her Quads & Hip Flexors (i.e. the Rectus Femoris muscle) to stop gripping and grabbing when she’s doing Abdominal training exercises.

Kristi’s Question:

“Hope this finds you well!  I wish I could get an “Aliesa-fix” soon! 

 I’m having a hard time with the double leg lift and completely relaxing my quads.  My Rectus Femoris muscle doesn’t relax completely when I have my legs extended at an angle or even when I try to lift them away from a ball.

 I’m able to do all the other exercises in the Pilates Matwork Series of 5 well.  What am I doing wrong with this one?  Seems as though the Rec Fem activates as soon as I have extended my legs and especially when I try to do the double straight leg exercise.

 Hope you can help me have a “light-bulb” moment.”

Answer from Aliesa George, PMA-CPT,

Hi Kristi,

It’s so great to hear from you!  Thanks for your question.

First of all,  pat yourself on the back that you’re AWARE that your Rec. Fem. likes to hang on:)  That’s the first step in making some positive improvements.

When I had this issue to change in my body – I literally spent months (probably almost a year, maybe more)  propping my legs up on something when they were extended so I could really feel my Hip Flexors relax, then I started trying to engage everything else that should be supporting me, and still trying keeping the Quads grippy Hip Flexors out of the equation.

In every Pilates lesson I took – my teacher wouldn’t let me do it wrong…we spent LOTS of time focused on this and practiced doing the Pilates Double Leg Lift exercise with assistance.

I know that I gave you lots of choices to practice in the Abs vs. Thighs series of articles.  These are typically the exercises  I use to help people identify, and work through this.  But it may not be a miraculous, do the exercise once and turn off your Rectus Femoris experience!  Give yourself, time, practice, and patience to focus on using other muscles to do the work.

Do you remember in the Centerworks® Basic Mat – Teacher Training Workshop spotting each others legs on the double leg lift?  You may need to buddy up with somebody and have them hold your legs to help retrain the Abs an Psoas to do the lifting instead of the Quads.

In the Double Leg Lift, it’s really the Psoas muscle that’s the primary hip flexor.  Look it up to see where it attaches (off the lower back, under the pelvis and onto the thigh bone somewhere close to the hamstring attachment.)  Seeing where the Psoas is, might help you feel it work more so your Rec. Fem. can let go.

Here Are a Few More Suggestions To Help You Un-Grip the Hip Flexors:

  1. You’ve got to keep your “Clam on” (front to back of the pelvic floor), and pelvis still as you lift & lower the legs(I’m a fan of classical scoop – an you’ve got to hold it!)  If you are trying to lower your legs and your Rec. Fem. muslces are working harder than your Glutes – the back will arch and pelvis to hip angle will not open.  Your goal is to move the Ball IN the socket to lift & lower the leg.  One more muscle you might need to think about is your Multifidus, to stabilize the back bones so that the pelvis AND Back provide a stable anchor to lower & lift the legs.
  2. The more the legs extend AWAY from the body, the more free space you have in the hip socket to move the leg.  BUT if you reach the leg away and release the pelvic floor, low abs, and Multifidus, your Hip Flexors will do the holding.
  3. Prop your legs up on a chair when you’re doing ALL your extended leg exercises (100, series of 5, teaser, etc…..)
  4. Do the Double Leg Lift with a partner, or use the leg springs.
  5. Work in the Diamond (bent leg position) to shorten the lever if needed and work back to straight legs.
  6. You might also start doing some 1 leg pumping seated on the Pilates chair, 1 leg Stomach Massage on the Pilates Reformer,  and 1 leg wall Squats holding the leg up horizontal to the floor.  YES your quads will be working, but you’ve also got to free up the other leg to move, without moving the pelvis and keeping the abs supported.  This feeling of support and movement in time should transfer back to your 2 leg lift!
  7. You might also work on exercises that hinge the body forward & back on stable legs (Like Short-Box Tall) or The hinge for the hand weight exercises.  Even Spread Eagle on the Cadillac.  The hinging action at the hip is the same whether it’s the body moving on stable legs, or the legs moving on a stable torso.  Perhaps chipping away at it knowing you can move the pelvis (socket around the ball) will help your body understand what it feels like to move freely from the hip and transfer that feeling to the legs moving.

Keep me posted on how this is working for you.  This is definitely a challenging concept.  If you’ve ever had a back problem, or S.I. Joint issues, chances are your Hip Flexors have been ON for a very long time to support you.  Give them permission to dim down their efforts so other parts of your core can do more of the work.  Then try not to get frustrated when you know they’re doing too much, instead recognize it and use one of the strategies above, or other exercises I suggested in the Abs. vs. Thighs articles to keep working on things until your over-gripping Hip Flexors begin to let go!

You Can Do It!  If you have any other questions, please drop me a line!

Peace & Blessings,



Aliesa George, PMA-CPT
Centerworks® – Pilates & Wellness for Life!


If you missed reading the Abs vs. Thighs series of 6 articles, here are the links for more details!

  •  Article 1:  Abs vs. Thighs:  Which Muscles are Really Working to Strengthen Your Core?
  •  Article 2:  Abs vs. Thighs: Preparatory Exercises to Help Find the Abs & Relax the Hip Flexors for Effective Core Strengthening
  •  Article 3:  Abs vs. Thighs: For Effective Core Conditioning – Strengthen the Hamstrings & Glutes
  •  Article 4: Core Conditioning Exercise Tips to Improve Pilates Exercise Technique (Abs vs. Thighs: The Pilates Hundred Exercise with Feet in Straps or Leg Springs)
  •  Article 5:  Abs. vs. Thighs: Improving Core Strength with Pilates Matwork – The Pilates Double Leg Lift Exercise with a Partner
  • Article 6:  Abs vs. Thighs:  Maximizing Effective Pilates Ab Work for Core Conditioning – Obliques vs. Quads



Aliesa George: Over the past three decades, Aliesa George has helped assist people with their personal health journeys by sharing, teaching, and developing Pilates, Foot Fitness, and other Mind-Body programs.


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