The Thinking Body: Hip Flexion

by | Nov 26, 2005 | Pilates, Pilates Exercises, Techniques & Teaching Tips | 0 comments

The Benefit of Learning Good Hip Mechanics

Do you spend most of your workday sitting? Or are you older and noticing that your activity level has decreased? Want to learn to sit, stand, and walk pain free? Take pressure off your lower back, and SI joints. Increase hip strength for better balance? Decrease stress on the knees when climbing up and down stairs? Make it easier to get up out of a chair? Improve gait for walking, running, bicycling, swimming.all other fitness activities? When we’re feeling unstable our stride shortens to protect balance our hips move less and less freely, we can end up shuffling along to keep us on our feet. This loss of hip strength and mobility can lead to an increased chance of a fall. Lack of movement at the hip may also contribute to a decrease in bone density. Free range of motion, strength, and flexibility at the hips is vital for enjoying a long-life of activity to keep us feeling healthy and young.

The Benefit of Spine Stabilization for Efficient Hip Movement

Smooth and efficient movement of the hips begins with a strong pelvic floor and good spine stability. Without this support as an anchor, free movement at the hip is compromised. A pelvis that is held in a posterior tilt, as well as, gripping or clenching in the front of the hips, will limit the ability of the leg to move freely in the hip socket. Free hip movement is more challenging to learn with Pilates Matwork. The muscles we’ve spent years overworking are first to fire, which is why it’s ideal for all students to utilize the entire Pilates system and participate in both Mat & equipment programs.

Using Pilates Equipment to Keep Hips Moving Free & Easy

Spring resistance on the equipment helps teach the body how to move efficiently. Figuring out how to stabilize the spine and get the legs moving independently is easier to learn on the Reformer, Chair & Cadillac because the legs are assisted by the support of the bar, pedal, springs, and straps. It is more of a challenge to figure things out with Matwork, but with a little extra thought, and prop or two to assist in changing habits, hip flexion can be free & easy here too.

Stabilization for Efficient Hip Flexion

  • Pelvic Floor Contraction – sitz bones, tailbone, and pubic bones should pull together, like closing a drawstring. This action provides an anchor to help stabilize the spine.
  • Abdominals and back muscles contract to help maintain a functional & neutral spine and pelvis. This will allow the legs to move independently from the torso.

Ball & Socket Mechanics for Hip Flexion

If you’re asked to place your hands on your hips chances are you’ll put them at waistline or top of the pelvis, which is not where the leg moves for flexion of the hip. Instead place your hands on the fold where the leg meets the torso. If the spine and pelvis are held still, the leg has a chance to flex freely moving the ball in the socket, this is the real hip joint. Think of the thigh bone like a teeter-totter. If one end goes up, the other end has to go down. As the hip flexes, the thigh & knee move towards the chest, the ball in the socket has to move down and back (posterior & inferior).

This action should start immediately when moving the leg. As the leg straightens moving into hip extension, the thigh & knee move away from the chest. As the leg extends the ball should move to a forward and up position in the socket (superior & anterior).

  • If the spine moves into a posterior tilt/scoop as the knee moves toward the chest for hip flexion, the movement is initiating from the lower back instead of the hips.
  • If the hip flexors grip to pull the knee to the chest when flexing the thigh, it will restrict the down and back movement of the ball in the socket and the pelvis will tuck
  • The spine should stay still. Both flexion & extension of the hip should initiate from the ball changing places in the socket. The hamstrings should be active as the knee bends to control the movement.

Exercises To Practice Hip Flexion

Footwork on the Reforme

  • A parallel leg position will facilitate better mechanics to practice the ball & socket movement for hip flexion.
  • Push from the ball of the feet through the backs of the thighs as the legs
  • Think about pulling the sitz bones to the heels as the carriage returns, actively controlling the motion.

What to watch for:
Look for the pelvis to remain in a still position. Can you see the ball in the socket drop posterior/inferior as the hip flexes, and anterior/superior as the leg extends. Pushing and pulling should not come from straightening and bending the knees, but instead by moving the thigh bones away and towards the center.

Footwork on the Chair

  • On the High Chair, the back is still supported and the hips can flex into
    a deeper range of motion.
  • On the Wunda Chair, the back is unsupported. Maintaining a strong & stable pelvis and torso will make this exercise more challenging.

What to watch for
Maintain the normal curves of the spine. Only push the pedal down as far as you can without moving the pelvis. Be sure the initiation to move the pedal is from the back of the thigh instead of the knees or feet. No gripping in the front of the hip as the pedal comes up.

Footwork with A Ball

  • This is a great way to practice if you don’t have a Reformer, or have foot
    issues where the pressure on the Reformer or Chair may be too much.
  • Footwork here is a little more challenging for spine and pelvis stability. The ball is less stable and may bob & weave while moving the legs if there are any muscle imbalances.
  • Similar to Footwork on the Reformer, lay on the back, place the heels on the ball with the knees bent at 90 degrees or greater. Gently flex the hamstrings to press the heels into the ball. Maintain a feeling of pressing down with the back of the thighs as you roll the ball away and back in.

What to watch for
Spine and pelvis remain still – Engaged pelvic floor. Legs work evenly and the ball rolls straight out and back in. Active glutes to push the legs away, and psoas & hamstrings to draw the legs back in. Avoid bringing the legs in by tensing the front of the thighs to bring the knees to the chest.

Trapeze Table Leg Springs (with a Small Barrel)

  1. Using a small Barrel for Leg Springs on the Cadillac is an excellent way to assist the legs with hip flexion, and while placing the spine and pelvis in a more supported lumbar arch.

What to watch for
Normal curves of the spine. Lumbar support on the barrel. No wobbles with the pelvis. The tailbone stays still, arching over the barrel as the legs move towards the chest. Avoid locked knees. No gripping with the quadriceps or hip flexors as the thighs lift. Look for space and a softness at the fold in the front of the hip as the ball drops back and down in the socket while the legs lift with the assistance of the spring.

A traditional Pilates workout provides opportunities to practice hip flexion and extension exercise in a variety of positions. Some, like footwork on the reformer – help stabilize the back and pelvis so we can become more conscious of good hip articulation. Side leg kick front and back in matwork provides more of a challenge. The spine should still be in a stabilized position but there’s no floor behind our back for reference to hold the body still while the leg articulates from the hip. The goal..everything practiced lying down should transfer to seated and standing exercises.

May you learn to hold things together while your legs swing freely in Pilates & life!

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Flexion” article
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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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