Monday, January 6, 2014

Tight Hip Flexors and Squat Depth

Last night I was talking a to a HEMA friend about strength training and she showed me her squat. She could only get to about 1/3 of full depth with her heels flat. Letting her heels up she could squat to 'till her butt touched her heels.

This is a common kind of limitation when a person is new to squatting. There are a lot of possible reasons for this but the most common is that the person spends too much time sitting. You end up with shortened hip flexors and stretched, weak glutes and hamstrings. Correspondingly, the abs are weak* and the lower back is tight. This pattern is known as Lower-Cross Syndrome.

* The abs can be weak despite lots of crunches, because lots of reps per set of any exercise is about endurance and not actual strength.


Just stretching the tight hip flexors won't do a good job of solving the problem - this friend told me she had been stretching her hip flexors for 9 years without the problem going away. First, the stretches being done could be insufficient. This article at T-Nation has a good run down of less common, advanced stretching approaches that can address this problem.


The other half of the equation though is strengthening the weak muscles. Most modern folks will have weak glutes, hamstrings and abs. Here are basic exercises for strengthening these muscles:
  • Planks - once you can do this for  :60 seconds then you start adding weight. Place a plate on the small of your back.
  • Bridges - same instruction as planks. Can also be made more challenging by putting your shoulders up against a chair, instead of on the floor.
  • Leg Lowers - Keep your lower back flat against the floor - stop when you reach the point where you can't keep your back flat. Also, do them slower than the animated GIF shows.
  • Bird Dogs - The point of this exercise is to activate hip extensor muscles that are underused.
These can be done for 3 sets each, cycling through the items. These types of exercises can be done everyday since they focus on muscle activation, or alternating days when adding weight.

There are a huge number of possible variations on these exercises, many of which will be covered  in later articles.

Don't Lift with Your Knees

The other kind of exercise for you hips is doing exactly what you've told not to do all your life. You've been told to always lift with your knees. And it's not bad advice. But: a) it's not always possible - try and get something out of the trunk of your car while lifting with your knees; and b) you don't do a good job of strengthening your glutes and hamstrings without these exercises.

So, straight-leg deadlifts. The most important aspect of doing these exercises correctly is keeping your back flat. Focus on this aspect first before adding any weight. It's useful to watch yourself in a mirror or have a partner to check your form while you develop this motor pattern. The above exercises will help you develop the muscles and skills for keeping your back flat.

Practice it both single-legged and double legged.

And here is what they look like with weight:
Barbell Double Leg
  • The slight knee bend is acceptable, just make sure the action is being driven primarily with a hip hinge.
  • Keep the weight close to your body. You should be just about scraping your shins and thighs. If you are wearing loose-fitting pants the bar should be touching those. This is done in part by engaging your lats and traps (and rhomboids), all of which also helps to keep your back flat.
  • Don't worry about your range of motion when you start. Make sure that you keep moving to the limit of your range of motion with each rep and slowly your ROM will increase. 
  • Note though that the depth of the motion is limited by keeping the back flat - don't curve your back to get the bar lower!
Single-leg Dumbbell
  • Initially do this exercise with weight in both hands
  • Gradually move to holding the weight only in the 'opposite' hand, that if your left leg is on the ground then hold the dumbbell in the right hand. This increases the demand on the external rotation aspect of the exercise.
  • Begin the movement with your heel, not by lowering your torso.
  • Keep your neck neutral, so you finish by looking at the floor. Arching your neck to look at fixed point will be too much strain on the neck.
As always, start with a light weight and develop good form first. Then gradually add weight to the exercises. These exercises can be safely up to an intensity of about 8RM, higher than that is too risky.

As a weight lifting exercise you should incorporate these twice a week.


Tight hip flexors are a common limitation in developing a good squat. Stretching alone is seldom enough, and advanced stretching modes are commonly needed. The tight hip flexor leads to other problems that need to be addressed with strength training.

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