Despite the important role they play in every pedal stroke, cyclists often neglect their hip flexors. And this lack of attention comes at a cost to your performance and, often, your general wellbeing.
As the name suggests, the body contains a group of muscles that work together to produce hip flexion, the functional action that moves your knees up towards your abdomen.
These muscles include the psoas and the iliacus – the strongest hip flexors that are collectively called the iliopsoas – and the rectus femoris, sartorius and tensor fasciae latae muscles.
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The psoas (pronounced so-as) is a particularly important hip flexor. It is the only muscle in the body that connects the spine to your legs. It also plays a major role in spinal stabilisation and balance.
These functions hold us upright (even when seated on a saddle) and allow us to lift our legs so that we can walk (and run and pedal).
Cycling’s repetitive action involves repeated hip flexion during the pedal ‘pull’ or recovery phase. But the standard hunched-over riding position means that your hip is never fully flexed or fully extended.
Repeatedly working these muscles through this shortened range of motion while riding over long distances and/or at high intensity can cause pathological shortening. The results in often chronically tight hip flexors.
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Our predominantly sedentary lifestyles, which are characterised by hours spend sitting at a desk and in cars, as well as a combination of work, life and other stresses, exacerbate the problem.
“The psoas responds strongly to any major trauma in our lives (emotional or physical) or exposure to chronic stress,” explains Sean Johnson, a fascial tissue expert and founder of the Centre for Structural Medicine in Johannesburg.
Given the many factors that affect this important muscle group, proactive actions that address chronic hip flexor tightness, increase strength in these muscles and improve hip mobility can deliver serious benefits to cyclists at every level.
#1. Improve biomechanics
Dr. Vladimir Janda, an expert in chronic musculoskeletal pain, pioneered a form of muscle imbalance evaluation and treatment which he calls the cross syndrome theory.
His Lower Crossed Syndrome (LCS) theory (also known as the distal or pelvic crossed syndrome) explains the various complications that can arise from tight hip flexors.
According to Janda’s theory, tight hip flexors cause tightness in the lower back, which is associated with weakness in the deep abdominal muscles and ‘crosses’ with weakness in the glutes.
This pattern of imbalance creates joint dysfunction, particularly in the lower back and sacroiliac (SI) and hip joints. Specific postural changes seen in LCS include:
- Anterior pelvic tilt
- Increased lumbar lordosis
- Lateral lumbar shift
- Lateral leg rotation
- Hip extension limitations
- Knee hyperextension
These issues can affect your riding position. For example, an anterior pelvic tilt affects your posture on the bike. Addressing chronic hip flexor tightness would prevent or correct many of these common biomechanical issues.
“The iliopsoas is also an important antigravity postural muscle which helps to maintain erect posture at the hip joints,” explains Johnson.
As such, hip flexors that function properly would allow a rider to maintain a proper cycling posture. The ideal pelvic position on the saddle ensures better alignment with the torso and shoulders for a more comfortable and efficient riding position.
#2. Reduce pain and discomfort
Leaving these biomechanical issues unaddressed can eventually cause joint or muscle pain. Primarily, tight hip flexors pull on the lumbar vertebrae, which is often the root cause of lower back and hip pain.
“Psoas restrictions will often masquerade as bodily dysfunction such as lower back pain, SI pain, sciatica, disc problems, scoliosis, hip degeneration and knee pain,” adds Johnson.
“Due to these biomechanical adaptations, people also tend to develop a head-forward posture, which can lead to issues such as headaches, eyesight problems, neck pain, and tinnitus (ringing in the ears).”
#3. Improve performance
In addition to being uncomfortable, tight hip flexors reduce cycling performance by inhibiting the hip extensors (glutes), which causes weakness.
As such, healthy, happy hip flexors will deliver a performance benefit by improving your efficiency and increasing your power output. For instance, strong hip flexors provide a more powerful knee lift during the pull phase of your pedal stroke, which increases efficiency.
The psoas also shares fascial connections with the diaphragm, which is a vital muscle for optimal breathing, and oxygen intake.
“A tight psoas will tend to pull down on the diaphragm, preventing its full bellowing action. This, in turn, will prevent us from breathing deeply,” continues Johnson.
This can reduce breathing efficiency, which would potentially limit the amount of oxygen the body can supply to working leg muscles.
#4. Reduce injury risk
Weakness or tightness in the hip flexors often results in compensation injuries in the knees, hips and lower back, including Achilles degeneration, hip bursitis, lower back pain and hamstring strains.
These injuries are generally caused by muscle imbalances that stem from compensatory movements.
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The key to avoiding these issues is to constantly strengthen and increase the mobility and flexibility of your hip flexors, especially your iliopsoas.
Step 1: Get a proper bike fitting
Visit your local bike shop or cycling coach for a biomechanical assessment and bike fitting. The right set-up can widen the leg-hip angle to make you more efficient and create a more comfortable riding position.
Step 2: Improve hip mobility and flexibility
Perform quick, targeted hip flexor stretches or mobility drills throughout the day, particularly first thing in the morning, periodically during the day when at your desk for prolonged periods, and before and after training.
Forrest Yoga, with its emphasis on pelvic function, stability and psoas tonal health, is a great standalone practice, suggests Johnson.
Beneficial hip flexor stretches include:
- World’s greatest stretch (lunge with spinal twist)
- Kneeling hip flexor stretch
- ½ kneeling couch stretch
Step 3: Perform pelvic stability exercises
Strengthening the muscles around your pelvis will help to iron out any imbalances that can result in hip flexor tightness or weakness.
Ideal exercises include:
- Bridge variations
- Plank variations with movement
- Side plank lift
- Bird dog
- Stability drills on balance boards, blocks or balls
Step 4: Create overall functional strength
A strong cyclist is an efficient cyclist. And a strong, functional body ensures you can get into and maintain anatomically correct positions while on the bike.
Include these functional exercises in your weekly strength session:
- TRX or stability ball hamstring curls
Step 5: Manage stress
Minimise your exposure to and manage daily stress levels to reduce the impact this has on your psaos.
Bonus tip: The constructive rest position
According to Johnson, one of the best ways to stretch and adjust tone through the psoas is with the constructive rest position. “In this position, the psoas is free to relax, so it can often bring relief from backache and help maintain pelvic stability,” he explains.
How to do it: Lie on the floor with your feet up on the couch or bed, with a 90-degree angle between your hips and thighs, and thighs and calves.