If the hip joint were a pickup truck, it’d be a Ford F-150. It’s built tough. But the 21st century is challenging the very architecture of the joint. And it’s not because we’re using the joint more than ever—it’s because we’re not using it.
“Your hip joint needs to move in its full range of motion on a daily basis to work correctly,” says Kelly Starrett, D.P.T., author of Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance and owner of the website Mobility WOD. “In today’s sedentary world, however, most people never take their hips past 90 degrees for weeks or months.”
This causes a big problem for many men—a problem that they may not notice until they go to the gym to squat. That pain in their groin? It’s probably signaling a hip impingement, says Starrett.
Here’s why it happens: The hip joint is a ball-and-socket joint. It’s where the head of the femur—or the top of the thigh bone (the “ball”)—and the acetabulum—a scoop-like indentation in the side of the pelvis (the “socket”)—meet. It’s the biggest and sturdiest joint in the body. It can move your leg behind you, out to the side, and in front of you.
But when you’re parked on your butt for the majority of the day—in the car, at a desk, on the couch—you’re sitting on your hamstrings and femurs. This pushes up the ball part of the joint, causing it to hit the top of the joint. An impingement can occur when the soft tissue around the hip gets pinched in the joint when the ball is out of place.
It can also happen when the head of the femur—or the top of the thigh bone—slams into the upper part of the socket over and over again. Your body tries to protect itself by growing more bone to either the femur or the acetabulum.
Sitting also shortens major muscles around the hips—quadratus lumborum, rectus femoris, psoas, iliacus—causing your pelvis to tilt forward. As a result, the femur hits the top of the socket earlier than it should, leading to an impingement faster.
A hip with restricted range of motion won’t be able to create as much power or force either. That means every lower-body exercise you perform suffers.
“People are living with the joint out of position, and it can’t work right,” Starrett explains. “It’s like having one of the wheels on your car pointing in the wrong direction. Until it’s pointed straight, you’ll continue to have a problem. If you ignore it, it’ll only get worse.”
Find out if your groin pain is a hip impingement with these three simple tests. If you fail them, your hip joint is most likely out of place. Even if you don’t have pain right now, Starrett says you should try them. Often, pain is a lagging indicator of a problem, he explains.
1. March challenge
Do it: Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart. Without changing your posture, raise your left knee as high as you can. Repeat on the other side.
How to pass: Lift your knees past 90 degrees to about 135 degrees.
2. Legs-touching squat
Do it: Stand with your legs touching. Your feet and knees should be together and stay that way throughout the entire movement. Now sit back and down into a squat.
How to pass: Squat to the floor without your legs coming apart.
3. Couch stretch
Do it: Start on all fours with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Your feet should be against a wall. Keeping your knee on the floor, lift one foot and slide it up the wall until your shin and foot lie flat against the wall. Step the other leg forward. Now squeeze your glutes and lift your torso so it’s in line with your back quad. Repeat on the opposite side.
How to pass: Hold the stretch for 2 minutes without pain.
If you failed one, two, or all three, you’re not alone. Starrett says the average person won’t pass them all. In fact, most serious athletes are missing about 75 percent of their hips’ range of motion, according to Starrett.
The solution: Improve your hip mechanics with these tips and drills. They’ll help prevent further injury and increase your gains at the gym.
“Motion is lotion,” Starrett says. You need to get the hip moving in its full extension—behind you—and flexion—in front of you—every day. “Otherwise your hip joint will wear out,” he says. “And if you wear out your hip joint at age 40, what will the rest of your years look like?”
Did you pass all three tests? Congratulations, you are a mobility master. Keep it that way by adding the following to your routine, too.
(And for more ways to stay mobile and injury free, check out the 8 Exercises You Should Do Before Every Workout.)
1. Stand up
Get your hip joints out of a 90-degree angle whenever possible.
Do it: Don’t sit in a chair all day. Stand at work. Take walking breaks. Sit cross-legged on the floor—a position that is healthier for the joint and takes it out of a 90-degree angle—when watching television instead of on the couch. Just stand up.
2. Hit reset
Starrett has his athletes do this posterior hip mobilization drill for a couple of minutes before they squat. It uses resistance to realign the femur back into the socket.
Do it: Secure a looped resistance band around a stable object—like a squat rack—about mid-shin height. Get on all fours, your body perpendicular to and about two feet away from the anchor point. Place the band around the quad closest to the anchor. Straighten your other leg behind you so your knee and foot rest on the floor. Now bend the leg with the band so your foot is in front of your opposite knee. Oscillate your hips back and forth against the band’s pull. (Click here to see Starrett perform the drill.)
3. Squat for 10 minutes
“You should be able to squat like it’s your job. It’s how the human body was built,” says Starrett. Most of us can’t get full range of motion because we lack joint mobility. This drill will show you how tight you are. Perform every day to increase your hip mobility.
Do it: Spend 10 minutes in the bottom position of the squat. Keep your feet straight, press your knees out with your elbows, and get your butt as close to the floor as possible.
4. Create tension
Whenever you squat, screw your feet into the floor. This creates torque—or external rotational force—at the hip, and makes the joint stable. It also stops your pelvis from tipping forward. Otherwise, your hip joint may move out of position again.
Do it: Squeeze your glutes, flex your quads, and try to twist your feet away from each other. Keep your feet facing forward. If your toes are flared out too much, you won’t get the same effect.
5. Test yourself
Continue to test yourself with the march challenge, legs-touching squat, and couch stretch every week to track your progress. If you continue to have pain, consult a doctor.