Hip flexors and riding : Don’t believe the hype

Recent lockdown reading of equestrian social media articles and posts have had a recurring theme of interest for riders.….”tight hip flexors”. Concerns are expressed that there are serious issues with hip flexors and they need to be stretched frequently in order to be able to use the seat effectively.

Altered rider biomechanics is a simple issue of cause and effect.

Muscles simply do not become “tight” unless there is specific injury to them (scar tissue) or there is a neurological impairment that causes a change in tone of the muscle.

Let’s explore further.

Hip flexors are not just one stand-alone structure they are a group of three main muscles, iliacus, psoas and rectus femoris. Their role is to help flex the trunk (i.e a sit up) or flex the hip (bringing your knee to your chest). They are located at the front of the trunk and pelvis and attach either from the spine to the femur (psoas) or from the front of the pelvis to the femur (iliacus and rectus femoris).

In riding their main function is not to flex the trunk or hip but to absorb the forces of deceleration of the pelvis during transitions and to help stabilise the trunk and pelvis during movements on a horse. The exception to this would be in jumping where these muscles act as a trunk flexor.

I started looking at hip flexor restriction associated with hip extension in professional footballers in the late nineties and also with elite track and field athletes. I used specific hip flexor length tests that can be found in many muscle testing and orthopaedic texts. The reliability of these tests are not good, therefore you become reliant on experiential feel of resistance as they approach end range of extension. In general, although we did find some right to left slight differences clinically I was not convinced this was due to “tightness” but more to do with overactivity of ilio psoas.

Rectus femoris restriction only really demonstrated itself following injury or if there was pain involvement.

If we compare professional footballers and track and field athletes to riders particularly focusing on hip flexors, there is one major difference, and that is the functional range of movement of hip extension. Riders functionally move into extension significantly less than other athletes and when they do the range of extension required is minimal when compared to runners and ball kickers.

Riders spend most of their time in various degrees of hip flexion. The only time they need to go into hip extension would be to take the leg behind the girth to ask for a change or in the process of creating lateral work.

If a rider struggles to take their leg behind or to use their seat to move the horse forward could this be due to having tight hip flexors? In my experience of assessing 11,000 riders over the past 18 years, I would suggest that hip flexors are not the problem but merely an effect of something more critical that needs to be addressed to create the independent seat which allows the rider to be more independent with their aides.

There are two main reasons riders have problems with hip flexors.

Firstly, a lack of stability and control of the lateral and trunk stabilisers causing the hip flexors to become overactive and therefore feel “tight”.

Secondly, spinal or hip pain causing the hip flexors to “spasm” to protect the structures that elicit the pain.

So, will stretching help this? Generally, no it won’t.

Often stretching can make overactive tissue MORE overactive and even if stretching has some effect it is only likely to help for a very short time as the cause of the “tightness” has not been identified and then addressed.

In my experience I would suggest that less than 1% of riders that I have assessed have had a hip flexor issue which has been resolved with specific stretching. Most hip flexor issues are resolved by addressing the three-dimensional stability of the trunk and pelvis.

Most hip flexor “tightnesses” are resolved by releasing the overactive hip flexors with manual therapy techniques and increasing the local stability by activating key muscles that have become underactive.

Rider biomechanical issues can be resolved by improving functional three-dimensional stability and effective coaching but not by stretching.

Does this mean a rider should not stretch? Absolutely not, stretching can be important but it will not resolve the issue, it needs to be combined with addressing the cause of the overactivity. Again, in my experience there are some instances when stretching can make specific problems far worse.

In summary don’t believe the hype. It is actually far easier to address rider stability and imbalances than it is to effectively stretch muscle tissue. The evidence in research around stretching is not strong but it is around creating stability and control. Experientially addressing your imbalances and correcting your movement patterns will resolve more of your riding issues than stretching will ever do.

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