How to develop the Hip Flexors for Sprints
How to develop Hip Flexors for Sprints?
You perform this motion when you move your thigh toward your stomach. Strengthening these muscles helps improve your sprinting power and technique. Weight training exercises that involve hip flexion can help you reach that goal.
Step 1 Hang from a pull-up bar to do leg raises. Grasp the bar with an overhand, shoulder-width grip and let your legs hang straight down. Keep your abdominal muscles tight and back straight as you lift your legs. Raise your legs until they are parallel to the floor and hold for a couple of seconds. Lower your legs slowly and repeat.
Use a Roman chair to do sit-ups. Sit on the upper padded support and hook your feet under the lower padded support. Cross your arms over your chest and lower your torso backward by bending at the hips. Stop when your torso is about parallel to the floor, then steadily rise back up and repeat. Keep your abs tight and back straight throughout.
Use a stability ball to do knee tucks. Place your hands shoulder-width apart on the floor and place your lower shins on top of the ball. Your body should be in a push-up position at this point. Keep your back straight and abs tight as you bend your knees and roll the ball toward your head. Tuck your knees into your chest, roll the ball back out and repeat.
Stand behind an exercise platform or box to do knee drives. Step onto the platform with your left foot and press down to lift your body up. Move your right leg forward, bend your knee and lift it toward your chest in a forceful motion. Hold for a few seconds, step back down, repeat, then switch sides. Wear a pair of ankle weights to increase the resistance.
Fasten an ankle strap to your lower right leg and set a cable machine on low to do leg raises. Lie flat on your back with your legs facing the weight stack and arms at your sides or hands on your hips. Keep your leg straight and raise it as high as possible. Try to get your foot parallel to the ceiling. Lower your leg until it is right above the floor, repeat, then switch sides.
- The net work-done at hips increases when the speed increases.
- The net energy-absorbed by quadriceps and hamstring increases when the speed increases.
- Quads at the initial swing, and hamstrings at the terminal swing (a specific type of contraction here).
- This gives you an important idea for a practical application in the weight room.
- To bridge the gap (science-practical) a little bit, see below.
- Increase the ability of the hip flexors and extensors to produce force, and also increase the ability of the hams and quads (knee flex/extend) to absorb the number of forces that produced from hips.
- These are the keys in sprint performance, in contrast to the popular belief that quadriceps strength is the only or primary focus of sprint training.
- These notes are also important for an injury perspective.
Training your Hip Flexors
By Kevin O’Neill MS, CSCS
The purpose of this article is to emphasize the lack of hip flexor strength training amongst today’s athletes and coaches. Through my experience working with athletes in a variety of sports. I have come to the belief that athletes and coaches do not train the hip flexors for strength gains nearly enough as they should. I feel as though many coaches make a consistent effort to increase their athlete’s hip flexibility, but sometimes fail to adequately strengthen this muscle group.
So why am I professing hip flexor strength? The stronger the hip flexors, (along with the hamstrings and glutes), the faster the athlete is going to be. Strong hip flexors allow for a faster and more powerful forward leg movement and upward knee drive. I am not trying to diminish the importance of lateral movement in sports, but forward leg movement is huge in athletics. If you’re not moving forward, you’re not gaining ground.
Strong hip flexors allow for a faster and more powerful forward leg movement and upward knee drive. I am not trying to diminish the importance of lateral movement in sports, but forward leg movement is huge in athletics. If you’re not moving forward, you’re not gaining ground.
Hip flexor strength not only aides in performance, but also in injury prevention
Hip flexor strength not only aides in performance, but also in injury prevention. Another important role of the hip flexors is functioning as brakes to the hamstrings when they are exerting a high amount of force.
“Moreover, it is important to note that reciprocal inhibition of the antagonist usually occurs whenever an agonist is strongly activated In other words, the antagonist invariably relaxes when the agonist contracts. Except when the action is extremely rapid and some antagonists come into play to prevent joint damage due to the large momentum of the moving limb” (Siff).
To make this point a little more applicable to everyday life: “It is the same safety precaution you would take if driving a car. Imagine if you had a car that could go 150 mph but brakes that could only stop you at 100 mph or slower. Would you drive 150 mph?” (Cunningham).
I am not trying to preach the importance of muscle balance here. More focused on the hip extensor-hip flexor agonist-antagonist relationship and making that relationship as strong as possible. And tired of articles stating that one muscle must equal the X % output of another muscle. I could reference numerous EFS Q&A responses stating “bring up your weaknesses.” That makes sense to me. No percentages. Just make everything stronger. Bottom line.
Stepping away from the technical aspect
Stepping away from the technical aspect, the importance of hip flexor strength is observed when watching athletes perform. I wish I was able to work with and test the hip flexors of former Houston Oilers running back Earl Campbell. Every time I have seen a video clip of him it seems like he was running over some poor soul.
He would put his head down and bring his knee right through the defender’s body. The same can be said about running back Roger Craig. He wasn’t the biggest back, but every time I saw him running in traffic his knees were up around his chest somewhere, making him very tough to bring down.
Strong hip flexors are not solely beneficial to football
Strong hip flexors are not solely beneficial to football. Hockey and lacrosse players need to quite often skate and run through contact. The baseball player getting his first step out of the box or off a base will benefit from strong hip flexors. As will the basketball player exploding for his first step out of his triple threat position. MMA fighters benefit from hip flexor strength when throwing knees and kicks. Sprinters need extremely strong hip flexors and without them might as well be joggers or speed walkers (tremendous oxymoron).
Stronger hip flexors have also been proven to enhance performance in sprints and shuttle runs. Take this excerpt from an article on the topic:
“Individuals in the training group improved hip flexion strength by 12.2% and decreased their 40-yd and shuttle run times by 3.8% and 9.0%, respectively. An increase in hip flexion strength can help to improve sprint and agility performance for physically active, untrained individuals.” (Deane et al.)
While this study was done on untrained people, the results show the benefits of hip flexor strength training. I know athletes are not untrained, but I do believe they are undertrained, in this area.
So, how do we strengthen the all-important hip flexors?
Below is a list of just a few exercises for strengthening the hip flexors:
- Spread Eagle Sit-ups: these are mentioned quite often on the EFS site. Start by lying on your back. Spread your legs and while keeping them straight, hook your feet on the vertical support beams of a power rack. Then perform a straight leg sit up. For more resistance hold a weight or dumbbell. If you don’t have a power rack, use a Smith Machine, which I also use for stretching my lats and hanging my bands on the end so I don’t need to bend over and pick them off the floor and risk pulling tight hamstrings. These are three instances where using the Smitty is acceptable, along with any other activity where the bar doesn’t move.
- Hanging Knee / Leg Raises: while hanging from a pull-up bar or some other apparatus, keep upper body straight. You can either bend your legs and bring your knees to your chest or keep your legs straight and bring the toes to the ceiling with the legs parallel to the floor. For added resistance, you can hold a dumbbell or kettlebell with your feet.
- Incline / Flat Bench Leg Raises: basically the same exercise as above, but you are adjusting the angle to make it a little easier. Lie supine on the bench and hold onto the bench behind your head. Then perform the leg raises with either straight or bent leg.
Cable / Band Knee Drive:
- this is my personal favorite. Use the ankle cuff cable attachment and attach it to the low cable pulley. Put a bench or box out in front of you and place both hands on it. You want your body to look like that of sprinter while taking off out of the blocks. Make sure you are far enough away from the cable so when your leg is straight there is still tension on it and the weight stacks do no touch. While keeping a flat back, ballistically drive the knee forward and up in front of your chest. Stay in control of the weight on the negative so it doesn’t jerk your leg at the end This is most certainly not a TUT exercise, but you need to be smart about it. Also, focus on keeping the ankle cocked in dorsiflexion. You can also do this with a band instead of a cable. Just find something solid to hook the band on. I like using the bands because they force you to really accelerate as the movement progresses.
- Lying Cable Knee Drive: same principle as above exercise. While lying on your back attach your ankle cuffs to the low cable pulley and bring both knees to the chest.
Forward Sled Dragging:
To summarize a few things, I am not saying that hip flexor strength alone will make an athlete fast. Hip extension and posterior chain work are also essential. I just don’t feel that it is as severely neglected as its counterpart.
Another point not to be forgotten, but is beyond the scope of this article, is the need to stretch the hip flexors. Tight hip flexors can be a huge issue with so many athletes, thus hindering performance. All this strengthening I am preaching will have you walking around looking like you didn’t fully evolve unless you stretch those puppies.
- Cunningham, Christine. “Training Speed – Are You Training the Right Muscles”.
- Training & Conditioning, May / June 2001.
- Deane, Russell S., Chow, John W., Tillman, Mark D., Fournier, Kim A. “Effects of Hip Flexor Training on Sprint, Shuttle Run, and Vertical Jump Performance”
- The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research Volume: 19 Issue: 3 Pages: 615-621
- Mel Siff Supertraining Archives.
- Siff, Mel. Supertraining. 2000. 5th edition. Denver, CO.
Do the Hip Flexors Really Deserve to be Ignored?
Listen to most modern-day musings about the hip flexors and you’d think they were red-headed stepchildren – Nothing but irritating muscles that need to be stretched and contribute nothing of importance.
After all, tight hip flexors contribute to back pain, gluteal amnesia, and they get in the way of your ab work when you’re trying to strengthen your abs or develop a sexy midsection, why would you want to focus on strengthening them?
**For any anatomy newbies out there the hip flexors are the muscles responsible for lifting your knees and feet up off the ground when you run or walk. The higher you lift your knees, the greater the degree of hip flexor activation you get.
Personally, I’d always believed the hip flexors, collectively known as the iliopsoas muscles, weren’t much worth worrying about and prescribed only a modicum of remedial work for them for most athletes. It wasn’t until I had a personal experience with an injured hip several years ago that my opinions began to change. Before I get into that let’s look at some rather surprising science:
The Science Might Surprise You
One fairly recent study showed that a 12.2% increase in hip flexor strength improved 40 yd dash and shuttle run times by 3.8% and 9.0% respectively
- Another paper demonstrated a link between larger relative psoas strength (the primary hip flexor) and 100-meter speed.
- Another paper found that hip flexor strength more accurately correlated with 20 & 50-meter sprints then squat strength – the association was particularly strong for 20-meter sprints.
- Interestingly enough, another paper demonstrated that the size of the psoas muscle in male African Americans was relatively more than 3 times greater compared to whites.
- Based on this it seems people that are fast naturally have bigger and stronger psoas muscles AND strengthening the hip flexors might be beneficial for speed seeking athletes.
However, there is a bit of discord on exactly what role the hip flexors play in the sprints. The common belief is the stronger your hip flexors the more powerful and faster you can lift your knees. And this might contribute to making you faster. However, in my opinion, this view is not entirely accurate. Let me explain:
The Weyand Study
Based upon the now infamous Weyand study on sprints we know that what happens to the legs once the foot comes off the ground plays a no direct role in running speed. This study showed that elite sprinters ran faster solely due to the power they put into the ground with each stride.
It also showed that they took more time in the recovery phase than slower sprinters. The recovery phase is the point where you bring the foot off the ground in preparation for the next stride or the phase where you lift your knees up.
So, the harder you push against the ground, the faster you go, the speed that you lift your knees and the speed that you rotate your feet through the air aren’t limiting factors.
So, what’s the deal with having strong hip flexors? Well, in my opinion, the hip flexors are the ultimate “setup” muscles. In order to explain fully let me go back to my hip injury and talk about what I experienced:
Several years back I had been dealing with an incredibly painful hip and none of the medical practitioners or therapists I knew seemed to be able to help me with it.
So, I spent many months on my own researching everything I could on hip conditions trying to figure out how to deal with it. Shirley Sahrmann’s book “Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes” was particularly helpful.
What I discovered was in MOST hip issues one of the most important things to do was STRENGTHEN the hip flexors to help establish proper femoral control.
I’ve touched on this before but Femoral control means the muscles that attach to the upper thigh bone from up around the waist (the psoas and glutes) should be fully in control of the thigh bone, rather than those that attach lower, such as the TFL.
This correctly pulls the head of the femur tight into the hip socket preventing excessive movement. It’s that excessive movement of the femur head in the socket that can create hip pain.
Many athletes in general struggle with this, particularly those with hip pain. I had a MAT chiropractor test my hip flexor strength and the psoas in the injured hip was a little weak in the short-range, which would be the very, very top of a hanging knee raise.
Whether it was weak as a result of the injury or the injury came as a result of the impairment I’m not sure, but it was something to pay attention to.
My Hip Rehab
The focus of my hip rehab was on re-establishing optimal femoral control, and I did a lot of isolated hip flexor exercises for about 2 weeks without any other lower body movements. After a couple of weeks of this, my hip was feeling better so one day I went out and did some light movement work on a basketball court.
I immediately noticed the perceived activation level of my glutes and hamstrings had improved immensely.
For the first time in years I could actually feel my hamstrings activate when I moved and the next day my glutes were so sore I’d felt like I’d done 10 sets of squats. So, doing hip flexor exercises seemed to improve my ability to get power from my posterior chain.
Others I’ve trained have noticed the same thing and this is the reason I believe strong hip flexors are beneficial for athletes such as sprinters:
See, one of the side effects of having good femur control is the primary drivers (the glutes) are more easily primed for action on the downstroke when you can efficiently lift your knee on the upstroke.
Basically, if the hip flexors are weak the glutes can’t optimally do their job because the posture of the pelvis isn’t set in a way that primes the glutes optimally when the foot comes off the ground in walking or running.
It’s extremely common in people with a natural swayback posture. Strengthen their hip flexors and all a sudden the posture of the hips changes and the glutes are more easily engaged in everyday life and back/hip pain tends to dissipate.
Having an optimal posture in the sprints
Having an optimal posture in the sprints (re-positioning your legs correctly during the recovery phase and having the strength to do so) allows you to set up in a way that allows you to more efficiently exert more force when your foot does hit the ground and you push off….you get a better pre-activation, better leverage, and a greater pre-stretch from the contributing musculature (the muscles that contribute when your foot makes ground contact). It is the same basic principle in which improving upper and mid-back strength can improve bench press strength.
So, it’s not so much that having a strong knee drive makes you fast and that being able to rapidly drive your knee off the ground is important, it just promotes more leverage when your foot strikes the ground and you push off.
So, how do you identify whether your hip flexors are weak or not? Well, first look at some assessments.
Exercises and Assessments
Look at the sprinter’s posture then try to duplicate. In my experience, the hip flexors are one of the few muscles that tend to be weak in the shortened range (the very top of a full knee or leg raise) rather than the stretch range. You want to focus on exercises where you raise your knee up to where your thigh is above 90 degrees. Here is an exercise to test strength, and also a good exercise in itself. Keep the natural arch in your spine and don’t lean back.
A lot of people won’t be able to lift their knee an inch without squirming around all over the place. You should be able to come up with several inches. The further you lean forward the harder the exercise is. I’d say if you lean forward about 45 degrees and can’t get your foot off the ground at all you could probably use some work.
I recommend doing a couple of sets of 8-10 with a 2-3 second hold at the top on that exercise 2-3 x per week Use bands for extra resistance. Fortunately, the hip flexors tend to respond very quickly and once a modicum of strength is developed it is maintained rather easily.
Another good exercise is doing the same thing standing up, which also happens to hit the glute of the plant leg:
Standing Hip Flexor Drill (keep the plant leg straight, stand up straight, and don’t let the knee bend)
The top half of a hanging knee raise or hanging leg raise also hits the psoas hard. For the ultimate, look into pike variations:
Watch Your Running Form
Also, watch yourself when you run from the front and the back. If the hip flexors are weak people will tend to shorten their strides the knees will often cross across the midline of the body when viewed from the front. From the back, the feet will flail sideways, or to the outside. When you do an exercise like a-skips (high knee skips) your knees should reflexively and involuntarily “pop” up high off the ground. If you have to lean back or force your knees up that’s an indication you could use some dedicated strength work in that area.
Now, what about stretching the hip flexors?
Well, the psoas is a muscle that is often tight AND weak, so it’s still important to do hip flexor stretches, just don’t necessarily neglect all strength training for them, especially for beginners.
Anyway, don’t take this article to imply that you should begin spending 90% of your time on training the hip flexors – they need not be the main focus and their contribution still pales in comparison to your prime lower body movers (quads, glutes, hamstrings) but, if in doubt, spend 15 minutes a week on some regular hip flexor work for a month or so and see what you notice!
1. Effects of Hip Flexor Training on Sprint, Shuttle Run, and Vertical Jump Performance The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 19(3):615-621, August 2005.
2. Influence of the psoas major and thigh muscularity on 100-m times in junior sprinters. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Dec;38(12):2138-43.
3. Predicting sprint running times from isokinetic and squat lift tests: a regression analysis. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (1998). Volume: 12, Issue: 2, Pages: 101-103
4. Anatomical differences in the psoas muscles in young black and white men. Hanson, Magnusson, Sorensen, Simonsen.