This article discusses how the hip flexors get tight, what effect this has on your cycling performance and provides some solutions to help sort it out.A basic principle of muscle function is that a muscle will adapt according to the forces that are applied it.
Cycling exerts a unique set of forces on the muscular system of the body, and will induce adaptation in the muscles as a result. This adaptation can be beneficial, such as when adapting to an increasing training volume or intensity, but can also cause dysfunction.
An extreme example may help to illustrate how a dysfunctional change can occur. Most of us have known someone that has had a plaster cast to immobilise a bone fracture so that healing can occur. A cast will normally be on for 4-6 weeks, and as well as preventing movement of the bones it also prevents movement of muscles through their normal range.
Whilst the cast is in place the muscles actually alter their functional length and this has to be restored after the removal of the cast. In the same way, any posture or activity that is sufficiently sustained or repetitive can cause a change in the functional length of the associated muscles.
The hip flexors are the muscles that bend the thigh towards the abdomen. Postures that involve sustained hip flexion, such as sitting, can result in an adaptive shortening of the hip flexor muscles. In our modern society where we often sit for our work, our commuting and our leisure time it is easy to see how the hip flexors can become short and tight.
In the case of cyclists this is accentuated because our chosen form of exercise places us into a position of even greater hip flexion. Added to this, the hip flexors are used during cycling for both core stability and power production, and this activation whilst already in a shortened position tends to further develop hip flexor tightness.
As well as affecting riding position, especially by reducing effective reach to the handlebars, hip flexor tightness can restrict cycling performance due to reciprocal inhibition. This is another basic principle of muscle function, and describes the fact that tightness or contraction of a muscle will tend to inhibit or weaken its antagonist – that is, the muscle that creates the opposite movement.
The hip extensors, especially gluteus maximus, contribute a significant amount of power to the pedalling motion, but can be markedly inhibited or weakened by hip flexor tightness. This can then lead to other compensatory movements or adaptations that further affect posture and performance in cycling and normal daily activities.
The most common indicator of increasing hip flexor tightness is lower back soreness or pain as a result of:
- Moving from a seated to a standing position, including getting off your bike
- Bending backwards whilst standing
- Initially lying down flat on your back with your legs straight
- Cycling, especially as the intensity increases
Fortunately, the hip flexors respond very well to manual treatment techniques, and a program of self-massage and stretching. However, even with good self-management the posture and muscle activation of cycling will tend to cause recurrent hip flexor tightness, and it is therefore an issue that requires periodic treatment.
How to stretch tight hip flexors:
Fig.1 Lunge forward to stretch the lower portion of the hip flexors over the front of the hip
Fig.2 Then lean to the opposite side to stretch the upper portion of the hip flexors in the abdominal region
Lucas Owen is a physiotherapist that specialises in treating cyclists hip flexor issues and is based in Melbourne. For more information please contact him using the following information:
Cycling Physiotherapy Centre
Ph 03 9439 1179