Pilates Myth: “Get out of your hip flexors”
(This post was updated on August 16, 2013 over 2 years after originally published…please read and learn more information than when originally posted)
I don’t mind saying that there are a lot of commonly used phrases in Pilates that have little to no meaning. We must make sure that we are present with what we’re saying that not only do our cues make sense and have value to our clients, but that we know what our cues actually mean! Along with that, should we happen to use a phrase that is a Pilates myth, then we’d better be using it for a really good reason!
A “Pilates myth”? Yes, there are a lot of Pilates myths out there. Wonderful phrases that teachers use to cue their clients that actually don’t make any sense at all. Some have value. Some do not. They are virtual lies. We have to make sure that we know what we’re talking about, why we’re saying this and that they are indeed untruths. Here are a few: “Your Powerhouse moves the carriage.” “Your back does nothing; your abdominals do all of the work.” “Push with your Powerhouse, not with your legs.” “Get out of your hip flexors. You don’t use your hip flexors in Pilates.” OK, my fellow teachers… all of those phrases, and more, are 100% not true Personally, I try to stay away from them and reword them thusly: “Scoop your abominals in and up then move the carriage.” “Work your abdominals as much as you work your back.” “Deepen your abdominals to push with your legs.” “Lift your abdominals and lower back bones, so you’re not just hanging in your hip flexors.” Why not talk in truths?
You are well-meaning…you don’t mean to be speaking something false. That is true. Let’s learn!
Let’s focus on that last one “Get out of your hip flexors”. A fellow teacher, Alex, who reads this blog wrote to me asking that I go into further detail. I’m pleased to do so. Let’s dispel this particular myth and understand why this phrase ever came about in the first place.
Our clients come to take Pilates for many reasons. Whatever their reasons, we find out in their early sessions that they are imbalanced. We recognize their imbalances and use the method of Pilates to restore balance to this body and mind. It is a constant process; un-ending. There is no balance, there is only working-towards-balance. That is The Truth.
Now, that we know we’re looking for imbalances and working towards restoring balance we see some common patterns: weak abdominals, tight and weak lower backs, tight and weak hamstrings, tight and weak hip flexors.
Tight and weak hip flexors? Yes. Those hip flexors are weak. Many people think that our clients tight hip flexors are strong and taking over the responsibilities of other muscles, but the truth is that they are probably short, tight and weak and half of them are completely underutilized.
As our clients are beginning their training in Pilates we see that their hip flexors seem to want to do the work that the abdominals ought to be doing. Some exercises that we see this in are The Roll Up (Beginner Exercise), Neck Pull (Intermediate Exercise), Teaser (Intermediate Exercise). What do we see in The Roll Up? When the client curls her head and chest up and then attempts to reach her torso forward over her legs, her legs actually pop up off of the mat while the torso stays still rather than her legs staying still as her torso comes forward. The same thing happens in Neck Pull. In Teaser, our client strains and aches in her hip flexors. She often times can’t move her torso forward towards her legs without throwing her legs forward or using her hands to pull her torso toward her legs. You’ve seen this over and over again. And you say something like, “Get out of your hip flexors”. If your client could get out of her hip flexors, she would, but she can’t so, you must first figure out what is really going on and then figure out what you can really teach your client so she can indeed
get out of her hip flexors” or, rather, into her abdominals, back and hip flexors.
When we refer to “hip flexors” we are generally referring to 4 muscles: rectus femoris, tensor fasciae latae, psoas and iliacus. Rectus femoris is part of the quadriceps. It is the only quadricep that crosses over both the the hip and knee joint. When the leg is straight and the hip is flexed, rectus femoris is in a shortened position, thusly in a weakened state for hip flexion. (Remember this point…it will become vital in a moment.) Tensor fascia latae is primarly a thigh abductor as well as a medial rotator of the femur. Via the iliotibial band, it aides in stabilizing the condoyles of the femur/knee stabilization.
So…rectus femoris and tensor fasciae latae aide in hip flexion, but only aide…it must be psoas and iliacus that do the majority of the effort. Or…maybe there is more!
Psaos major is a hip flexor. However, its primary action is most likely lumbar stabilization. So, it only assists in hip flexion. It’s origin is at the coastal processes of all 5 lumbar vertebrae. It’s insertion, joined with iliacus, is the lesser trochanter. In general, we determine the function of a muscles by the direction of the muscle fibers and then see what happens when we stabilize the origin and bring the the insertion towards it. With Psoas major, we see that the femur moves in the direction of the lumbar. The hip flexes. The same goes for iliacus who originates on the anterior face of the ilium and inserts along with psoas major (and minor if it is present and, apparently, only is present in 50% of the population) in the lesser trochanter. Together, the psoas major and iliacus are called the iliopsoas group.
OK…enough of the anatomy lesson. Let’s do something with it.
Your client is doing the Roll Up. Her legs are popping up during the difficult action of bringing her torso up and forward over her legs. What’s happening? Well, we want her abdmoninals to bring her torso to her legs. Her Primary Powerhouse. Which abdmoninal muscle does much of the effort in this action? Rectus abdominis (with the grand assistance of the obliques). It flexes the torso bringing the spine towards the femur. However, when it is weak and asked to perform this action, instead, the femur comes to the spine…with the hip flexors/iliopsoas! The exact same thing happens with Neck Pull.
But what about Teaser? Well, it’s actually the exact same action as the Roll Up; however, there is the greater challenge of balance because the legs are uplifted in a 45 degree angle. With that, the entire set of hip flexors (rectus femoris, tensor faciae latae, psoas and iliacus) are fully engaged. The abdominals and back muscles have to do their share of work to bring the torso to the legs. However…most people are weak in their abdominals and backs so they “hang” in their back and hip flexors (lower back slumps and legs start to drop straining both back and hip flexors). We tell them “use more abdominals, less leg! Get out of your hip flexors!”…and they can’t! Of course they can’t! They’re not strong enough. They’re hip flexors are stressed to the max already trying just to hold their straight legs up against gravity. They can’t actually bring the torso to the legs, too. In fact, they can never do that! That’s the abdominals’ job. So…the cramping begins. Frustration abounds with client and teacher!
To begin, you have to work to strengthen your clients’ abdominals more than you have been before you even attempt any exercise where you’re challenging the strength of them like Teaser or even the Roll Up. How? By doing Half Roll Down until they are really strong in the abdominals, lifted and supple in the lumbar. That might be a long time. And that’s just fine. In fact, that’s great! This is a foundational exercise. That means that it is the essence of countless other exercises in Pilates. Working on and honoring the action of it is vital. Take your time with it. Don’t dismiss this exercise.
Next, you have to concentrate more on that lift of the abdominals and lumbar. “Scoop your abdominals in and up to lift your lower back bones” is the phrase I use all of the time. You’ve got to understand what does what and not teach a lie/myth. The transverse abdominus (deepest abdominal muscle) aides in supporting and stabilizing the lumbar. First engage the transverse abdominus, then keep it engaged and lift the lumbar with your back muscles. This can and must happen in every exercise. This is the action that must begin every exercise, must be maintained during every exercise and must continue through the conclusion of every exercise.
Then, when your client does get to the Roll Up, you work to make sure your client is bringing her torso to her legs, rather than legs to torso; strengthening her abdominals rather than wrenching her hip flexors. Why not reach the legs back into the mat so they don’t come up…that will strengthen the buttocks and hamstrings in their effort to stabilize the legs…so that the abdominals can be efficient. Concentrate on this and your client will strengthen marvelously.
When Teaser becomes an option, essentially, your client ought to already, quite naturally, be “out of her hip flexors” and into her abdominals with a lifted spine. However, if that grip in hip flexors happens, here’s what you do:
1 – One-Legged Teaser – Again, concentrate on the action of the abdominals and spine. Abdominals in and up, tailbone and sacrum curling towards the supportive foot, lumbar spine lifting. All of those actions must be strong and take on full concentration.
2 – Teaser – If your client is still struggling with Teaser feeling strain in her hip flexors, with both legs extended, soften/bend the knees a bit. Remember that if rectus femoris is weak, it doesn’t have enough strengthen to both flex the hip and extend the knee. With slightly bent knees, the rectus femoris is only doing hip flexion (not knee extension as well) and there is likely enough strength. Then your client can keep legs up and deepen her abdominals and lift her lumbar spine more! So…”get out of your hip flexors” not really the truth. I believe that we actually need your client to get “into” her hip flexors a bit more (meaning use all of them fully) so that she can get into her abdmoninals and back muscles a lot a lot a lot more!
But…of course…that’s not all. You see…rectus femoris, psoas, illiacus and tensor fascia latae are not the only hip flexors and this is where the problem really is. What about all of the adductors not to mention gracillis, sartorius. You see…they are hip flexors, too. All muscles have primary actions and secondary or tertiary or more actions. In fact, all muscles work all of the time for one thing or another. Simply hugging heals together engages these other muscles…and that slight bend of knees with a little bit of external rotation is sartorius. Once you get into all of the hip flexors…strenghthen them all…then it couldn’t be easier to do any of those exercises.
Well, that was a long-winded way of saying that when you’re client is feeling her hip flexors in an exercise, that means she needs to be cued into her abdominals to lift her spine more so that there is more balance between abdominals, back muscles and hip flexors and to hug her heels together or hug the mat if the legs are apart or hug the air if there is no mat. Get into all hip flexors, abdominals and back!
Be patient as a teacher. Make sure your goal is to understand your clients’ imbalances and then restore balance. The goal is not to do the ideal version of an exercise or to get advanced or to do Teaser. The goal is help your client become more balanced of body and mind using movement. We happen to be working with Pilates/Contrology. And if we’re going to teach using these phrases, then we’d better understand what they really mean and use them well…use them better, even! “Get out of your hip flexors” is simply not enough. There must be more to it! Clearly, there is!
I thank Alex for asking about this cue!
Enjoy your teaching! Please reach out and comment on this post and/or ask me to discuss some other subject! I wish to write on subjects that you want to understand in Pilates. Please let me know what you’d like to learn! Thank you for giving me the forum for it! info@TheVerticalWorkshop.com
Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: Alycea Ungaro, Balanced Body, Basil, Brooke Siler, classical Pilates, Contrology, core strength, cueing, duet sessions, Exercise, fitness, Gratz, group classes, hip flexors, Joseph H. Pilates, Kathy Ross-Nash, Los Angeles Pilates, Mari Winsor, mat class, New York Pilates, Personal Training, Pilates, Pilates Day, Pilates Day 2010, Pilates Designs by Basil, Pilates in gyms, pilates instructor, Pilates mat class, Pilates on Fifth, pilates sessions, Pilates Style, pilates teacher, Pilates World Games, Power Pilates, powerhouse, Real Pilates, Return to Life Through Contrology, Return to Life Through Pilates, semi-private sessions, Shari Berkowitz, shoulder blades, Stott, Success Story, the vertical workshop, Winsor Pilates, Your Health.