Almost all strength athletes take their hips for granted and only become aware of their importance when they become injured in some manner. Then they do notice their hips’big time’because an injured hip hampers mobility severely. In addition, a sore or injured hip has a negative effect on nearly every strength-training exercise.
Bodily strength depends on powerful hips. That’s the reason any strength program worth its salt revolves around the full squat. The full squat is the single best movement for strengthening and stabilizing all the muscles and corresponding tendons and ligaments that make up the hips.
Because the hips are capable of such strength, the exercises you work them with must involve heavy weights. Token weights, moderate exertion or toning have no place in hip training.
Since most healthy young men seldom have any problem with their hips unless they get hurt playing a contact sport such as football, they seldom realize just how critical that area of the body is to performance in any athletic arena. Even a superior specimen such as Bo Jackson quickly became aware of the fact. A bruised hip sent the Baltimore Orioles’ power hitter to the bench. You can’t engage in much physical activity when your hips hurt.
Obviously, as athletes get older, they should give even more attention to this critical area of the body. A recent article in a Baltimore newspaper stated that more than 5,000 people had hip operations in the city’s hospitals during one year. Add to that all those who suffer from nagging hip pain that’s not severe enough to warrant surgery, and the number is staggering.
One of the major reasons that so many older athletes have some sort of hip problem is they’ve accumulated a number of injuries to the area over their years of training and competing, and those injuries finally take their toll. Such was my case. I pulled a hip muscle when my rear foot slipped while I was doing a jerk on a concrete floor. Ten years later I incurred another injury while running. Fifteen years passed without incident, then a pulled leg flexor kept me from working the area hard enough, and I had to resort to the knife. If people can maintain a great degree of strength in their hips and be lucky enough to avoid any major injuries along the way, however, they’ll be fine when they get older.
The hip is really a highly complicated set of muscles and attachments, and it’s capable of amazing power. The muscles drive the bar from the bottom position in the squat, are responsible for moving the bar off the floor in any pulling motion and help stabilize the entire structure while doing any upper-body exercise. Twenty-two muscles form the hips, and that doesn’t include the lower abs or lower-back muscles, which are connected to them.
In all, there are six flexors, four extensors, two abductors, four adductors and six outward rotators. As a group they make up the most powerful set of muscles and attachments in the body’or, should I say, potentially the most powerful, because if you don’t work the muscles properly, they may not be strong at all.
I also realize that even when people do pay attention and include plenty of specific strength work for their hips, they may still run into difficulty. Hip pointers for football and lacrosse players, hard falls for basketballers, twisting slides for baseball players, a form mistake on a heavy squat can all bring on an injury to the hips.
And, as everyone who’s ever experienced hip pain can tell you, it ranks right up there with the worst suffering you can experience.
On the bright side, you can improve a hip injury with the right kind of exercises, and it usually responds quickly. I’ve had many athletes come to me complaining of hip pain who were able to correct the problem in a couple of weeks. Even some long-term chronic problems can be helped with the right exercises. One older athlete let his hip problem linger for so long that he could hardly get up out of a chair and he walked with a pronounced limp. It took him several months, but he restored his hip completely’and he was able to compete in Olympic weightlifting contests.
Hip problems don’t always occur because of an injury or overuse. Many people suffer from hip pain simply because they don’t include any specific exercises for the area, or if they do, they don’t use enough weight. That happens for more than one reason. The majority of the people who lift weights in the United States are only interested in improving their upper bodies. Since all they want from training are big arms and a thick chest, they ignore their lower bodies. Another primary reason is that the best exercises for strengthening the hips are among the most taxing because, in order for them to work, you have to use heavy weights.
Heavy, full squats, heavy deadlifts and demanding good mornings require a different degree of dedication and mentality from lying on a bench and performing lots of bench press sets. In order to strengthen the large groups in the hips, you have to stack the weights on the bar until your eyes cross at the conclusion of your last set.
When I set up a program to strengthen or rehab someone’s hips, I use a two-prong approach. I give equal attention to the lumbars while I’m attacking the hips. The two groups are closely connected. As the hip strength improves, the lower-back strength must improve at the same rate. I’ll begin with the exercises for the lower back. Start out with back hyperextensions and/or reverse hypers. Use either of them as a warmup exercise initially, and don’t use any resistance. Try and improve your reps each and every week until you reach 50. At that point you can hold there for a time, since you’ll be moving your other lower-back exercises up as well. Once you move into the advanced stage, you may want to use weights, but in the early stages it’s better to do them without resistance because there’s a tendency to twist and move out of proper alignment when you use resistance. Do one set of one type of hyperextension before you do any other exercises in the gym, and after a few weeks start concluding with a set before you leave. Whichever you do first, hypers or reverse hypers, do the other at the end of your session. They start adding up nicely.
The most effective exercise for strengthening the lumbars is the good morning. It’s also the most hated. Start with a sensible weight on the bar, learn proper form and proceed from there. Your eventual goal on good mornings is to handle 50 percent of what you can squat with for eight to 10 reps, but you don’t have to accomplish that right away. Start with a moderate poundage and add five pounds per week. Once you achieve your goal, you can hold it in proportion to your squat. I also set a top-end limit for good mornings’225 for eight to 10 reps. I picked that up in the ’60s from the European Olympic lifters, who believed that using more than 225 pounds on good mornings caused a lifter to alter his form, making the exercise less effective.
I’ve found that to be true. When you use very heavy weights on the exercise, you have to set your hips in a different position to counterbalance the weight, which causes you to work totally different groups from what you use on a conventional good morning.
It’s a good idea to build some variety into this exercise because the slight change in angle helps to involve more groups. You can do good mornings with a flat back or a rounded back. You can also do them while seated on a bench. That’s a good idea for anyone who may have an injured knee or ankle. Once a week is sufficient for good mornings, and four to five sets of eight to 10 reps will get the job done.
Straight-legged, or stiff-legged, deadlifts are the next-best lower-back exercise. I’ve tried for many years to change the name to almost-straight-legged deadlifts, but it hasn’t caught on. You should never perform any lower-back exercise with locked knees. As with good mornings, you have to stack weight on the bar for these to be useful. If you stay in the comfort zone, you’re not working hard enough.
I also have a guideline for stiff legs: Eventually, you’ll need to handle 75 percent of your squat for eight reps. So a lifter who squats with 400 pounds will work up to 300 for eight reps and try and hold that ratio as his squat moves upward.
I always have my athletes do these off the floor, rather than standing on blocks. They use 25-pound plates on the bar and lower it all the way to the floor on each rep. The key points on this exercise are the following: Always maintain a slight bend in your knees and keep the bar ridiculously close to your body throughout the movement, both as you pull the weight up and as you bring it back down.
A good way to incorporate these into a program is to alternate them with good mornings, switching on a weekly basis. That keeps both movements from becoming too onerous and provides useful variety.
Now that the lumbars are taken care of, let’s move on to some specific hip exercises. Full squats head the list. In many cases athletes come to me complaining of hip pain when they’re squatting or doing heavy pulls off the floor. My first question is, Are you squatting heavy and going low? I always get the same answer: Sure. So I watch them do a set. In every case it’s the same. They’re using lots of weight, but they aren’t breaking parallel. In order to activate the many muscles and attachments in the hips, you absolutely have to go below parallel, and lower is even better. The first thing I do for people who are experiencing hip pain is to widen their foot stance and have them go just as deep as they can. Since that’s a new position and generally a weaker one, they have to use much lighter weights. In order to get in the necessary work, I run the reps up’way up. Once they can do the movement properly, I run the reps up to 20. Even 500-pound squatters collapse after doing 20 reps with 275 pounds.
In severe cases I have the athletes do all their squats, three times a week, using a wide stance. I have them do five sets of five plus one back-off set of 12 to 20 reps. For others I only require the wide-stance version as back-off sets, also three times a week, after their regular squat sessions. The front squat is another excellent exercise for strengthening and stabilizing the hips because you have to go low on it. It fits perfectly into the weekly routine on the light day. You do a couple of sets of five as a warmup, followed by three or more sets of threes, then conclude with one wide-stance set of regular squats for high reps.
Deadlifts are also great for strengthening the hips, but you have to do them in a certain manner. The idea behind doing deadlifts for hip development is somewhat different from merely trying to see how much you can deadlift, as in a competition. To involve the hips more, you must set your hips low at the start and force them to stay low throughout. Lifting your hips, especially too quickly, brings other groups into play.
I have my athletes do deadlifts with 35-pound plates and lock their hips in the low position, keeping them there. These are extremely effective, and for people interested in improving the start of their deadlift, they also work wonders because the powerful hips are responsible for that initial move off the floor. Once a week is enough for these, five sets of five, working to max.
Another deadlift variation I’ve found to be beneficial in strengthening the hips is the sumo-style deadlift, which means you grip the bar between your legs. Naturally, you have to assume a wider-than-normal stance, which is a good thing, since it brings in some slightly different muscles in the hip to respond to the stress. The most important point in doing these for the purpose of strengthening your hips is to keep the hips down at all times during the movement. If you elevate them too much, it’s not as effective.
You can substitute sumo deadlifts for regular deadlifts for a period of time, such as six to eight weeks, or you can alternate the two on a weekly basis. The power formula, five sets of five, works well.
I also recommend hack squats for rehabbing and strengthening the hips, but make sure you go to an ultradeep position. As with the squat, if you stay high, you aren’t hitting your hips nearly as effectively as you would if you went low. I also keep the reps fairly high on the hack, 10s and 20s, because anytime you work in a machine, you can’t adjust your joints during the exercise and can cause damage much easier than you can with a free-weight exercise.
I seldom use the hack exclusively but, rather, add a couple of sets after a regular squat session in the form of back-off sets. It’s easy to get attached to a machine as opposed to the rigors of doing full squats, and I try to avoid the pitfall.
If you don’t have some specific exercises in your routine for your hips, you’d be well advised to add some right away. The hips can take a great deal of work, and they’ll thrive on it. As the years go by, you’ll be thankful you did.
Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive and Defying Gravity. IM