Training programs that I’ve been asked to examine typically reveal that the strength athlete isn’t doing enough work for his or her hip girdle. That’s especially true of those who have ended their collegiate athletic careers and are now working out to stay reasonably strong and fit. It’s also the case for older strength athletes and bodybuilders. They’re no longer interested in handling heavy weights and in many instances spend most of their time in the gym working their shoulder girdles—primarily arms and chest.
Those who do continue to include exercises for their hips quite often do only token movements and use only light poundages. They do a few partial squats, throw in a bit of back work and leg presses and assume that they’re doing enough to maintain strength in their hip girdles. The truth of the matter is that the muscle groups that make up the hip girdle have to be exercised vigorously in order to keep the muscles, tendons and ligaments strong enough to do their job correctly. That applies to those aspiring to gain considerable overall strength, those who are in middle age and are merely trying to stay healthy and fit and those who are getting senior discounts.
The hips are potentially the strongest part of the body. Without a strong hip girdle, you have no locomotion. Ding a hip, and you will have difficulty walking and climbing steps. Most can get by for a long time with relatively weak upper bodies because the groups that make up the shoulder girdle aren’t called upon very often to move heavy objects. Yet you need strong hips every day unless you sit or lie down all day. If you need to be in motion, you need hips that are strong enough to support you while you take steps.
To extend that point even further, if you have any intention of moving heavy poundages to strengthen your back and lower body, you must give a lot of attention to the hip girdle. Even if you’re interested only in making your upper body stronger, you still must do something strenuous for your hips. That’s because all strength development starts in the center of the body, the area where the hips connect with the lower back and the groups that form the upper legs. So when you neglect even slightly the muscles and attachments that make up the seat of pure strength, all the other bodyparts will be adversely affected.
That means you need to give priority to exercises for the hips in any strength program and not relegate them to the back burner or auxiliary movements. In addition, you have to do the hip exercises with taxing poundages. Just teasing them with light weights won’t produce the desired results unless you run the reps way, way up—which is what I recommend to my older athletes. Then that relatively easy exercise suddenly becomes a tough one. I’ll have more to say about the ultrahigh-rep idea later.
The hips are very complicated joints made up of 22 muscles plus all the related tendons and ligaments; that’s not even counting the lumbars and glutes, which are implicitly connected. There are six flexors, four extensors, two abductors, four adductors and six outward rotators. You have to work them all diligently and with demanding weights.
Hip problems are generally associated with older athletes, but they’re a major health concern for a great many athletes who are still in their 30s and 40s. Quite often, one hip or another has been hurt in some sort of accident on or off the playing field. In some instances hips flare up for no apparent reason. There has to be a reason, of course, yet no amount of medical probing can solve the mystery—perhaps something that occurred at night while you were sleeping or after a bout with the flu. It really doesn’t matter all that much how the hip suddenly became painful. What does matter is what you do about it.
My first encounter with hip pain had nothing to do with my training program, I was still handling heavy weights in all of my exercises and was giving priority to my hips, legs and lower back. Even so, my left hip became so inflamed that I couldn’t stand or put any weight on it. I’d just left Hawaii and was staying with Jack King at the time. There was a chiropractor in Winston-Salem who worked on the lifters and bodybuilders who trained at the Y, and Jack took me to see him. It turned out that my hip pain was a direct result of my back being terribly out of alignment. I was on the table for an hour, and he did everything in his power to get everything in the proper line. I was sweating bullets by the time he finished, but by the next day I was pain free and able to do full squats again.
Still, the episode had weakened that hip, and 20 years later it came home to roost; I had to have it replaced. Yet I was able to keep it strong all that intervening time by giving my hip girdle priority in my routine. Many contended that my hip problems were a result of my heavy lifting all those years, but I disagree. If any form of exercise did bring the problem to a head, my running aggravated it, not the lifting. The real culprit wasn’t my physical activity as much as my heredity. Arthritis is in my genes, and no one is ever going to beat that. Even as that disease ate away at my hips, though, I could function just fine—at least until I pulled a small adductor high up in my left leg. That kept me from doing full squats, and I lost the battle.
I also used the knowledge that I had about making the hip girdle strong to help me rebuild the muscles and attachments so that I could regain compete motion. That’s what I want to talk about: how to make your hip girdle extremely strong and how to rebuild hips that are injured or have been replaced. I’ve had numerous athletes complaining of pain in one or the other of their hips make a complete recovery by strengthening the weaker areas in their hip girdles.
Whenever someone complains of a hip aching or a pain running down his or her leg starting at the hip, I recommend finding a chiropractor who specializes in treating athletes. Every time I say that, I get ugly responses, but it’s what I know to be the truth. Certain chiropractors know what they’re doing when dealing with strength athletes, and others don’t. In quite a few instances the problem is not so much that one muscle group is relatively weaker than the others as that the vertebrae have slipped out of proper alignment and are putting pressure on the nerves running through the hips into the legs. A good chiropractor will be able to find and fix it on the spot. My definition of a good chiropractor is one who can give you relief on the first visit.
I also believe that visiting an acupuncturist is a smart idea if you’re having hip-related pain. Explore all the alternative medicine you can before resorting to the knife. Too many bad outcomes have resulted from surgery, so make that your choice of last resort.
As I mentioned, you have to do exercises that strengthen and secure with demanding poundages, and that’s the primary reason so many decide to not do them. It’s much more fun to lie on a flat or incline bench and train your upper body than do deep squats with weights that make your eyes cross or pull a heavy deadlift off the floor that takes a full minute to complete, but that’s exactly what you need to do if you want to have strong hips.
Not only must you include the difficult exercises in your program, but you must also do them correctly and in such a manner that they truly activate the targeted muscles. Squats, for example, are effective only if you go into the deep-bottom position. Doing quarter or half squats may make you feel as if you’re really hitting the hips, but they’re not nearly as useful for strengthening and stabilizing the joints. Full squats bring into the mix so many more muscle groups and their corresponding attachments than any partial movement. Full squats strengthen the quads, of course, and to a large degree the abductors, but they don’t work the adductors, hamstrings, and glutes nearly as well, and those three groups are critical to making the hip joints more stable and secure.
So if you’ve been doing partial squats or partial leg presses, start doing the full movement. I’m not talking about a legal squat in the sport of powerlifting but a very deep movement where you’re almost sitting on your heels. In the event you haven’t been doing full squats for a time, you might find it difficult at first to go very low. Stick with it. As the weights get heavier, they’ll force you to go lower. Another way to gain the flexibility you need to go deep in the squat is to use the power rack. Set the pins at a position lower than you usually go. Then start the squat from that low position and reset the bar on the pins after each rep. It doesn’t take long for the muscles and attachments to loosen up sufficiently to enable you to do the full movement outside the power rack.
I also like sumo squats for building greater hip strength. They really do a nice job of activating the adductors, a key group of muscles for strengthening the hip girdle. How wide a stance? As wide as you can manage and still keep your balance. An important point to remember when doing wide-stance squats is to point your feet straight ahead. In a conventional full squat it’s best to point your toes a bit outward, but with the sumo style you need to push down all the weight on the outsides of your feet. It may take a bit of practice until you feel comfortable with the style, but it’s well worth the effort. In many instances athletes discover to their delight that they can handle more in the sumo style than they can in the conventional style. Nothing wrong with that.
After full squats the next best exercise for bringing up the hip girdle is the deadlift. Like back squats, deadlifts can be done in the conventional fashion or in sumo style. I like sumo deadlifts because they force the adductors to play a bigger role in the execution of the lift, and the lower you can set your hips when doing either form, the more they’ll hit the muscles securing the hips, especially the hamstrings and glutes. Try using plates smaller than 45s, and concentrate on starting the pulls with your glutes very low. Don’t let your hips climb up at a faster rate than the bar, and squeeze the bar off the floor rather than trying to jerk it upward.
Most strength athletes start a deadlift with their hips set fairly high to take advantage of a longer lever, but when you do the exercise to enhance hip strength, keep your hips low at the start so you’ll feel the following day exactly which groups got worked.
For deadlifts and back squats, keep sets and reps in the power range: four to six sets of four to six reps. To increase your overall workload, throw in a back-off set of eight to 10. It’s also useful to do lower reps occasionally—threes, doubles singles. That will involve the attachments more than the fives, and it helps in the process of making the groups that house the hips even stronger.
The real key to building and maintaining strong hips, however, lies in the lower back. The lumbars and hips are implicitly linked. Whenever strength athletes neglect working their lower back diligently, trouble often pops up in their hips. When they come to me complaining of hip pain, I immediately check out their program to see what they’re doing for their lumbars. Frequently the right exercises are there but haven’t been worked nearly hard enough. For example, good mornings are a part of the routine, but the poundage being used is far too light to get the job done. Or they may be doing hyperextensions but only as a token warmup exercise.
To keep your hip girdle strong, you have to keep the amount of work you do for your lower back in proportion to what you’re handling on the big-muscle movements: back squat and deadlift. If they’re out of kilter, you’re going to end up with problems due to the principle of disproportionate strength. It’s a matter of the weakest-link idea, and because the lumbars and hips are so closely related, you’ll begin to feel it rather quickly.
That’s what usually occurs when competitive athletes in any sport reach the end of their careers. They can see no reason for going heavy on the lower-back exercises even while they understand why they should continue to move the numbers up on squats and deadlifts. While squats and deadlifts are certainly no walk in the park, they’re nowhere nearly as difficult as heavy good mornings. And there’s the rub: The harder an exercise is to do, the more beneficial it is for the strength athlete. It’s a truism for older athletes just as it is for younger ones.
I use four lower-back exercises in my programs. In order of importance they are good mornings, almost straight-legged deadlifts, hyperextensions and reverse hypers. Good mornings are the best because they work the groups that lend support to the hips the most. They also happen to be the hardest of the lot. You can do them with a flat back, rounded back or while seated on a bench. I’ve been criticized for advocating rounded-back good mornings. Critics say that form of the exercise is harmful, especially to the middle back. Yet the back is constructed to bend forward; bending backward is what’s unnatural. It’s only been a short period of time since Homo sapiens stood erect, so for most that doesn’t pose a problem.
Having said that, however, I always tell my athletes to inform me if the rounded-back good morning bothers their backs. If it does, I have them switch to using the flat-back version. The styles are equally effective; it’s simply a matter of choice. As for seated good mornings: Do them only every couple of months for variety. They’re by far the easiest of the three versions. The only time I put an athlete on a steady diet of seated good mornings is when he has a lower-body injury, such as a broken or sprained ankle.
You do good mornings with slightly higher reps than most strength movements: eights and 10s. Once strength athletes have established a solid base over a long period of time, there’s no reason they can’t do fives and threes. When that happens, of course, the exercise is quite different from when lighter weights are used. When the load on the back is really heavy, you have to jut your hips way back to counterbalance the weight. That makes the down and up movements very different from what they are when lesser poundage is used.
For purposes of strengthening your hips, it’s best to stay with weights in the more moderate range. Start out with a light weight and alternate two set-and-rep formulas: five sets of eight and four sets of 10. Both yield 40 reps, but the slight change hits the lumbars differently. Always handle five or 10 more pounds when doing the eights.
For good mornings to be productive, you have to attack them. Your goal is to handle 50 percent of what you’re squatting for no fewer than eight reps, and 10 would be better. I also apply a rule I learned from the Russian Olympic lifters when I was still competing in that sport. Russian coaches had their athletes stop adding weight to their good mornings once they were able to do 100 kilos for 10 reps, regardless of their bodyweight. Why? Using more weight made the athletes alter their positions so much that the exercise wasn’t hitting their lumbars nearly as well as when they did them perfectly. When they wanted to up the workload, they merely did more work sets. I set the limit at 225, and nobody complains.
Almost-straight-legged deadlifts are very useful for building lower-back strength, although I place them behind good mornings. Do not do them with your knees locked. That just positions the hamstrings for injury. A slight bend doesn’t alter the benefits at all, so why take the risk? I don’t like the idea of standing on a block or a bench either. It isn’t necessary. Simply stand on the floor and use 25-pound plates instead of the taller 45s, and you’ll get all the stretch you need and not have to worry about balance or dropping the bar across the bench.
You have to perform almost-straight-legged deadlifts in a smooth, controlled fashion and not herky-jerky. The bar needs to stay very close to your body in both the up and down movements. Try doing them with a rounded back and a flat back and decide which method fits you best. I also have a poundage ratio for almost-straight-legged deadlifts and back squats, and it’s just as difficult as the one for good mornings. I want my athletes to handle 75 percent of their best back squat on straight-legs for at least eight reps. So a 400-pound squatter needs to be using 300 pounds for eight in the almost-straight-legged deadlift.
Make sure you don’t turn the almost-straight-legged deadlift into conventional deadlifts when the weights get really heavy. If that happens, the result for your lumbars isn’t going to be nearly as good.
Back hyperextensions and reverse back hypers are excellent movements for strengthening the back. They’re especially useful for older athletes who can’t handle much weight on the good mornings or almost-straight-legged deadlifts. I use the two movements as warmup exercises along with an ab movement. Unless you have a hyper machine, the regular hypers are more useful than the reverse version because you can add resistance to them in the form of a dumbbell or plate. Even so, you want to limit the resistance to what you can use with perfect technique. If the weight forces you to twist and turn during the execution of the exercise, use less so you can do it flawlessly. Also be sure to bend your knees a bit on hypers for the same reason you bend them on good mornings and almost-straight-legged deads: to keep from dinging your hamstrings.
While younger, aspiring strength athletes must constantly push the numbers higher to make gains in the back squat, the deadlift and the four lower-back movements, that’s not a good idea for older athletes. Old, often wounded and worn-out joints can’t handle the stress. There are exceptions, of course, but 99 percent of people eligible for Social Security shouldn’t be dealing with heavy weights.
Yet the hips are even more important to seniors than they are to younger athletes. What to do? Higher reps. They feed blood to the target area and nourish the cartilage without straining the ligaments. As extensions of the muscles the tendons do get involved. All of the exercises that I mentioned can be done using high reps, and they’ll produce the desired results if you work them hard enough.
Basically, you’re after two sets of as many as you can do. Start out conservatively—two sets of 20—and see how you feel the following day. A bit of soreness is fine; in fact, it’s what you’re after. Slowly increase the reps as you feel able while keeping the weight constant. That works well for anyone who trains at home. All you need are a bar, a few plates and some dumbbells to get in a beneficial session.
One of the biggest problems facing an older athlete who’s doing ultrahigh reps is boredom. Some sets may take 10 minutes to complete, and maintaining focus and concentration for every rep is often difficult. It’s necessary, though, because you can get dinged with a light weight just as you can with a heavy one, especially when you’re near the end of a set and your muscles are fatigued.
Because the sets take much longer than they do in a program using much lower reps, you can do only a few exercises per workout. Otherwise, you’ll be training for a couple of hours, and few can handle that much work. So you’ll need to train more frequently—five or six times a week—to get in the necessary work to strengthen not only your hips but the rest of your body as well. I know it can be done because I’ve been doing just that for the past 12 years. I train for an hour and a half six days a week, which enables me to alternate exercises so that I can squat and deadlift twice a week and throw in lunges at one other session. Once a week I use only bodyweight to work my various groups, which helps me recover for the more strenuous sessions to follow.
Whatever your goal in strength training, you must give priority to exercises that stabilize your hips. If you don’t have strong hips, you’ll lack the ability to make the rest of your body stronger. Strong hips equal locomotion, and that’s something everyone desires.
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—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www.Home-Gym.com. IM
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