Why do I have tight hips after rugby?
Your body is an amazing feat of biological and biomechanical engineering. Made up from dozens of organs, 206 bones, over 600 muscles, and billions of cells, all of these things come together when you play rugby. Working in synergy, these components allow you to sprint, kick, tackle, and scrummage like a boss.
With all this complexity, it’s hardly surprising that your body can go wrong from time to time. Impact-related injuries are a fact of life for ruggers, and even hitting the gym can cause aches and pains. That’s why prehab and rehab are so important. Like a car, your body needs regular servicing to keep it rugby fit.
Knee and shoulder problems are amongst the most common joint issues facing rugby players, but your hips can take a hammering too. Unlike knees and shoulders, hips are very hard to tape up, and injuries to the hips are often harder to prevent and treat.
For that reason, tight hips are something you should take steps to avoid. Wearing warming compression shorts can help ease stiffness, but that only really address the symptom and not the cause of the issue.
Tight hips – causes and effects
But, why does rugby sometimes make your hips tight? Good question!
Every step you run, tackle you make, jump you perform, and dummy you sell is initiated by your hips. Driving your body forward uses the muscles on the rear of your hip, back peddling uses the muscles on the front of your hip and moving laterally uses the muscles on the inside and outside of your hips. In short, your hip muscles and joints work overtime during rugby – both playing the game and training. Squats? Hips! Deadlifts? Hips? Lunges? Hips! Running? Hips!
All this work can lead to something called adaptive shortening, and that’s why rugby can lead to tight hips.
Adaptive shortening is the result of exercising within a limited range of motion. Because of the exercise law of specificity, your body adapts to the stresses placed on it. Most of the movements in rugby are very dynamic, but often involve relatively short movements. Your body adapts to these demands and your muscles get shorter as a result.
Tight hips, if ignored, could lead to both acute and chronic injuries – like ruggers haven’t got enough to worry about. For example, if you experience repetitive hamstring or groin injuries, you probably have flexibility (tightness) issues that need to be rectified. Fix your flexibility and your injury rate will be much lower.
Similarly, tight hips can reduce your performance in things like sprinting and squats. In sprinting, you don’t just want fast feet; you also want to be able to take long strides, so you cover the ground more effectively. Tight hips could limit you to short, staccato steps and limit your speed. For squats to be effective, you need to squat relatively deep, and while keeping your knees aligned with your toes. Tight hips can give you an ugly squat, and that could mean you never reach your full strength potential.
Assessing hip flexibility
This doesn’t mean you need to develop the hip mobility of a gymnast, but you should be able to pass a couple of rudimentary flexibility tests.
Hamstring assessment: Lie on your back with your legs straight. Ask a training partner to lift one leg up toward the ceiling while keeping your knee straight. Note the angle your leg reaches without forcing it. 70-90 degrees of hip flexion is optimal. Anything less than this indicates tight hamstrings.
Adductor (groin) assessment: Lie on your back with your legs together. Ask your training partner to lift your leg a 1-2 inches off the floor and move it out and away from your center. You should be able to abduct your leg by around 45 degrees before your pelvis starts to move. Anything less means your adductor muscles are overly tight.
Hip flexor and rectus femoris assessment: With your butt on the edge of a massage couch, lie back and pull your knees to your chest. Keeping hold of one leg, slowly extend the other leg and relax so that falls into its natural resting position. Your knee should be bent and lower than your hip. If your knee is mostly straight, your rectus femoris (one of the quadriceps) is tight, and if your knee is level or even above your hips, your hip flexors are tight.
Fixing tight hips – stretching
Because hip tightness is invariably caused by tight muscles, those tight muscles need stretching. You need to stretch the front, inside, outside, and back of your hips to ensure you have 3D (or should that be 4D?) mobility and flexibility.
These are four for the best stretches for tight hips.
1. Modified pigeon pose
Kneel on all fours with your arms straight, hips over your knees. Extend one leg behind you, toes resting on the floor. Move your other foot so that it is beneath your opposite hip. Place your elbows on the floor and lower your hips down toward the ground. You should feel a deep stretch in your glutes and outer hip. Repeat on both sides.
2. Kneeling hip flexor stretch
Step out into a lunge and then lower your rearmost knee to the floor. Place both hands on your front knee and keep your torso upright. Ease your hips forward to stretch the front of your hip. Slide your rear leg back to intensify the stretch. Do not overextend your spine to get a seemingly deeper stretch. Instead, focus on pushing your hips forward instead. Repeat on both sides.
3. Assisted hamstring stretch
Lie on your back with one leg bent and one leg straight. Lasso your foot with a belt, resistance band, or towel. Use your arms to pull your leg as upright as possible and support its weight. Repeat on both sides.
4. Wall adductor stretch
Lie on your back with your butt close to a wall and legs straight. Open your legs and allow gravity to pull your legs out and down. Use your hands to push your legs a little further apart if required.
With each stretch, make sure you:
- Only stretch when your muscles are warm
- Ease gradually into each stretch
- Breathe slowly and evenly
- Increase the depth of the stretch as you feel your muscles relax
- Hold each stretch for 30-60 seconds, or longer if your muscles are very tight
- Do not bounce or jerk
- Ease off if your muscles start to shake or burn
- Remember to stretch both sides evenly, unless there is a significant left-to-right flexibility difference
Fixing tight hips – foam rolling
Foam rolling is another effective way to increase flexibility and restore lost tissue elasticity. Foam rolling is thought to free up your fascia, with fascia being the fibrous tissue that surrounds and separates your muscles like a clingfilm wrap. Old injuries can cause damage to fascia, called adhesions, which can then prevent free movement. This damage can be felt as hot or tender spots within the muscle. Foam rolling eases these adhesions to restore movement.
Foam rolling can be painful at first, especially if you have a lot of adhesions. However, the more often you do it, the less painful it will be. If you have very painful hot spots, ease off on the pressure and increase it gradually over several sessions. Yes, you are a tough-as-nails rugger, but there no need to be a martyr!
Sit on your foam roller with your legs bent, feet flat on the floor, and your hands on the floor behind you for balance. Cross your left leg over your right knee and roll along the length of your left glute, spending extra time on any hotspots you discover. Repeat on the opposite side.
Sit upright on the floor with your legs extended and your foam roller behind both your thighs. Place your hands behind you for support. Lift your butt off the floor and then roll up and down the length of your hamstrings, seeking out any hotspots.
3. Hip abductors
Lie on your side with your legs straight and your foam roller beneath your outer thigh. Roll from the outside of your knee up to your hip, spending extra time on any hotspots. Repeat on both sides.
4. Hip adductors
Lie on your front and rest on your elbows. Bend one leg and pull your knee up and out to the side. Place your foam roller under your inner thigh. Roll along the length of your adductors, seeking out any hot spots. Repeat on both sides.
Fixing tight hips can be time-consuming, but you can do most of these exercises while sitting at home watching TV, so it doesn’t have to impact on your rugby training time. Tight hips can have a big impact on your training and performance, as well as increasing your chances of injury. Fifteen minutes a day of stretching and foam rolling could save you weeks or even months on the injury list, so it’s time well-spent.