As a coach, if I had to name the movement that I need to correct the most in my classes, it would for sure be the hip hinge. Bending over to grab something is as mundane as walking in a straight line and opening doors, yet most people don’t master the true art of the hip hinge. As a « fundamental movement », I still don’t understand why this it is not addressed by our physical education teachers at an early age. We would be so much more on the ball for prevention and our general physical health and posture would be so much better! If you need more reasons to coach the hip hinge, head to Mai’s article The Fundamental Hip Hinge, which should help convince you.
I know my colleagues from the powerlifting world will argue that the conventional deadlift is THE main motor pattern when we talk about bending over. Well coached and well executed, the necessary bracing this movement requires makes it very secure and gives you a bulletproof pulling movement. I’m all with you guys, but nowadays, the problem comes from very poor posture in the general population.
Why would I teach a deadlift or internal torque to someone sitting all day, or to someone with a more « flexed » posture?
Look at this problem this way, going to the gym should be like going to see your athletic therapist (I know Mai will like this one). If I let my members go home with the same posture they came into the gym with, as a coach, I have failed. If I am working with someone with a more « flexed » posture, my goal will be to get them more extension. If I am working with someone with a more « extended » posture, my goal will be to help them to be more efficient in flexion postures and positions.
Some stuff you already know (or not)
1 – Contraction sequence: From the top, as the movement starts with hip flexion with a slight pelvic anteversion, you need hamstring extensibility and the capacity to connect to the lumbar erectors to maintain a natural arch. Starting from the bottom, your hip hinge should start by connecting your hamstrings, then your glutes to bring your hips forward, and your lumbar erectors to maintain the torso rigid.
2 – Mind-muscle connection: Being able to « feel » the tension in your hamstrings in the eccentric portion is key, as is maintaining that tension in the concentric portion. This will lead to a more efficient and optimal firing rate of your posterior chain. This is the muscle group and connection I find to be the least understood in the group setting.
3 – Release that anterior chain: Anterior chain facilitation can lead to an inhibition of the muscles in your posterior chain. If you’re not sure whether this is the case for you, seek out an assessment by a qualified coach or therapist. Rule of thumb, if you are anterior chain dominant and you want to feel your hamstrings and glutes, you will probably need to down-regulate your hip flexors & quads.
What you need to master before going into the hip hinge
I know, I know, you could just play with the hip hinge and perhaps eventually master the movement. However, most people in your group classes will be so much better at learning this movement if you give them regression that allows them to better connect to the movement to lead them towards the whole movement. Keep in mind you need some mind-muscle connection, appropriate contraction sequence and down-regulation of facilitated antagonists.
In general, I like to use the following exercises to assess my group and see where everyone is at. These exercises are also used as my neuromuscular activation after an appropriate anterior chain down-regulation. For the latter, I would be lying to you if I proposed any other exercise than the banded couch stretch for this. That is the most popular exercise in my practice and the most efficient with my members. Add an extra band on the back for some PNF work (add a 10sec contraction for 20sec stretch, 2min on each side).
Here are the other exercises I use to prep my groups for hinge work:
1 – Cat-Cow: This is a great teaching exercise to bring awareness to anterior & posterior pelvic tilt and also unlocks lumbar spine mobility. Work these for 10-12 reps, with an isometric hold of 2sec or so in each position.
2 – Bilateral hip thrust /Single leg hip thrust: I like to isolate the weaker or more inhibited muscles, the muscles I want them to feel, with a very simple exercise. Make sure the hips are in line with the shoulders and that they don’t overextend the lumbar spine at the top. They should feel their glutes and hamstrings. If an individual is feeling the hamstrings more that the glutes, have them focus on gently pushing the toes into the ground, particularly the great toe, to get a better connection with the foot. This should “turn on” the glutes.
3 – Reverse hypers on bench: This one is for teaching the right contraction sequence, hamstring-glutes-lumbar erectors. Make sure the movement is not initiated with an anterior pelvic tilt instead of a hip extension. You can use a unilateral pattern here lifting one leg alternately using the same contraction sequence.
4 – Goodmornings with a PVC: This is your preparatory hip hinge movement before going into any anterior loaded hinge pattern. Having something on the upper back drives more extension into the posture and cues more low back extension in cases where this is necessary, for example for someone with a more “flexed” posture. I always check to make sure that the movement is being generated from the hips and not from the knees and that a slight anterior pelvic tilt is maintained throughout the whole sequence.
Whether it’s to prevent throwing out your back when bending over to pick up an object or performing in a CrossFit group class, the hip hinge is a fundamental. While we can grind away at the actual movement over and over, we are typically better served by adopting a strategy that helps our clients out of their compensatory patterns, connect to the right muscles and sequence them in the right order. Awareness is key, and as coaches, education to our clients is a major part of your roles. Building a bulletproof hip hinge and a strong posterior chain is performance insurance in activities of daily living as well as in many sports like CrossFit/Functional Fitness.
Karim El Hlimi, M.Sc., CSCS
Karim is a strength and conditioning coach specialized in the physical development and preparation of athletes in various disciplines such as CrossFit, crosstraining, and boxing. He is the owner of Rx Lab Performance and Gym Le Vestiaire (CrossFit Villeray) in Montreal.