When was the last time you thanked your hips (or even thought about your pelvis)? They quite literally carry your body throughout the day, after all, bearing the weight of your upper body and transferring it to your lower limbs—allowing for all kinds of functional movement.
Strong hips and a stable pelvis are crucial for walking, running, jumping, standing, you name it! Even being able to sit down and stand back up (something that can become difficult with age) requires proper hip strength and stability.
Without it—whether from injury, day-to-day repetition or poor posture—the body starts to compensate elsewhere, relying on the wrong muscles to make movement happen, thus creating imbalances (and faulty movement patterns) in the body. The result is often not only cranky hips but also an unhappy lower back, as well as knees and ankles.
If you want to move and perform better, prevent injury or address minor aches and pains, strengthen your hips and stabilize your pelvis. It’s that simple.
Think you don’t need to? Think again.
Even the seemingly strongest athletes can use a pelvic stability “tuneup” from time to time, ensuring that their larger, bulkier muscles aren’t completely overcompensating for the smaller, deeper stabilizing muscles. One tell-all sign is the incessant need to stretch, foam roll or otherwise release the buttocks and hip flexors, which tend to overwork when the deep hip stabilizers aren’t doing their job adequately.
The lumbo-pelvic hip complex
When the conversation turns to hip strength and pelvic stability, what we’re really talking about is the lumbo-pelvic-hip (LPH) complex—the area where the lumbar spine, pelvis and top of the legs (forming the hip joints) come together. The muscles, connective tissues and joints that make up the LPH complex (commonly referred to as the core, or lumbo-pelvic-hip core complex) play a huge role in the body’s kinetic chain.
Simply put, the kinetic chain is an anatomical term used to describe the corresponding groups of muscles, connective tissues, joints and nerves that work together to create movement in the body. Instability in the LPH complex, therefore, affects the entire body’s ability to move efficiently, creating imbalances elsewhere as different parts of the body overcompensate for the lack of core strength and stability.
Whether weak or tight hips, pelvis or core, imbalances in the LPH complex may lead to injuries, such as IT band syndrome, SI joint dysfunction and lower-back pain. In other words, if your hips, knees, lower back, groin or feet hurt, check the stability of your LPH complex.
Take the stability test
While there are a few different techniques used to assess pelvic stability, the marching bridge test is one of the most straightforward, effective tools. It also happens to be a great corrective exercise for stability and strength while addressing any imbalances in the LPH complex.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor inner-hip-distance apart.
- Push down through your feet and lift your hips up off the floor, keeping your spine and pelvis in a neutral position.
- Check to see that your pelvis is level and that both sides of your hips are the same height. Now slowly lift one foot up a few inches above the floor, keeping your knee bent, and then set your foot back down and lift your opposite foot.
Try it a few times, marching in a bridge position. Go slow enough to pay attention to what happens in the pelvis. If you’re able to keep your pelvis perfectly level as you march, then you pass the stability test. Meanwhile, if your pelvis rotates downward on either side as you lift your foot, then you know you’ve got some stability work to do.
The systems responsible for LPH stabilization are a combination of local (deep) and global (superficial) muscles, including the gluteus medius, gluteus maximus, piriformis, inner thighs, hamstrings and deep hip-core stabilizers.
Below are a handful of exercises to help develop and maintain proper lumbo-pelvic-hip core stability. These exercises aren’t meant to replace one-on-one rehabilitative medical care. If you have severe or consistent pain, please consult your health professional.
3 Bridge Variations
Double- and single-leg bridges are the gold standard as far as glute activation goes.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat inner-hip-distance apart.
- Press down through your heels and engage your butt muscles to lift your hips, keeping your thighs and knees apart.
- Hold your hips up off the floor for a few seconds before slowly lowering them back down with control.
- Raise and lower your hips 10 to 15 times.
Next, try single-leg bridges, repeating the steps above.
- Once your hips are off the floor, lift one leg.
- Power down through your anchored foot and squeeze your glute—do not allow your pelvis or hips to rotate down toward the floor.
- Hold for two to three seconds and then return your foot to the floor.
- Then lift your other leg and repeat.
Or walk your bridges out. As mentioned above, walking bridges are also a fantastic corrective exercise, requiring all the correct stabilizing muscles to fire in order to maintain a level pelvis.
- Place a strap around your thighs above your knees, engage your glutes and lift up in a bridge.
- Now march!
- Lie on your side with your inner legs together, your spine straight, your knees bent and your top hip stacked above your bottom hip.
- Keeping your feet together, squeeze your top gluteus muscles and slowly lift your top knee (resembling an open clamshell) without rolling back through your top hip. (Tip: To avoid “cheating,” lie with your back against a wall, preventing your top hip from rolling back and open.)
- Lying on your stomach, place your hands under your forehead and your legs hip-width apart.
- Without pressing your hips into the floor, squeeze your right hamstrings to lift and lower your leg 10 to 15 times. Make sure not to bend your knee or turn your leg or toes out.
- Repeat on the opposite leg.
- Start in a quadruped position with your shoulders stacked over your hands and your hips stacked over your knees, and your spine in a neutral position.
- Pressing down through your right knee, extend your left leg back and your right arm forward. Don’t let your right hip dip out to the side.
- Keep your left hip pointed down to the floor and hold for 10 to 15 seconds before lowering your hand and knee.
- Repeat on the opposite side. (Tip: If you’re having trouble maintaining level hips, place your right hip along a wall to keep it in line as you lift your left leg, and switch sides when you lift your right leg.)
- Lie on your side with your knees slightly bent in front of you, and prop your upper body up on your forearm and elbow. Your hips should be stacked over one another, and your shoulder should be stacked over your elbow.
- Lift your pelvis up off the floor and press your hips forward to bring your spine into a straight line.
- Hold for three to five seconds and then lower your pelvis, folding slightly through your hips as your pelvis returns to the floor. Lift, extend, hold and lower five to seven times.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
Photo credit: fizkes, Getty Images