Stretching is like chicken soup for your muscles. When you drop down into a hip flexor stretch—to ease tension in one of the tightest muscle areas in the body—it tends to feel like you’re physically unwinding all of that sitting or exercising that can make muscles tight. It’s comforting in the long run (even if it hurts-so-good in the moment). The bad news is that one of the most common hip flexor stretches, aka the lunging hip flexor stretch, is often done incorrectly… which means that it isn’t doing your tight hips any favors.
When Austin Martinez, director of education for StretchLab, was posed the question of which stretch he sees people doing incorrectly time and time again, the lunging hip flexor stretch came instantly to his mind. “I believe this question is not asked enough, and the general person is unaware of it,” he says, noting that many of his health colleagues would co-sign that this stretch, in particular, isn’t done properly most of the time.
According to Martinez, the kneeling or lunging version of the hip flexor stretch is one that people are most accustomed to. This involves getting down on one knee and pushing the hips forward as far as you need in order to feel a stretch in the hip flexors. “This promotes poor technique,” he says. “By pushing our hips and leaning forward as much as we can, we actually stretch our quadriceps muscles instead of our hip flexor, and put more stress on our lumbar spine when we arch our back excessively and position our hips in that angle.”
The main thing to remember about the hip flexor, Martinez explains, is that it’s an umbrella term for a group of muscles that’s comprised of the psoas (which is broken into a major and minor division) as well as the iliacus muscles—all of which play a key role in your pelvic and hip stabilization. “It is a multifunctional muscle that’s involved in almost all lower body and core-related movements.” Running, walking, jumping, standing, and sitting (among many, many others) involve your hip flexors in one way or another. “Because of this, they play a significant role in movement patterns and injuries,” says Martinez, pointing to lower back pain, knee pain, and ankle pain as ailments that can be traced back to the hip flexor complex.
You can still get a good hip flexor stretch in a lunge position, but with tweaks in your form. “You can still kneel and be in a lunged position, but the focus is less on extensively pushing your hips forward and arching your back, and more focused on a glute contraction,” says Martinez. “This will cause the pelvis to shift posteriorly in a static position, causing lengthening of the muscles that are located at the front of the hip—aka your hip flexors.” He notes that this position is not only more effective, but safer on your muscles. For a more advanced take on the stretch, which will also hit your quadriceps, Martinez suggests placing your back knee on a pillow and placing your back foot on an elevated platform (like a couch). Lean into the stretch and feel your hip flexors unwind.
By the way, this stretch isn’t the only one that people tend to do wrong. Many people continually wreck their plank form. Here’s how one trainer says to do it the right way: