By David Drinks
Each week here on the Med Gym blog, we've been going through our hip mobility series. However, this week I wanted to take a brief detour from the hip mobility series to dive a little deeper into another important topic related to the hips.
Specifically, I want to talk about a movement pattern that has gone missing in a lot of people. Unfortunately, while many people don’t have access to this movement pattern for one reason or another, it is one of the most crucial movements for you to master.
What is this all-important movement pattern that utilizes the hips? The hip hinge!
Perhaps you’ve heard of the hip hinge before, but if you haven’t heard of it, you need to keep reading.
Even if you have heard of the hip hinge, in my experience working with hundreds of clients in the gym, it is one of the most difficult patterns to master. I hope that this article will help you master the hip hinge and start using it both in the gym and in everyday life.
The hip hinge is a crucial movement to be able to access and utilize because it has the double benefit of protecting both the knees and the low back from all-too-common injuries. Plus, the hip hinge helps you to maximize your movement and strength by utilizing some of the most powerful muscles in the body – your glutes!
We’ll circle back to discuss more on how the hip hinge protects the low back and knees, but first, let’s spend a bit of time making sure that you can master it.
Why Hip Hinge?
The hip hinge is aptly named, as it literally involves hinging your body at the hips. The key here, however, is that the segments above and below the hips must remain locked in place. In other words, movement should ONLY occur at the hips.
If you think of a door hinge, the hinge is the only place at which the hinging is occurring. The door itself, and the wall that the door is attached to, are two rigid objects that the hinge is working off of. If you go to swing a door open and the wall moves or the door bends in half, you’ve got some problems!
The same is true when speaking about the hip hinge. The hinge should only occur at the hips while both the lower and upper body remain locked in place. It is only when your knees or your lumbar spine become the hinge that problems occur.
As a matter of fact, one of the biggest problems I see when someone has chronic low back or knee pain is that they use those joints as their hinge when bending over or squatting down. They’ve lost the ability to hip hinge, and consequently, they are overusing the wrong part of the body.
It’s no wonder that pain occurs! While the low back and the knees are made to bend, they are not supposed to be the primary hinge when you bend over or pick something up. Unfortunately, due to a lack of hip mobility or a lack of movement awareness, people tend to overuse either the low back or the knees.
Often, if someone has knee pain, they avoid bending the knees and wind up overusing the low back and making that their hinge. Vice versa, if someone has low back pain, they try to stay as straight up and down with their back as possible and they overbend their knees to pick something up. Either way, you’re compromising one part of the body to make up for another. Eventually, both will be in pain.
There is a better way, however! Right in the middle of the low back and the knees is one of the most mobile, resilient, and powerful joints in the body – the hips! Learning to hip hinge and move through the hips when bending over or picking something up allows you to engage the hamstrings and glutes (some of the most powerful muscles in the body), as well as saving your low back AND knees.
How to Hip Hinge
Learning how to hip hinge properly is the key. Here’s a video demonstrating how I like to teach the hip hinge from way back in our core series:
As you see in the video above, using a dowel rod or PVC pipe is an easy way for you to get some feedback, even when practicing the hip hinge by yourself. As soon as you lose what I like to call a “neutral spine” position, you’ll feel the dowel rod pop off of one of its three points of contact. If you round the low back, you’ll quickly lose contact with the tailbone. If you arch the back too hard, you’ll lose contact with the upper back.
Therefore, the dowel rod hip hinge is an excellent way to teach yourself or somebody else how to properly hip hinge without hinging at your back.
Avoiding the low back as the hinge during movements that involve bending over is one of the biggest keys to keeping your low back healthy. That’s why it is crucial to learn a proper hip hinge and practice moving as far as possible through your hips so that you don’t compromise the low back.
However, it doesn’t stop once you master only the dowel rod hip hinge. Instead, you need to begin building hip hinging into many other movements in the gym as well as in everyday life!
When it comes to movements that you may do in the gym, the hip hinge shows up in every form of the deadlift, whether that’s a barbell deadlift, a single leg deadlift, or a Romanian deadlift. If you can’t first hip hinge properly, you will never be able to deadlift properly, or effectively.
On top of that, the hip hinge also shows up in many other lower body movements that we regularly perform. Exercises like heel taps off of a step (shown below) can either be knee-dominant or hip dominant. That means that if they are done with a proper hinge at the hip, you’re going to recruit the hip muscles and not just the knee and the muscles of the thigh.
Being able to distinguish between the movement of the knee and the hip, when you move, and learning to use more hip movement when doing exercises like step-ups or tap downs, is one of the biggest keys to taking stress off of the knee. Too often, I see people with knee pain who go through a step up or tap down exercise, and they are using almost exclusively their knee and quad to do the movement.
If you don’t learn to hip hinge, and to use the hip muscles in all of these movements, you end up overusing the knee and developing knee pain.
Sometimes, this knee pain shows up as short-term, acute discomfort, like tendinitis around the knee. However, it also frequently leads to early-onset arthritis in the knees. Either way, when you overuse the knees and fail to use the hips to perform these movements, it will lead to undue stress on the knee joints.
Hip Hinging for the Glutes!
The last point I want to hit on today is how beneficial hip hinging can be for your glutes. If you don’t know, the glutes are basically your butt muscles. As taboo as it may be to talk about butts, your glutes are one of the strongest muscle groups in your body and need to be used!
The glute muscles really should be the primary muscles that extend the legs. That means that they should be the primary muscles involved in anything that involves extending the hips, such as deadlifting, walking, running, climbing stairs, or bending to pick something up.
Many people don’t make full use of the glutes, and thus they are missing out on one of the most powerful muscles in the body. What’s more, they’re also overusing other muscles, like those of the low back or the hamstrings, to make up for the glutes.
So, to start working on engaging the glute muscles and building stronger glutes, think about squeezing them hard when you return to the tall standing position in the hip hinge.
When you bend down into a hip hinge, and your butt goes back, you’re effectively stretching the glute muscles (as well as the hamstrings), which puts them in a prime position to be used to extend the hips forward and stand back up.
So, instead of just thinking about raising your upper body back to the tall standing position, think about squeezing your glutes as hard as you can to drive the hips forward and return to standing that way.
If you practice this glute engagement in the hip hinge, you’ll then be able to start building it into deadlifting variations, as well as into other lower-body movements. This is a great way to strengthen the glutes and stop overusing the back and the hamstrings to perform these movements.
Wrapping it up
As you can see, the hip hinge is one of the most crucial movements that you can build into your movement repertoire. Not only will it spare you low back and knees, but it will also allow you to strengthen your glute muscles.
The hip hinge will literally prevent pain and make you stronger and more efficient at movement, all at the same time!
So, start hip hinging today, and don’t stop!
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