The teams of muscles that support and move your hips are awesome. Even if you’re not an anatomy geek, they are worth getting to know. You have the flexors in the front (with the iliopsoas as the team leader) which bring your leg forward to take a step. Their counterpart is the extensors in the back – gluteus maximus and hamstrings – the push-off muscles for running. We also have teams that rotate the hip joint – external rotators (piriformis being the midget but strong team leader here) and the internal rotators, which I’ll talk about below. Another team is the adductors on the inner thighs, a group of five that stabilize the inner thighs, pulling toward the midline.
My favorite group is the abductor-medial rotators, a team of three multi-taskers on the outer hips. This group does both abduction (pulling the leg to the side) and medial rotation (turning the leg in toward the midline). Its role for stability is often ignored. Yoga students usually want to “open the hips” and I can understand that, but it’s easy to get fixated on flexibility and ignore our need for strength and stability. In that sense, we can do well to consider practicing some techniques from fitness trainers and physical therapists.
Here are the three muscles: gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and tensor fascia lata.
Because of their attachment on the bones above and below, these muscles have a variety of actions, depending on what part of the body is stable. If you put all your weight on one leg, the abductors will move the other leg to the side, and potentially also rotate it a bit. They’ll also be stabilizing your standing leg! Because the gluteus medius has such a wide attachment on the pelvic crest, it can either rotate the thigh externally or internally, as well as abduct it…the multi-tasker.
But if you have your weight on both feet, as in Tadasana or Uttanasana or Utkatasana, the abductors isometrically pull the upper thighs apart without affecting the lower legs, which adds to your stability and prevents compression in the hip joints and the sacro-iliac joint. I think it’s particularly good action in Utkatasana, the pose shown above.
You might say: I don’t want to strengthen my outer hips because they’re often achy and tired! Often when the outer hips are achy, it’s because the muscles are reacting to something we’re doing or not doing on a daily basis that causes all the teams to operate in a disorganized way. Perhaps we stand on one leg without realizing it, or we have some other slight imbalance or asymmetry that’s under the radar of ordinary awareness. Gradually over time, some muscles get a lot of stimulus and others not so much. This can be reinforced in our yoga practice or athletic activity like running, once the habits are established.
Here are some examples of good additions to your daily practice that highlight these abductor-rotator muscles, both for strength and stretch. First you can isolate them, and then focus on how they play a part in your favorite asanas. Practice these on both sides, of course.
1. Side leg lift from all fours: From hands and knees position, lift one leg to the side, at first with the knee bent, and then straighten the leg to the side, as in a slow karate kick with the heel raised slightly. This works the abductor-medial rotator team. Do 10 slow kicks on each side, and increase the number as you get stronger.
2. Side plank pose (Vasishtasana): In this pose, side body strength is emphasized, and the abductor team lifts up the hips. It’s a really good core strengthener. There are many good variations of this pose, and here are a few. Hold them for as long as you can, with your supporting shoulder pulled firmly back.
3. Outer hip and thigh stretch: A variation of Supta Padangusthasana, this crosses one leg over the midline, highlighting the outer hip and thigh. Keep your leg muscles strongly contracting as you hold the pose.
4. Another outer hip stretch, this time with bent knees. Be sure to keep the shoulders and pelvis flat on the floor, and adjust your distance from the wall as needed.
I hope this has peaked your interest in your hip muscles! You can appreciate the contribution of these multi-taskers in all standing poses, but especially in any balance pose, such as Vrksasana (Tree Pose), Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) and Ardha Chandrasana (Half-Moon Pose).
For more on the hip muscles, see my new book Anatomy and Yoga: A Guide for Teachers and Students, available online and in bookstores.