When was the last time you heard someone say they needed to work on strengthening their hips? Rare is the person who thinks about training in this vital area. Instead, they often focus on training the “glamour” muscles like their biceps and pecs.
But the truth is, for most tactical operators, enhancing hip strength and power is a key aspect of improving performance. Strong hips are also required to transfer force effectively from the lower body to the upper body in many sports, including volleyball, basketball, soccer, field hockey, throwing events in track and field, and football.
In addition to playing a main role in performance, hip strength is also important for injury prevention. While tactical athletes may not suffer injuries to their hips as often as their knees or shoulders, just like other joints, the hip joint is susceptible to injury when weak. Working on this overlooked area isn’t difficult, and can be accomplished as part of a well-rounded plan. The key is picking the right exercises and making sure they’re done correctly.
Before discussing hip strengthening techniques and designing the right training programs for developing strong, explosive tactical athletes, it’s important to understand the different movements the hips are capable of, as well as the muscles involved in each movement. The hip is a ball and socket joint, so a large number of movements are possible.
Flexion of the hip occurs when the angle between the thigh and the torso is decreased. The primary hip flexor for flexion is the psoas. The iliacus assists, and the pectineus, adductors longus, brevis, and magnus, and the tensor fasciae latae are also involved in the movement.
Extension occurs when the angle between the thigh and the torso is increased. The gluteus maximus is the main hip extensor in this movement, though the inferior portion of the adductor magnus assists.
Both flexion and extension are important for running. Strength in each area is a critical aspect of tactical performance as well as in sports like football, basketball, baseball, soccer, lacrosse, track and field, and many others. Explosive hip extension is necessary for jumping and landing.
Extension strength is key to movements that can take place during physical combat. And when performing a heavy squat or clean, strong extension of the hip allows the lifter to lower the bar with control.
Hyperextension of the hip occurs when the thigh is moved posteriorly beyond the midline of the body. The gluteus maximus and inferior portion of the magnus are both involved. Sprinting is a great example of an athletic movement that involves hyperextension of the hip. The greater pressure a tactical athlete can apply against the ground, the faster they can propel themselves forward.
Lateral rotation occurs when the anterior portion of the thigh is turned outward. Muscles involved include the externus and internus obtuators, piriformis, superior and inferior gemelli, and quadtatus femoris. Assisting in lateral rotation are the gluteus maximus and the inferior portion of the adductor magnus. To picture lateral rotation of the hip, imagine a “duck walk” where the heels are turned in toward each other and the toes are pointed out, turning the backs of the thighs outward.
Medial rotation occurs when the thigh is turned inward. This rotation is performed by the gluteus medius and minimus and tensor fasciae latae and assisted by the adductors brevis and longus and the superior portion of the adductor magnus.
Hip abduction occurs when the thigh is opened and moved away from the centerline of the body. The gluteus medius and minimus are both involved in this movement. Hip abduction is important in lateral movement.
Hip adduction occurs when the thigh is moved toward the centerline of the body. The adductor brevis, adductor longus, adductor magnus, pectineus, and the gracilis are all involved in adduction. Think of kicking a ball with the side of the foot instead of the toe for an idea of what hip adduction looks like.
The Hip Exercises
I am a strong believer in the specificity of training and selecting exercises that mimic in-game movements as much as possible. I keep three things in mind when designing any training program, including one that involves hip strengthening exercises.
First, because most of the athletes I train are playing their sport in a standing position, we rarely (if ever) train the hips in a seated or prone position. This eliminates most machine exercises and all stability ball exercises from our programs for hip strength. The only exception occurs when an athlete is injured and using a machine is the only viable training option.
I also limit exercises that involve movement at only one joint. Training one joint in isolation does not reflect what occurs during athletic movements. As I tell my athletes, even throwing a dart involves movement at more than one joint. As a result, performing hip flexion and extension movements on a multi-hip machine are not a point of emphasis. Instead, I select exercises that involve multiple muscle groups.
Finally, since my ultimate goal as a strength coach is to help athletes become as powerful as possible, I select exercises that are performed explosively.
Based on these three stipulations, my preferred hip strengthening exercises are the weightlifting movements (cleans, jerks, snatches, and associated variations), performed either with a barbell or a dumbbell. No other human activity develops as much power output as weightlifting movements. These exercises also develop eccentric strength in the hips because, during the catch phase, the athlete has to slow down, control, and stop the barbell on its downward path.
The jump squat is another option that meets all three criteria, especially when training for high power output. As a safety measure, I prefer to have my athletes perform jump squats with dumbbells instead of barbells because it eliminates the opportunity for the barbell to bounce on an athlete’s back.
Squats — back, front, single-leg, and lateral — are all great hip strength developers. Back and front squats are not fancy or new, but they are tried and true exercises that add muscle mass and make athletes stronger. In short, they work.
I usually add single-leg squats to the program later down the road.
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Lunges — front, back, arch, and side — are also great exercises for hip strength. Lunges force athletes into a single-leg support position. I also make sure to include side and arch lunges as well.
These exercises make up the core of any program I design for hip strength. However, because the ultimate goal is to make athletes as powerful as possible, I also incorporate plyometric training to help facilitate the transfer of increases in strength to increases in power.
The primary plyometric drills to use for power development in the hips include box jumps, lateral box jumps, drop jumps to box jumps, and lateral drop jumps to lateral box jumps. In each exercise, emphasis should be placed on getting great speed off the floor and assuming an athletic stance upon landing.
Instead of having them perform plyometrics as a stand-alone activity, I use complex training, which means they move directly from a strength training activity to a plyometric activity. For example, they will do squats followed immediately by a set of box jumps.
I do this for two reasons. First, evidence suggests that complex training may produce superior results when compared to plyometric training alone. Second, we have a small space with a limited number of boxes for use. Complex training allows two athletes to work at each station at once since one athlete is jumping while the other athlete is performing the associated strength/power training movement.