Hip to the Bone
Often overlooked, it puts the groove in your move
By Matthew Segal
How Far Will You Go?
*To test the iliotibial band, whose overtightness is epidemic among us bandy-legged beings: Lie down on your back and lift one leg straight up in the air. With a partner holding down that hip, bend your knee to form a 30-degree angle and lower it to the opposite side of your body. If you can't reach your foot to the floor without readjusting your hips, your IT band is too tight.
*To test your hip flexors, including the almighty psoas: Lie on a counter so that your legs can hang off the end. Raise one knee, grasp it with both hands, and slowly bring it as far toward your chest as you can. If the other leg lifts off the table, you're too tight.
*To test your hamstrings: "I expect someone to be able to lie on their back and, keeping one leg flat, bring the other leg straight up without excessive stiffness," says physiologist Emily Miller. "If you can't raise it so your legs form a 90-degree angle, it's going to affect the way your pelvis is sitting and give you low back pain."
As the geography of the body goes, the hip is about as well understood as totem-strewn Easter Island. Most people think of the joint as something that concerns only brittle geriatrics. "To most of us it's this mysterious thing," says Emily Miller, a physiologist who, as head of strength and conditioning at San Francisco's prestigious Stone Clinic, has trained and rehabilitated Olympic freestyle-skiing champion Jonny Moseley and gymnast Kerri Strug. "There's tons of information out there on the knees, the back, the feet, but there's really not that much on the hips." While trouble in these other areas often sidelines athletes of every level, the hip joint itself is so impervious to injury that it's taken for granted.
No one should take for granted the muscles that stabilize the hip, however. Known collectively as the pelvic girdle, 16 muscles cover a huge swath of body between your midtorso and your knees, including, depending on how you define it, the abdominal obliques, spinal erectors, glutes, part of the quadriceps, and most of the hamstrings. When the girdle's opposing muscles don't balance each other out in strength and flexibility--and most athletes' don't--a passel of problems from back spasms to debilitating knee pain can crop up. Even headaches can result from a bunched-up girdle, says Valerie Sinkus, a physical therapist in Whittier, California, who has worked with track greats Mike Powell and Michael Johnson.
What's more, the hips play a key role in nearly every move you make, on any playing field. "I can't think of a single sport that doesn't involve them," comments Miller. They're the lower body's primary pivot point and the central link in the kinetic chain, a domino effect of sorts in which your body sets in motion one group of muscles to goose the muscles at the end of the line. A muscle or tendon that's tight or weak, though, can't relay the action. Others have to compensate, which in turn can make those muscles too tight or weak. As Miller says, "If there's weakness in one area, it's probably due to tightness in another." That's why focusing special attention on stretching and strengthening the muscles of the pelvic girdle is crucial to your game (see "Swing Shift," below).
The biggest problem that can arise is with your iliopsoas (psoas for short), a bear of a muscle that stretches from the fifth vertebra down your core to the tops of the thigh bones, counterbalancing your gluteus maximus. Your primary hip flexor, the psoas enables you to swivel your trunk to smash down hard on a volleyball you're spiking and to drive your knees in a sprint. When you pull your leg up or sit down, the muscle shortens in the same way your biceps do when you curl a weight. Stay at your desk all day every day--or ride a bike all weekend, for that matter--and the psoas grows so accustomed to its shortened state that it wants to stay that way when you stand up, causing your upper body to cant slightly forward and throwing off the way you walk and run while overstretching the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius.
"We all spend way too much time sitting," Sinkus explains. "And then you go out doing the weekend-warrior thing and put demands on the body that you don't make all week long." Think this doesn't describe you? Even if you're an athletic maniac during the week, your pelvic girdle is likely to be no more even-keeled than your accountant's. "Anything that involves the same constant motion is going to cause imbalance," says Miller. "It's all about repetitive motion." With a little bit of effort, however, you can make sure that motion isn't a limp to the sidelines but rather a triumphant high-stepping juke that leaves your crotchety friends in the dust.