8 Surprising Reasons Your Hips Are So Damn Tight—And What To Do About It

Photo: Getty Images/ Artrotozwork
Sometimes after a super long day of work, my hip flexors protest when I try to get out of my seat—they need a few extra seconds before releasing enough to actually let me stand up straight. Even when I think I’ve done everything right (meaning, I actually stretched a little after my last workout), they still don’t want to let go. What gives?

It turns out, tight hips are one of the most common complaints physical therapists get. “The ligaments stiffen up and don't allow for much movement, and then that leads to the muscles and cascades from there,” says Stephen Herbener, DPT, a physical therapist with the Cleveland Clinic, explaining what happens in the joint when it feels “tight.”

Experts In This Article

When those muscle fibers in the hips don’t have enough length to contract adequately, they aren’t able to function properly, adds Haley Harrison, DPT, OCS, CSCS, physical therapist and owner of Empower Physical Therapy and Performance in Massachusetts. This can make it uncomfortable to stand or walk or even sit in certain positions.

But what are we all doing that’s making our hips so tight? With many possible culprits, figuring out what’s behind your own tight hips can feel a little like solving a whodunnit—and the answers can sometimes be surprising.

If you’ve been doing your hip mobility exercises regularly but your hips still feel locked up, here are some causes you might want to look into.

1. Too much time spent seated

Dr. Harrison says it’s not at all unusual for people—like me—to find their hip flexors in the front of the pelvis get creaky at the end of a work day. When our hip joints are in a bent position for hours, these muscles shorten up.

“A lack of movement just really, really puts you at more risk for those tight hips,” Dr. Herbener says.

How to treat and prevent it:

If your hips are tight from sitting, you’ll want to work some stretches into your daily routine. In particular, Dr. Harrison recommends a standing or kneeling quad stretch. She also recommends the couch stretch, in which you get into a half-kneeling position with the back foot propped up against a couch or chair. Whichever move you prefer, just be sure to hold it for 30 to 60 seconds at a time to allow the muscle tissue to lengthen.

Also be sure to get up and moving regularly.

“I always encourage folks with desk jobs to explore the idea of a standing desk, or a desk that adjusts up and down,” Dr. Harrison says. “Or simply set a timer because it's so easy to get into the groove of working and all of a sudden three hours have passed by and we haven't stood once.”

Dr. Herbener adds that if you need to be in a chair, choose one that’s higher off the ground to keep your hips in a more lengthened position rather than a seat that has you scrunched up.

“If you're lower to the floor, that means that you're bending your hips more,” he says. “I generally tell folks to stay in a more 90-degree position at the hips, if not a little bit higher than 90 degrees.”

2. A predisposition to tight muscles

Depending on your collagen type, you might simply be prone to having tight muscles, including in the hips.

“Some people just tend to have less range of motion through the hip joint and need to do a little bit more maintenance,” Dr. Harrison says.

How to treat and prevent it:

If you know your muscles are prone to stiffening up, Dr. Harrison recommends proactively doing mobility drills before your workouts to keep your body looser: “Things like bodyweight squats in which you're moving through the full ranges of motion,” she says.

Then, after your workout, dedicate some time during your cooldown to prolonged stretching (holding positions for 30 to 60 seconds) to really lengthen the tissues. (Try these designated stretches for tight hips!)

3. A limiting hip socket

If you try to lift your leg as high as you can in yoga class, but find it’s nowhere near where your neighbor’s is, the shape of your hip socket could be the culprit.

“A lot of folks have sockets that are constructed differently, so they're not going to have that range of motion that others may have because the socket wraps around the joint a little bit more,” Dr. Herbener says. “They're just born with tighter hips anatomically.”

How to treat and prevent it:

If you’ve got this kind of hip socket, a professional ballet career may not be in the cards for you. But you can work closely with a physical therapist to keep the impingement from causing you pain.

“The right kind of movement is super important,” Dr. Herbener says. “We work on a whole lot of strengthening and just keeping that nice and loose joint.”

4. A tilted posture

“Certain pelvic positions are going to shorten the front of the hip a little bit more,” Dr. Harrison says. In particular, if your pelvis naturally tilts forward when you stand, you’re more likely to wind up with tight hip flexors.

How to treat and prevent it:

For a tilted pelvis, you’ll want to find length in the hip flexors through moves like quad stretches and kneeling lunges. You’ll also need to work extra hard to maintain that length through core and glute strengthening to help keep your hips in a more neutral position.

“If you're lengthening one side of a joint, you want to strengthen the opposite side to help maintain mobility,” Dr. Harrison says.

“A lack of movement just really, really puts you at more risk for those tight hips.” —Stephen Herbener, DPT

5. An uneven pelvis

Believe it or not, most of us have legs that are two different lengths. And sometimes, that can put the pelvis in a more vulnerable position, which makes the hip muscles tighten up in response.

How to treat and prevent it:

If a leg length discrepancy isn’t causing you any problems, there’s no need to worry about it. But if it’s messing with your hips, Dr. Herbener says a physical therapist can assess you to offer specific exercises that can help level out the pelvis to keep your hips in a straighter position. A PT can also offer practical tips to offset the strain of walking and standing at an angle.

“They can alter the seated position [so you] sit on a little bit of an angle to readjust the pelvis into a more neutral position and just avoid any tightening that way,” he says.

6. Weak core muscles

When our core isn’t up to snuff, we’re more likely to slouch, which strains our hip flexors. “A weak core and tight hip flexors go hand in hand,” Dr. Herbener says. This can also lead to low back pain.

How to treat and prevent it:

The prescription in this case is a regular dose of core strengthening exercises. Whether you prefer bird dogs or planks, make them an ongoing part of your routine.

Dr. Herbener also recommends looking at the ergonomics of your work setup if you’re required to sit for your job.

“[The key] will be core strengthening, but also translating that to all-day activities, making sure that [people are] sitting upright in the most advantageous position for them,” he says.

7. Neural tension in the back of the hips

It’s not always the front of your hips that’s the problem. If you’re experiencing tightness in the back of the hips, and you keep stretching your hamstrings over and over to loosen it up but aren’t seeing any success, you could be experiencing what’s called neural tension.

“The nerve is actually the culprit and [it] needs to be mobilized,” Dr. Harrison says. This happens when the nerve doesn’t slide within your tissues the way it’s supposed to and is getting stretched instead.

How to treat and prevent it:

If you suspect a nerve might be causing your tight hips, see a physical therapist who can tease out where exactly your pain is coming from. Treatment might involve massage, joint mobilization, movements that encourage the nerve to glide better, or mobility exercises.

8. Stored trauma

When we experience a threat of any kind, our nervous system goes into fight-or-flight mode—and that affects us physically.

“It pumps cortisol through the body and prepares your muscles to go into action to protect you—particularly the psoas in preparation for either kicking or running with your legs,” says licensed clinical psychologist Arielle Schwartz, PhD.

Because most of us never actually have to physically fight or flee to protect ourselves, the tension never gets released, and our hips (where the psoas runs through) can end up suffering months and years later because of it. (FYI: There's *so* much more to learn about why we hold trauma in our hips.)

How to treat and prevent it:

The best way to let go of this kind of tension is to get moving. That could be through swimming, cycling, hiking—whatever brings motion back to the area.

There are also more targeted somatic release techniques and hip-opening postures like pigeon pose, though Dr. Schwartz, a yoga teacher who has been practicing somatic psychology for three decades, warns that you need to pace yourself.

“It can feel overwhelming,” she says. “In somatic psychology, we talk about something called titration, which is moving towards that vulnerability small bits at a time, allowing you to integrate and digest just that one bit.”

Throughout any exercise, she recommends deep, diaphragmatic breathing to communicate to your body that it’s safe to let go.

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