Most speed, power, and combat sports directly involve the hip flexors. Specifically, any time an athlete takes a step to sprint, the knee must drive forward. Football kickers and soccer strikers must generate massive amounts of power to kick the ball a long distance; meanwhile, in wrestling, grappling, and Jiu-Jitsu, the athlete must whip their leg through when taking a shot for formidable takedowns. Generally, strength and length in the hip flexors (lower abdominals) help counter the anterior pelvic tilt that predominates extension patterns found in sport.
On a day-to-day basis, coaches often have limited acute time frames when training their athletes. As a result, important musculature like the hip flexor (iliopsoas) and specific movement patterns can get neglected. Most information on performance musculature recirculates the emphasis on the posterior chain, which is certainly important for projection and acceleration in field and court sports.
But, can you recall the last time you read about or heard another coach talk about the psoas? It’s probably been a while (or maybe the last time you glanced at an old Soviet manual or dealt with an injured back from a physio perspective).
Coaches frequently rely on sprinting and isolated abdominal work to train this muscle group. While this thinking is not without pragmatic reasoning—as the iliopsoas is highly involved in sprinting and engaged any time the trunk is drawn toward the lower limbs (and vice versa)—the hip flexors are poorly isolated given their cooperation with the abdominals. Still, the hip flexors remain underdeveloped in most sprinters and field athletes.1
A Quick Anatomical Lesson
The iliopsoas muscle groups consist of three muscles:
- Psoas major
- Psoas minor
The origin of the iliopsoas group, beginning in the thoracic spine (T12) and inserting in the lower femoral trochanter, reveals a unique geography that simultaneously connects front to back and lower to upper. All of these have a major role in pure hip flexion, as well as tertiary roles of spinal stabilization and externally rotating the femur.2 Knowing this, you can rationalize the polarizing approaches in “training” this muscle group.
Resiliency and Performance
In a “deeper” sense (pun somewhat intended), the psoas is the deepest muscle of the body.
“The psoas major joins the upper body and the lower body, the axial to the appendicular skeleton, the inside to the outside, and the back to the front. Without this muscle, we would not be able to stand upright or lift our legs to walk. This is because it’s the only muscle to connect the spine with the legs.”3We must understand that flexibility of any joint goes further than the ability to passively stretch tissues advocated by experts. Click To Tweet
Given this connection and anatomical location, the psoas functions as a major performance driver as well as a buttress for the lower spine. Yogis, chiros, and physios have focused their attention to this latter aspect, addressing “flexibility” and bracing as the keys to alleviating pain and dysfunction. These well-meaning practitioners seem to exclusively apply passive ROM work, neglecting the highly dynamic nature of ROM in sporting movements. This includes the reflexive nature of movement (governed by the brain) and the intermuscular coordination between agonist/antagonist muscle groups (result of the reflexive response). I will not delve deep into the neuro waters here, but we must understand that flexibility of any joint goes further than the ability to passively stretch tissues advocated by experts.
One such contradiction I’ve found stems from this performance-protection paradox. Dr. Stuart McGill wrote: “Power running events require hip flexion power. Top end speed is limited by the recovery of the leg in flexion, not a lack of hip extension power. Many who train with the power philosophy end up with a bad back via large psoas contractions that place high loads on the spine. Highly repetitive exercise in this regime exacerbates the problem, can be combatted by maintain spine stability via braced & neutral spine.”4
As sound as this advice appears, maintaining stability (bracing) in a high-speed environment is highly reflexive and dependent on optimal co-contractions upon ground strike. I would contend the actions of sprinting are too fast for the brain to stop to think about bracing, especially from a verbal cue—lest we risk moving significantly slower.
In contrast, Bosch states, “In sprinting and running sports the performance open chain pattern is limited by the coordination of the psoas and abdominals in the knee drive action.”1 Here is a quick picture of the action during a sprint:
- At toe off, the psoas powerfully drives the knee forward while stabilizing the lumbar spine (especially in unilateral motion/frontal plane) and rotating the pelvis forward (transverse plane).
- At the same time, the lower abdominals counter the anterior tilt of the pelvic movement (sagittal plane), all within the blink of an eye.
This instantaneous co-contraction to stabilize the pelvis allows the iliopsoas to contract powerfully.1 Any lack of inter/intramuscular coordination will result in a performance bleed. This may be seen with athletes who demonstrate significant backside movement due to a severely anteriorly rotated pelvis in the sagittal plane and/or crossover gait due to poor lumbar stability in the frontal plane.
In my mind, optimal training of the hip flexor group happens unilaterally when the other leg is in stance or working in an extension pattern. My guess is that the grounded leg provides the counter to hip flexion, providing pelvic stability (in all planes) necessary to train dynamic, powerful movements safely by coordinating the extension musculature on the opposite side (both of which are designed to act and be trained powerfully).1In short, coaches need to go beyond stretching and bracing to train the psoas muscle group. Click To Tweet
In short, coaches need to go beyond stretching and bracing to train the psoas muscle group. Combining basic strength training with longer ranges of motion (general) and reflexive (SST) movements will better serve athletes in simultaneously training the psoas for both functions.
General to Specific/Slow to Fast
In light of these factors, I’ll provide the some of the exercises we use in our progression. As in all good practices, we start with more general selection with the foresight of applying more specific drills as improvement in strength and form takes hold. In our general selections, we emphasize balance, posture, position, and range of motion:
- Balance: Workload of limb-to-limb and front-to-back (glute/ extension work).
- Posture: Assuming spinal/pelvic posture necessary for overall stability.
- Position: Ensuring the limbs are in tow with the line of force forms the resistance.
- Range of motion: Working the entire functional range of motion of the working limb.
These aspects fit in a continuum where we want to begin with a posture that allows our limbs to finish in the proper positions to stress the muscles in the fullest range of motion that can be attained. A mouthful for sure, but think of it as beginning and ending a stable posture—nothing should go loose. In order for the athlete to “feel” for pressures all around the body, the coach should have them stop and hold the stretched and contracted ends of the movements.
Here are drills we use for general strength exercises for the hip flexors.
Video 1: Hip flexor exercises designed to build strength and resiliency, which can work in a warm-up, as a timed-circuit, or as a finisher.
1. Psoas Sit-Up
First referred to by Mel Siff and brought to recent prominence by superheavyweight powerlifting great Donnie Thompson. This bilateral variant trains the proximal end of the psoas in conjunction with the spinal flexors. The unanchored, wide stance forces the bulk of the work to be taken by the upper part of the psoas and abdominals from the bottom position. Upon completing the movement at the top, the quadratus lumborum (QL) and psoas act synergistically to stabilize the pelvis and lumbar spine.
2. DUPA Walk
This drill extends the position above but adds an element of gait to the equation. This action exaggerates pelvic movement in all three planes and coordinates shoulder movement. The slow action will allow you to “feel your way” through the pattern and provide a therapeutic effect to the psoas, QL, and abdominals. Raising the arms above the head will increase the demand on the trunk muscles, and both of these drills fit nicely into general trunk training.
Video 2. The kettlebell knee raise, two-way kettlebell knee raise, and supine knee drive to develop psoas strength in multiple planes.
3. Standing Knee Lift
This drill uses a free weight load on the foot fixed with a kettlebell or strapped dumbbell. Execute by standing on one leg and driving the knee to the ceiling above navel level. This will force the non-working leg to act as an anchor to stabilize pelvic movement, which brings it toward the specific end.
4. Supine Knee Drive
Although this can actually qualify as an SST drill, I’ll put this in a general category since it requires a free weight. This drill allows the athlete to learn where the accentuation of force is during upright running. While lying supine on a table or raised surface (3-4 feet above the floor), the working leg begins as close to the 210-degree hip flexion position as realized in max velocity sprinting or mid/long distance running.5,6 The knee is driven toward the sky and movement is terminated when the working foot is even with the hips—the knee does not go above the navel in this exercise.
5. Supine Knee Drive with Hip Extension
This is a progression of the supine knee drive. The setup and execution are identical, except that we add in hip extension as the working knee passes the hips. This strengthens the scissors action (contralateral) realized in sprinting, and both drills are great for bridging the gap from general to specific.
Video 3. Flywheel exercises to substitute for running drills or as part of an eccentric-based GPE circuit.
6. Lying High Knee
This drill is done with a low cable or flywheel device attached to the ankle. The proximal portion of the psoas is accentuated here, as the knee is driven toward the head above the navel. If you use a cable, then slowly lower to the bottom position—for a flywheel, lower at the same pace you raise it (a more forceful pull equals a more forceful lowering).
I list this drill in the general repertoire, but it is a sort of “tweener.” Although the drill is unilateral and utilizes the contralateral pressure of the non-loaded limb, it lacks specificity to the stance position and amplitude (accentuation of force) in running except in the acceleration position. The psoas major is also generally most active when the knee is above the navel when the torso is stable.7
***For both variations, you also turn the knee laterally as you lift it to work the external rotation moment. This will add some dexterity and strength to those nooks and crannies.
For specific exercises (or better termed, SST), the aim is to drive transfer of strength to a skill. The concepts, drills, and application of Specialized Strength Training was developed and perfected by Drs. Michael Yessis, Yuri Verkoshanksy, and Anatoliy Bondarchuk. These brilliant pragmatic minds sought to merge general strength into the competitive movement skills. Their approach led to the development of five criteria that could be met in varying degrees to determine transfer:
- The amplitude/direction of the movement: The ROM and plane of joint action.
- The accentuated region of force production: Joint angle where the muscular effort is most active/preset.
- The muscle groups involved: The muscles (groups) that are drivers of performance.
- The rate and time of maximum force production: How fast do these muscles produce force (RFD) and how long is it maintained?
- The regime of muscular work: Concentric, eccentric, and combined, as well as energy system dependence cyclic versus acyclic.
Not all the criteria need be met; the idea, however, is the more that are, the higher the transfer. The key here is to not wrack your mind with trying to squeeze in everything all the time but do what your resources allow you to do. After all, the use of the weight room and jumping exercises were developed out of necessity when specific/competitive exercises were limited in cold weather climates.
In specific stages, we aim to meet the above criteria in these ways.
- Portion of accentuation of force: In sprinting, this happens at 210 degrees of hip flexion.
- Type of contraction: Concentrically, eccentrically, combined, and progression of movement speed.
- Coordination/Timing: Will happen when combining fast eccentric with concentric and adding reactive elements (slight application of stumble reflex).
Video 4. Specialized strength training (SST) exercises inspired by Yessis, Verkhoshansky, and Bondarchuk for running and striking.
Here are some of the most used drills in our progression playing off versions from the exercise Dr. Yessis developed for.
1. The Yessis Knee Drive
The classic drill advocated by Dr. Yessis uses a cable device or elastic resistance (each will give a different effect). The athlete assumes a standing position facing away from the anchor, beginning with the leg behind the hips before driving the knee forward. Hold the backward and forward positions to “feel” the stretch and contraction of the hip flexors. To build some rhythm of repeated movement, you can also use a flywheel device.
2. Plyometric Knee Drive
The same setup as the classic knee drive, except you begin with the knee forward. From here, the athlete will “punch” their leg back (by flexing the glute) and quickly rebound to the start position and hold. This drill will train the hip flexors explosively. For those with a problematic back, you can load the strap around the thigh instead of the ankle. This drill will also carry over to sports that involve kicking an implement (soccer) or a human being (MMA).
3. The Reactive Knee Drive
I developed this drill as an offshoot and bridge to the combination lunge and knee drive developed by Yessis. The start position will be the same as the plyometric knee drive, except the athlete will play “hot feet” with the floor by quickly striking the ground just behind the hip to set up the non-anchored foot to quickly step slightly forward before returning to start position. This is my attempt at utilizing the “stumble reflex” to intensify the contraction response.
Video 5. Athlete performs speed drills with ankle weights as a pre-sprint warm-up or loading option in a contrast method.
Finally, I’ll add a very simple and maybe overlooked application to train the hip flexors with a larger degree of transference—this just takes loading the shank during classic track warm-up exercises like marching, skipping, bounding, and specialty running. In the video, I use ankle weights, and I believe I remember Håkan Andersson recommending this in a podcast (though the source eludes me at the moment).A very simple and maybe overlooked application to train the hip flexors with a larger degree of transference is to load the shank during classic track warm-up exercises. Click To Tweet
You can also use weighted wearables like the gear from Lila, which—shameless plug—just so happen to available on this website. If you’re a coach who values developing the entire athletic system, then I know you’ll find these drills highly valuable in your quest to developing strength in all the nooks and crannies.8
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1. Bosch, Franz. Strength Training & Coordination: An integrated Approach. 2010. Uitgevers.
2. “Functions of the iliopsoas muscle (preview) – 3D Human Anatomy| KenHub,” Learn Human Anatomy YouTube page. January 9, 2020.
3. Wicks, Rosemarie. “Psoas – the muscle of the soul,” naturalhealthcourses.com. June 27, 2016.
4. McGill, Stuart. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. 5th Edition. Back Fit Pro Inc. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada 2009.
5. Siff, Mel C. and Verkoshansky, Yuri. Supertraining. 6th Edition. SSTM Rome 2009.
6. Yessis, Michael. Explosive Running. Ultimate Athlete Concepts, 2011.
7. McGill, Stuart. “Mark Bell’s Power Project Ep 488.” YouTube. Time stamp 1:26:54–1:34:15.
8. The Kneesovertoesguy. “How to Bulletproof Your Hip Flexors.” YouTube. 1:40 mark.