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Squats are among the best exercises you can do if you’re hoping to build muscle and increase your strength. It’s a hugely effective compound movement that works pretty much all muscle groups.
However, it’s also one of the most technically challenging exercises and when performed incorrectly can cause significant injury.
Perfecting your squat takes time and one of the more common complaints is that of hip flexor pain during the squat.
These are the group of muscles located to the front of the hip and pain can either occur during the squat movement or by way of a soreness you might encounter shortly after squatting.
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Hip flexor pain when squatting is usually described by many as a deep pinching sensation to the front of your hip and you may experience this pain when you’re at the bottom of a squat.
The primary cause of hip pain when squatting is due to tight hip flexor muscles.
However, there are several other factors as to why you might be experiencing sharp pain to the hips when squatting.
This article considers some of the causes of hip pain and how they can be addressed.
Anatomy of the Hips
Before looking at some of the causes of hip flexor pain, let’s first look at how your hips function during exercise.
The hip joint is a ball and socket joint and allows for a wide range of motion so you can perform daily functions such as walking, climbing the stairs and squatting.
The muscles that surround the hip bones are the anterior hip muscles and the gluteal muscles and it’s the anterior muscles that cause the pain when at the bottom of the squat.
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Anterior hip muscles comprise of the psoas major muscle and the Iliacus muscle and they are more commonly referred to as one distinct muscle; the Iliopsoas muscle.
Both muscles insert into the lesser trochanter of the femur and extend to the lumbar spine. Interestingly, there is a third muscle called the Psoas minor but this is only present in around 50% of people.
The Iliopsoas muscle is responsible for flexion of the thigh at the hip joint and helps to stabilise the lower back.
Causes of Hip Flexor Pain During The Squat Exercise
Here are some potential causes as to why you may be suffering from anterior hip pain when you squat.
Poor Ankle Mobility
When squatting with lack of mobility to the ankles, your body tends to compensate by putting pressure on the hips causing them to shift.
As a result, you may experience hip flexor pain during squats.
Poor ankle mobility can be caused by limited flexibility to the calf muscles.
You can increase ankle mobility during squatting by placing your heels onto an elevated platform such as a weight plate.
This will allow you to drop into a deeper squat without causing an imbalance to the hips.
To improve ankle mobility you can perform daily heel lifts, where you simply raise up on to the balls of your feet and then lower back down for a number of repetitions.
This will also improve flexibility to the calf muscles.
Hip impingement is a pinching pain that occurs when exercising and worsens during squats.
This condition, also known as femoroacetabular impingement (abbreviated to FAI), occurs when the bones that form your hip socket don’t move together as they should.
The hip joint is a complex ball-and-socket joint that’s supported by multiple muscles and reinforced by four ligaments.
In some people, the ball and socket can fail to fit correctly, resulting in friction, stiffness, a popping sensation, and possible pain during squats.
Hip impingement issues tend to be addressed by rest, so avoiding squats all together, and a physical therapy training program.
Tight Hip Muscles
Tight hip flexors is one of the main reasons for hip pain during squats and for the most part is caused by spending large parts of the day sitting.
This shortens the Iliopsoas muscle and causes hip flexor strain.
To keep the hip muscles supple it’s important to undertake regular exercises, even just walking and performing a number of stretching exercises can make a significant difference.
Misaligned hips is when the pelvis tilts forward.
This can result in poor posture and subsequently low back pain as well as hip pain when squatting.
A misalignment of the hips is actually quite common and can be caused by a number of lifestyle factors such as sitting cross legged for long periods, unsupportive footwear and even repeated carrying of heavy loads on one side.
It can also come about through poor core strength and such conditions as scoliosis.
There are some corrective exercises that can be performed to help address the problem, and these aim to strengthen the hip muscles which provide better support to the hip joint.
In some cases seeking help from a medical professional such as a chiropractor may be beneficial.
Poor Core Stability
Poor core stability when squatting can cause hip flexor pain. When squatting, weak core muscles can put excessive strain on the lower back causing it to arch.
Not only does this result in poor squat form this tilts the pelvis forward and may result in hip impingement and hip flexor pain.
Generally, when your hip muscles strain beyond their capability, you may experience micro or major tears, which results in pain.
Hip bursitis is the inflammation of the bursae – small jelly-like sacs inside the hip.
The bursae are positioned between the soft tissue of the hip joint and the bone to help cushion the structures during movement.
Inflamed bursae no longer cushion the tissues near the hip joint. This causes excessive friction and you may experience hip flexor pain while squatting.
Some of the causes of hip bursitis include:
- An injury to the hip joint
- Medical conditions such as gout, scoliosis or rheumatoid arthritis
- Overuse of hips
How to Prevent Hip Flexor Pain During Squats
Here are several ways to help you prevent hip flexor pain during squats:
Optimize Squat Form
Optimizing your form is the first thing you’ll need to do to prevent hip flexor pain while squatting. A properly executed squat will minimise the chance of injury so be sure to focus on squat mechanics.
You’ll need to ensure that you don’t strain one part of the body more than the other while squatting.
Improper weight distribution when squatting puts more pressure on the hips to compensate for the posture and position changes. It can also result in muscle imbalances.
Regular stretching can help to improve mobility and keep the hips muscles supple. As mentioned earlier, tightness in the iliopsoas muscle will result in hip pain.
Usually, you tend to lean forward while squatting if your iliopsoas muscles are tight.
Leaning forward while squatting results in the center of gravity shifting, which activates the muscles at the front of your thigh (quadriceps) and decreases the gluteal muscles.
Your body and joints need to function together to achieve a full squat position.
Limited mobility in the hips, ankles, or knees can prevent you from maintaining a neutral spine during the squat.
An excellent method to improve mobility to the hip joints and ankle joints whilst increasing flexibility to the calf muscles is to perform an Asian squat.
The Asian squat is a deep body weight squat that involves resting the hamstrings on the calf muscles.
Stabilize And Strengthen Your Muscles
Finding ways to stabilize and strengthen your muscles helps prevent hip flexor pain and improve your ability to squat.
Generally, to achieve a basic bodyweight squat, you’ll need multiple muscles, such as back muscles, calves, glutes, abdominal muscles, foot muscles, quadriceps, and hamstrings muscles, to work simultaneously.
When muscles of the entire body are strong, they contribute to your stability during squats.
Exercises such as bridges, hip thrusts and side-lying leg lifts can help stabilize and strengthen your hip muscles and improve hip mobility.
Create Time For Rest And Recovery
Recovery time post training is essential to allow your muscles to grow bigger and stronger.
Depending on the exercises you to do, will influence how much recovery time you need. If you tend to focus on small muscle groups with isolation exercises you won’t need as much downtime than if you were to perform heavy weight compound exercises.
How To Relieve Hip Flexor Pain For Squats
Below we offer some suggested exercises and stretches for helping to alleviate hip flexor tightness and pain.
Hip Flexor Stretch
- Start by positioning yourself on the ground and on one knee.
- Both knees should be bent to 90 degrees.
- From here, slowly stretch forward.
- Hold this position for around 30 seconds and repeat 3 times before switching sides.
Isometric Hip Flexion Stretch
- Begin by lying down on an exercise mat with your knees bent.
- Bring your right knee up and ensure your calf muscle is parallel to the floor.
- Take your right hand and apply pressure to the right knee, pushing against it.
- Hold for several seconds before switching legs.
Dead Bug Exercise
- Lie down on an exercise mat.
- Take your arms up overhead so they are perpendicular to the ground.
- Lift your legs off the ground and keep your hips and knees at a 90 degree angle. This is your start position.
- Lower the left arm behind you and towards the ground, be sure to keep it straight.
- At the same time, straighten out and lower your right leg.
- Once your left arm and right leg are just above the ground pause and return to the starting position.
- Repeat the same movements but with the opposite arm and leg.
Bulgarian Split Squat
When it comes to squat variations, the bulgarian split squat is a great option for attaining a deep squat helping to alleviate tight hips
- Start by standing with your back to a weight bench.
- Take one foot behind you and rest it on the bench, keeping your other foot flat on the ground.
- Keeping your chest up, lower yourself into a deep lunge.
- Don’t allow your knee to go passed your toes.
- Push through the heel of your front and go back to the starting position.
Squatting is an incredibly beneficial exercise and not only will it help you to build muscle and strength across your whole body it has numerous other health benefits such as improving mobility and flexibility.
It’s important to remember that whilst poor form can cause hip pain, a well executed squat can actually improve hip pain.