Every fitness magazine and exercise trainer seems to devise new moves to target the gluteals, promising firmer, more sculpted buttocks. As a result, we’re doing more squats, plies, lunges, hiking and cycling than ever before, and looking better in our shorts because of it. But keep in mind that--although there’s nothing wrong with working out to get a strong, tight tush--it’s also important to stretch the hip muscles.
A key muscle to keep limber as well as strong is the piriformis muscle. If you’re like most people, you have no idea where the piriformis muscle is nor what it does. Unfortunately, it is mostly known for the problems it creates when it is too tight and overworked. They include sciatica and knee or lower back pain.
The piriformis is part of a group of muscles called the hip rotators. These muscles are in the back of the hips about six to eight inches below the waist. They are mainly responsible for turning the legs outward so the toes can point away from the center of the body. Strong hip rotators keep the thigh bones and knee joints properly aligned over the feet for activities such as cycling and running, and they protect the knees from twisting or buckling during athletic moves, such as side lunging or deep squats.
We need to keep these muscles in balance because overusing and under-stretching them can create compression of the nerves, giving you a nagging pain deep in the buttocks or a dull ache and heaviness in your legs. One of the easiest ways to make sure your hips stay flexible is to get out of your chair more often and to sit cross-legged on the floor whenever you can. This allows the hip joints to open up and gives the muscles and ligaments around the hip joint a chance to lengthen out.
The following stretches are a simple way to loosen your hips. If you are extremely tight, these positions may be uncomfortable at first. Move in and out of the positions slowly and be gentle while holding each stretch. Stay in each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds and then repeat on the other side. Do two to four sets. By alternating sides, you’ll notice differences in each side of your hips. Be sensitive to each side and don’t expect them to feel the same. It’s a good idea to spend a little more time on your tighter side.
Standing Hip Stretch
Stand in front of a sturdy hip-height table or bar. Keep your weight over your left leg as you bend your right knee in front of you, placing it on top of the table.
Adjust your bent leg so that your right foot is directly in front of your left shoulder and your right knee is in front of your right shoulder. Your right leg should be bent at a 90-degree angle.
Put your hands on the table for support and balance. Lift your chest and hold your back straight. Inhale to begin.
On an exhale, gently bend forward at the hips, keeping your bottom leg straight. Feel a deep stretch in the muscles of your right hip. Do not allow your right hip and knee to rise toward your chest. Keep both hips level.
If the stretch is too intense, ease up and don’t lean so far forward. If you don’t feel any stretch, bend forward a little more. Just make sure that you are not “rounding” at the waist, but rather “hinging” at the hips.
Breathe deeply while you stay in this stretch. Focus on relaxing and softening the muscles in your right buttock. Repeat on the other side.
Seated Hip Stretch
Sit on the front edge of a sturdy bench. Keep your left foot flat on the floor directly underneath your knee. Place your right ankle on your left thigh just above your knee. Keep your right foot flexed. Your right leg should be bent at a 90-degree angle.
Place your hands behind your hips and lift your chest to maintain a straight back. Inhale to begin.
On an exhale, bend forward at the hips. Do not allow your right hip to rise off the bench. Keep your hips and shoulders level as you continue to slowly bend forward. Breathe deeply as you stay in this stretch. Focus on relaxing and softening your right buttock. Repeat on the other side.
Gently stretching your hip muscles after your workouts will help you develop well-balanced muscles that enhance rather than restrict your range of motion. So next time you do a set of squats, don’t forget to stretch those muscles out.
Joan Voight, a San Francisco-based journalist, contributed to this column. Karen Voight is a Los Angeles-based fitness expert whose latest videos are “Yoga- Sculpt” and “Abdominals and Back.” She can be reached at email@example.com. Her column appears the second Monday of the month.