The hip hinge is a key basic athletic movement that must be mastered to perform many strength training exercises in the weight-room. Squat, deadlift, push press, and Olympic lift variations are all highly reliant on this fundamental ability, plus, a rock-solid hip hinge has numerous benefits to whatever sport you play. The hip hinge is the basis of the fundamental athletic position. Building strength and endurance of the back, glute, hamstring, quad, and calf muscles involved in hip hinging will make you powerful in many elements of your game.
What is the hip hinge?
The hip hinge is the movement of pushing the hips back, maintaining a neutral spine and no more than a slight bend of the knees, balancing bodyweight between forefoot and heel. This is the power position and is a part of almost every sport–NFL combine athletes hit this position when testing their vertical jump, baseball players prepare for a ground ball in this position, sports like football, basketball, lacrosse, and soccer play defense from this position, volleyball players bump from a hip hinge, tennis players serve return from the hinge, Olympic lifters hang clean from this position, and finally, this is the deadlift position. The hip hinge is the point of optimal strength of the main muscles of the lower body: calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.
The Importance of the Hip Hinge
The hip hinge is as close to a universal position for sport performance as we’ll get. Training hip hinge exercises also helps build great muscular strength and balance in the lower body. This is important for athletes who use the hip hinge in their sport, and even more important for athletes who don’t. Why? Athletes like rowers, cyclists, and long-distance runners, tend to end up with dominant quadriceps muscles and weak glutes and hamstring muscles. Over time, this imbalance results in a wrenching effect as the muscles on the front of the body over-power the muscles on the back of the body. A common result of this is chronically tight hip flexors and anterior pelvic tilt, which often leads to back pain, and time missed from sport due to pain and injury. Snapping Hip Syndrome is also a possible result. Strengthening the hip hinging muscles of the posterior chain can restore balance to the lower body and help prevent these injuries from occurring, therefore making them an important part of your training for any sport.
READ: Snapping Hip Syndrome
READ: Low Back Pain in Rowers (Joe Deleo)
Teaching the Hip Hinge
Some athletes will pick up the hip hinge intuitively. Others, particularly those with a limited athletic background or pre-existing weakness or mobility restrictions, will need more work. I have found a variety of cues to be effective, depending on the needs and background of the athlete.
#1. I’ll get the dumbest one out of the way first. The drinking bird toy is a great visualization of a hip hinge. It’s not a perfect example, but this can help athletes get the idea of what we’re looking for, particularly those struggling with going into a squat or being too back-dominant with the hinge. Key points that the bird helps emphasize is neutral spine and movement not coming from the knees as in a squat.
#2. Have the athlete stand a few inches away from a wall or power rack, instruct them to have a slight bend in the knees and then push their butt back until it touches the wall. At first, many athletes will attempt to squat down or bend their back down. Cue them to maintain no more than a slight bend in the knees and keep a neutral spine, THEN reach the butt back.
#3. Have the athlete hold a PVC pipe so that they have three points of contact: head, between the shoulder blades, and top of the butt. Instruct them to perform the same motion–knees slightly bent, push the hips back, while maintaining all three points of contact.
See the video below for a demonstration of #2 and #3
Training the Hip Hinge
The hip hinge is one of strength coach Dan John’s five basic categories of movement. There are dozens of ways to train the hinge based on the demands of your sport, your personal goals and preferences, and your strength levels. The playlist of videos below contains some examples to get you started.
The hinge should be trained with a combination of heavier movements for strength and explosiveness and lighter movements for muscular development. Below is an example of a good training session for the hinge movement and muscles.
- A. Lower Body Warmup
- B. Deadlift: 5 sets of 3
- C. Romanian Deadlift: 4 sets of 8
- D. Kettlebell Swing: 4 sets of 12
Troubleshooting the Hip Hinge
A poor hip hinge can manifest in a number of ways. The most obvious is in a deadlift, the athlete will lift almost entirely with their back. Here’s an athlete doing a terrible deadlift with almost no hip hinge action, using zero leg or glute drive and all back. I’m not just picking on some poor guy–that athlete is me! I would just “grip and rip” without regard to the hinge technique and lacking enough strength in my lower body hinge muscles to deadlift correctly.
It is very common for athletes to have tight hip flexors, weak glute muscles, and poor motor pattern for the hinge. In my case, I had to re-learn how to deadlift correctly while building my lower body muscles up and working on my tight hip flexors so I could demonstrate that technique at heavier weights.
First, make sure that athletes know what a hip hinge is and how to correctly perform it. Education should always be checkpoint #1. Some athletes can fix a bad hip hinge with some good coaching and a couple weeks of reps to build a new, correct motor pattern.
Some athletes need to be forced to use less weight. As a strength coach for the “no pain, no gain” sport of rowing, I’m regularly reminding athletes to use less weight so as to not sacrifice correct technique. Making athletes aware of how proper technique benefits their sport is also a big help here. Deadlifts performed as in my bad example above will not build power in the rowing stroke and will solidify a habit of shooting the slide.
If the athlete continues to struggle, or is unable to attain the technique for even a single repetition, there may be a mobility restriction or muscular weakness preventing them from doing so. Check for tight hip flexors, weak quadriceps muscles, and weak glutes. These are the most common three in my experience, but there are other muscles and factors that can contribute as well. Do not be afraid to refer a struggling athlete to an athletic trainer, physical therapist, or physiotherapist for diagnosis of these finer issues.