Where you feel pain and discomfort is not always the source of that pain. For example, many knee problems are actually a result of dysfunction at the hips or feet. Looking at joints above and below the location of the issue can often lead you to the true source.
If you have experienced localized, non-traumatic, low back pain or tightness, an inability to activate your hip stabilizers could be the cause.
Why Hip Strength is Linked to Low Back Issues
One of the hip muscles, called the Gluteus Medius, is responsible for keeping our hips level during times of single limb stance. When we walk and run, this muscle is supposed to limit frontal plane hip motion. Whatever leg is on the ground, that side’s Gluteus Medius should be providing hip stability
When this muscle is not functioning properly, compensation patterns start to develop.
There is a muscle in the low back area called the Quadratus Lumborum. One of it's functions is to hike up the hips. If the Glute Med is weak and under-active, the opposite side Quadratus Lumborum can start to compensate. In this example, since the Glutes are not stabilizing the hips well, the QL begins to take on that role. Now the QL is attempting to provide what the Gluteus Medius is better equipped for; dynamic hip stability.
This overactivity of the Quadratus Lumborum can start to become noticeable in the form of pain or tightness in the low back.
How to Detect Hip Weakness
Any deficiency of your Gluteus Medius function will show what is called frontal plane instability. This will be apparent when you are unable to keep the hips level, and knees from caving in, during exercises like a single leg step up.
If you have weak hips, your body will move to a position where more force is put through the joints and other compensatory muscles.
This poor movement pattern can cause problems at the low back and even down into the knees.
How to Strengthen Your Hips
Form and progression are the two most important components of a quality hip strengthening program. Without paying close attention to your form, you will likely revert back to your old compensation patterns.
We are trying to build new, more efficient movement patterns. Therefore moving slow and controlled is our focus during these exercises.
How we progress these exercises is also critical to the effectiveness of the plan. If the demand exceeds your current strength level, you will be unable to keep good form. You need to strengthen your brain's connection the Gluteus Medius first.
Building good activation patterns is the foundation. From there we slowly increase demand on the muscle with a higher load and more integrated movements.
This first exercise is for Glute Med activation. It also works as a great preparatory movement for squats. Remember to take small controlled steps, keeping the Glutes and core engaged.
This next video shows 3 of my "go-to" hip strengtheners that build frontal plane stability.
After working through the exercises shown above, you can start to challenge you hip stability in multiple planes. This single leg 3 point tap is a great drill to work on balance, strength, and control.
There are several other exercises that will strengthen your hips, but this is a cluster I have found to be highly effective. Remember, focusing on form and progression is more important than exercise selection alone.
Give these exercises a try, and let me know how they work for you!