When it comes to running, a key group of muscles help to keep you stable and strong through every step—that is, the hip abductors. These muscles along the outside (or lateral side) of the hip play a big role in supporting your stride and helping you stay pain-free, too.
Learn all about the role the hip abductors play in running, plus the best exercises to do to keep these important muscles ready to take on every mile.
What are the hip abductors and how do they influence my running performance?
“The main hip abductor muscles include the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and tensor fasciae latae or TFL,” explains David Otey, C.S.C.S., strength coach and personal trainer based in New Jersey. “These muscles are responsible for lifting the leg out to the side, away from the midline.”
When it comes to balance and stability—you need to stay stable on one leg as you step through your gait cycle—as well as efficiency, these muscles are crucial.
“Running is a single-leg activity, and every step you take, the hip abductors are responsible for controlling the pelvis and femur [or thigh bone] through mid-stance, where ground reaction forces are the highest,” explains Blake Dircksen, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments Physical Therapy in New York City. Translation: You need your hip abductors stable enough to withstand impact and powerful enough to keep you moving in a forward propulsion, without the hips or knees moving side to side as you go.
If your hip abductors are weak, this leads to excess movement through the pelvis, which is not only inefficient for your stride, but can also cause extra stress and strain on your lower spine and pelvis, and the muscles around that area, Dircksen says. This can up your risk of injury and keep you from clocking faster times.
Research proves the importance of strong hip abductors. Several studies show an association between weak hip abductors and IT band syndrome, a common injury among runners. Meanwhile, strong eccentric strength in the hip abductors can lower risk of patellofemoral pain (or knee pain) in new runners, according to another study published in 2015.
One thing to keep in mind when strengthening your hip abductors (something all runners should do!), is also making sure your hip adductors are also strong. “Imbalances in strength can create extra tension in the neighboring joints, like the foot, ankle, knee, and hip,” explains Otey. Overactive abductors or adductors can pull your alignment out of whack, putting more stress on certain areas of the body and placing your joints in vulnerable positions.
To focus on building up your hip abductors, Dircksen suggests the below exercises.
5 Hip Abductor Exercises for a Stronger Stride
1. Banded Lateral Steps
Place a small mini band around thighs, above knees. Separate the legs with enough space to create tension on the band and slightly bend the knees, holding a shallow squat position. Keeping the toes pointing forward, knees pushing outwards, and tension on the band, step right foot out to the right. Then follow it with the left foot, while keeping tension on the band the whole time. Continue taking 10 steps to the right, then take 10 steps to the left. That’s one set. Repeat for 3 sets.
2. Side Plank
Lie on the floor on your side, left forearm on the floor, elbow bent 90 degrees and placed directly under shoulder. Extend legs out to opposite side of the room and stack hips, knees, and ankles on top of one another. (Separate feet for more support.) Brace core, drive forearm into the floor, and lift hips off the ground, balancing only on the forearm and bottom foot to form a side plank. Body should form a straight line from head to heels. Hold for 30 seconds. Then switch sides.
3. Hip Hikes
Stand on a slightly elevated platform or step, left foot hanging off the side of the step. Keeping both knees straight, drop the left hip down as low as you can without bending standing knee. Then hike it back up. Repeat. Do 10 reps. Then switch sides. If you need more support, hold onto a wall or side of a chair or couch.
4. Kettlebell Unilateral Marching
Stand with feet hip-width apart. Hold kettlebell by handle in left hand down by side, and place right hand on hip or down by side. Slowly march left leg, bending knee and pulling it up toward chest. Place it back down, then repeat on the right leg. Continue alternating for 10 reps. Then hold the kettlebell in right hand and repeat.
5. Curtsy Lunge
Stand with feet hip-width apart. Step left foot back on a diagonal and bend both knees to lower into a lunge position, like you’re doing a curtsy, but keep chest tall. Push through right front foot to stand back up. Repeat, stepping right foot back on a diagonal. Continue alternating. Do 10 reps per side.
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