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Unfortunately, whether you train regularly or if you don’t train at all, your hips are likely to become tight and restricted. The hips are designed to move in a wide array of angles, but many of us can’t access a significant amount of that range due, in large part, to our lifestyle and the limited demands we put on our hip joints.
If you’ve ever watched gymnasts, yogis, the performers at Cirque du Soleil, or anyone else capable of advanced contortions of the body, you have an idea what our bodies are capable of. Of course, not all of us are anatomically designed for such feats and we will never have the mobility and strength to bend ourselves into those poses.
But what we can and should do is spend time working on the mobility of our hips to combat a sedentary lifestyle and to stave off lifelong pain, discomfort and possibly even hip replacements due to chronic misuse. When it comes to the human body, the old adage “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” is irrefutably true.
There are a good number of things I can dive into when it comes to the hips and how we can improve them. Today, I’m going to focus on a common area of affliction for most of us — the IT band.
At some point, somewhere, you may have heard about the IT band. You might not know exactly what it is, where it is, or what it does, but it has no doubt been mentioned when you’ve had pain in your knees. So, let’s dive into the relationship between your IT band and hips, and how you can get yourself moving properly and pain free.
What You Need to Know About Your IT Band
The IT band, or iliotibial tract, is a long piece of connective tissue that travels from the outside of the hip, down the outside of the thigh, and terminates at the outside of the knee and the top of the shin bone. It is flat, wide, and large relative to the other connective tissues in our body. It functions as a hybrid tendon and ligament in that it attaches to the hip bone as well as the gluteus maximus and tensor fascia latae (TFL) muscles in our butt and hips.
The primary function of the IT band is to stabilize the hips and knees as we walk, run, hike, or sprint. They also help to hold together and stabilize the muscles of the upper leg as an anchor for the web of fascia in our quads, hamstrings, and other adjacent muscles. You can think of the fascia like a large sausage casing with the IT band being a particularly tough section of that casing.
When the IT band becomes too tight, it normally shows up as pain in the outside of the knee. The cause of the knee pain tends to be a combination of tightness and/or weakness in the TFL muscle at the front of the hip and/or the gluteus maximus in our butt.
The TFL is a tiny muscle relative to the size of the ligament it’s connected to, but it has a great deal of influence over the tension in your IT bands. The gluteus maximus is quite a bit bigger and helps to balance the TFL. You can think of their contraction and relaxation like the ebb and flow of ocean tides. When one flexes, the other relaxes and vice a versa.
Now that we’ve covered the basic anatomy of this area, let’s talk about what you can do to help keep it injury free.
1. Mobility for the TFL
The first thing I normally do with clients, after an assessment of their strength and range of motion involving their TFL, is to begin loosening the muscle itself. In the video below, I detail how to use a foam roller and a lacrosse ball to create effective change in these tissues.
2. Mobility for the Glute
The second thing we want to do is address the gluteus maximus. Since it’s connected to the posterior edge of the IT band, it can play a role in what we’ve got going on down there. In this video, I review a lacrosse ball technique that can be highly effective.
3. Glute Bridge Strength and Hip Medley Work
Once we’ve addressed the mobility portion of the equation, the next step is to rebalance both the front of our hips and the glutes. An imbalance of strength is common when talking about dysfunction in the IT band.
In the videos below, I’ll walk you through a few supplementary exercises that you can use to strengthen your glutes and your TFL so the hips stay mobile but strong, and well balanced also.
A Little Work on Your IT Band Now Will Pay Off Later
Most coaches like myself see tight IT bands in runners, some cyclists, and hikers — basically, anyone whose chosen sport involves a lot of repetitive one-dimensional movement of the legs. Without the use of dynamic movements that help balance our strength, the muscles of the hips will become accustomed to the limited range of motion necessary to pursue the athlete’s sport of choice.
For non-athletes with this type of pain, it normally stems from a lifestyle that involves a lot of sitting. Sitting has the inherent downside of weakening and compressing the glutes, while also compressing the TFL in a perpetual squat that leads to short and tight hips.
As I am wont to say: mobility and supplementary exercises are as important as getting the oil changed in our car. We can ignore that red light on the dashboard, but after a long enough time, we’re going to need a new engine or a new car. The same applies to our knees and hips. We can ignore the warning signs, but eventually we’ll either have to give up what we love doing or find ourselves consulting with physical therapists and orthopedic surgeons.
I certainly don’t want the burden of an expensive medical procedure and the recovery that entails. For me, I’m going to allow a little time before and after my workouts to ensure I’ve changed the oil and rotated the tires before I hit the highway.