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Hip Hinge – Part 1: Pattern

By Dr. Matthew Kelly, DC


Have you ever experienced low back pain for what seems like no reason?  While exercising, do deadlifts or kettlebell swings give you back pain? Or do you just avoid those movements all-together because you feel they are unsafe?  If so, you are not alone.  Often times, this mystery cause of back pain, or the issues that occur with certain exercises are due to problems with the hip hinge.  A poor hip hinge is one of the leading cause of low back problems.  A hip hinge pattern can be described as maximizing flexion of the hip (femero-acetabular) joint, while at the same time minimizing flexion of the low back (lumbar spine).  The goal of a hip hinge is to immobilize the spine while mobilizing the hips.  Often what is seen is excessive motion in the low back, and very little motion in the hip joint.  Too much movement in the low back leads to wear and tear of the joints, discs, muscles, and ligaments that make up our low back and hips.

Teaching the Movement
The next step to take is to assess the movement.  It is important to know if you and/or your client are properly executing the hip hinge correctly.  I take the same approach when teaching any of the fundamental movements. (Hinge, Squat, Push, Pull, and Carry):

  1. Pattern
  2. Grind
  3. Symmetry
  4. Ballistic

This is an approach that I learned from the great Dan John, Master RKC and strength coach extraordinaire.  In my opinion, this is both the safest and most effective way to learn these movements.  So, let’s first talk about the hip hinge pattern.

1. PATTERN
I have two drills that I regularly use when patterning the hip hinge, and because I am so creative, they both have very original names.  The two drills are A) The Wall drill, and B) The Stick Drill.

A) The Wall Drill
For this, you simply need access to a wall.  When learning the hip hinge, I think it is very important to do these drills barefoot, this allows you to have better contact with the floor and keeps you in neutral position.

To start, stand back against the wall and place both of your heels against the wall.  Next step your right foot out so it is heel-to-toe with the left, now bring your left foot out so it is even with the right.  Once you have found the appropriate distance away from the wall, you will want to find a comfortable stance, feet should be about hip width apart or a little wider.  Your toes should be pointing outwards slightly (100-200), not straight ahead.

Now that you have found the appropriate stance, keep your back neutral and begin to push your butt back until it touches the wall.  Almost all the movement to achieve this motion should be taking place at the hip joint, hence the hip hinge.  Practice this a few times, if you feel like you can step away from the wall a little and still touch without rocking back on your heels, take a small (quarter inch) step forward until you find the “sweet spot”, you may have to do this a few times.  The sweet spot would be the perfect distance where you can just tap your butt against the wall, while maintaining your toes on the ground, and without falling back into the wall or losing balance at all.  You should be in complete control of your body throughout the entire movement.

This may feel difficult at first, but the more this movement is practiced the better you will become at it.  The goal is to “rewire” the brains strategy for forward flexion.  The hip hinge allows for proper loading of the hips and low back, and avoids over-loading the low back and decreasing ROM in the hips.

One of the most common mistakes I see with this drill is people want to squat instead of hinge.  In a squat, the knees will come forward and flex much more than in a hinge.  To avoid this think about pushing your butt straight back, rather than letting it go down.

B) The Stick Drill
This is another drill to help practice the pattern of the hip hinge.  For this drill, you will need some sort of stick, a broom stick or PVC pipe both work very well.   Remember to be barefoot for these drills.

You again want to find a nice comfortable stance with your feet hip width or slightly wider, and your toes/feet pointed slightly outwards. You are now going to place the stick along your back making sure it touches the back of your head, your midback, and your sacrum.  Now while making sure the stick maintains all three points of contact throughout the entire movement, begin to slowly push your butt back until you can’t go any further without losing contact of one of the spots.  On your way down, you should primarily feel this as a “stretch” in your hamstrings.  To stand back up, squeeze your glutes and push your hips forward.

If you lose contact with the stick against your glutes, you are bending at the low back too much, and not enough with the hips.  If you lose contact with the stick in the midback, you are over-extending the entire back, but usually the main problem here is the neck.

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CONCLUSION
This is a great place to start for either rehabbing your back, or trying to fix your deadlift.   I recommend at least 5 sets of 10 throughout the day of one or both exercises.  The goal is to change the pattern of flexion in the brain.  These patterning exercises won’t feel like a challenge to the cardiovascular or muscle systems, but they may be frustrating or difficult to perform at first.  They will become easier with more practice.  Once you own the pattern of the movement, it is then possible to progress to the grind, ballistic and asymmetry exercises.

Look for the next blog post, which will cover the movements in the grind, ballistic, and asymmetry categories along with progressions and regressions.

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