Hip abductions generally work the very small muscles on the outside of your hip and at the top of your thigh. However, small doesn't mean unimportant, as strengthening these muscles -- the gluteus medius and minimus and the tensor faciae -- means you’ll be steadier on your feet and in a better position to avoid hip and lower back problems as you get older. Some also strengthen the gluteus maximus, the large muscle of your buttocks involved in everyday activities like walking and running. As with many forms of exercise, visual results can be impressive, but the physical benefits of engaging your hip flexors and strengthening your glutes will be worth their weight in gold.
Take It Lying Down
If you're new to exercise, a simple lying hip abduction is a good place to start. Lie on your side on the floor or an exercise mat with your bottom leg bent at the knee and the top leg straight. Your head, back and pelvis should be aligned, and make sure to keep your hips stacked, not allowing the top hip to roll back. Now simply raise your top leg as high as is comfortable. Three sets of eight to 10 reps is a good number to start with, but if you feel comfortable with more reps, go with a number that works for you. For a little added resistance, try resting a small dumbbell or weighted bar on your upper thigh. Take things steady and slow, making sure to press rather than thrust your leg up and controlling the return.
For something much more challenging, you can advance to a side bridge. Lie on your side, resting on your forearm with your other hand resting on your hip. Lift your hips off the floor into a plank position as you press your top leg up as with a lying abduction. Keep your back as straight as possible and try not to swing your hips. Control and form are the key to this exercise. Try for three sets of eight to 10 reps. For more resistance, add some ankle weights. You can also perform this exercise standing at an angle, using a secure surface or bar to support yourself.
For a standing workout that allows you to vary the weight, try the cable machine. Stand sideways to the low pulley and attach the ankle strap to your outside leg. Start with the outside leg crossed slightly in front of your standing leg and then bring your leg out to your side against the resistance as far as you can without tilting your torso. A ballet bar helps with your balance and both your hip abductors and your glutes will feel the burn in a relatively short space of time. Contracting your abs will keep you from arching you back. Try for three sets of eight to 10 reps.
Stretching It Out
End with stretching for greater flexibility and range of motion. For a lying cross-over stretch, lie on your back with your legs straight and your arms on the floor, extended slightly out from your body. Cross one extended leg over the other, trying to touch the floor with your foot. Hold the position for a count of five or 10 seconds. Repeat with the opposite leg. The pretzel stretch stretches several muscles including your glutes. Sit on the floor with one leg extended. Bend the knee of the opposite leg and cross it over the extended leg so that your foot rests outside the knee of the extended leg. Twist your torso so that you can place the opposite elbow on the outside of your bent knee. Hold this stretch for five to 10 seconds and repeat on the other side.