If your hips hurt more than your abs during core workouts, something's up. And when your hip muscles unintentionally monopolize your effort during an ab exercise, you're likely to suffer hip pain or soreness. To add insult to injury, your abs, which aren't working as hard, miss out on the benefits.
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Here, Emily McLaughlin, in-house certified fitness trainer and nutrition expert at 8fit, troubleshoots reasons why your hips might be achy during ab day. Plus, she shares strategies to hush those hyperactive hip flexors and fire up your core for the best ab burn.
1. Your Hips Are Overcompensating
Ab-focused exercises like sit-ups, Pilates roll-ups, knee tucks or leg lifts decrease the distance between your upper and lower body. When your abs aren't strong enough to bridge this distance, i.e., move your trunk closer to your thighs, you often rely on your hips to do the work, McLaughlin says.
Strong, powerful muscles, the hip flexors kick into gear and take over the movement, compensating for weak ab muscles . "That's why it's so important to fully focus on the abdominals when performing core exercises," McLaughlin says.
Fix it: To halt your hips from hijacking your ab routine, do some prep work beforehand. Activation exercises like bird dog, forearm planks and pelvic tilts can help you fire up your core and turn on the muscles in your tummy, McLaughlin says.
Move 1: Bird Dog
- In tabletop position, keep your hands directly underneath your shoulders and your knees no wider than your hips.
- On an exhale, reach your right arm straight out in front of you. At the same time, kick your left leg straight back.
- Switch sides, reaching your left arm out in front and kicking your right leg back.
Move 2: Forearm Plank
- Get down on all fours on the floor and put your elbows and forearms on a comfortable surface (like a mat, towel or carpeted floor).
- Extend your legs back behind you and push up into a plank, creating a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles. Keep you neck in neutral alignment by looking at your hands.
- Hold this position without moving. Keep your hips level and squared to the ground and don't let your lower back arch.
Move 3: Pelvic Tilt
- Lie on your back and come into a low bridge with the glutes and lower back off the floor (your upper back remains on the floor) with feet hip-width apart.
- Slowly tilt your pelvis so that your tailbone tilts up to the ceiling without allowing the lower back to come down to the floor.
- Return to a neutral pelvis and repeat.
This way, your abs will already be primed to perform at their peak potential. And the stronger your midsection becomes, the less you'll need your hips to handle the workload.
2. You're Not Engaging Your Abs
Some days, you simply go through the motions or rush through our workouts mindlessly just to cross it off the agenda. The problem is that when you don't concentrate on your core during ab exercises, you won't reap the results. That's why you can crank out 500 crunches and barely feel a thing.
Since your hip muscles are hefty, they're happy to bear the brunt of work when your focus isn't on your abs. Not only will this lead to a crappy core workout, but tight hips, too.
Fix it: "Instead of letting the mind wander thinking about to-do lists or your child making noise in the next room, stay present and connected with your physical body," McLaughlin says. Setting your mind on your working muscles will active them more.
In fact, just thinking about moving a muscle can strengthen it even when you're not exercising, according to the American Council on Fitness (ACE). And a small study in the March 2016 issue of European Journal of Applied Physiology found that bench pressers who practiced the mind-muscle connection increased muscle activity in their pecs and triceps.
"During ab exercises, really think about your abs," McLaughlin says. "Engage by drawing the navel in toward the spine, keeping the lower back grounded down and lifting your shoulders off the ground using your belly, not the hips."
To enhance the mind-muscle connection even more, slow down your movements. The longer you spend at peak contraction, the more time you have to focus on and strengthen your muscles, per ACE, which also recommends keeping your eyes closed during strength training when practical and possible. Not only does this decrease outside distractions but it also encourages you to dive deeper into your mental focus.
3. Your Hip Flexors Are Weak
If your hips ache more than your abs during core workouts, weak hip flexors might be to blame. Frail flexors and tight hips are often a symptom of a sedentary lifestyle.
"Because we aren't using the hips to lift our legs and move around throughout the day, they progressively become weaker and shorter," McLaughlin says. "Tight flexors can also be a side effect of workouts like long-distance running and cycling."
This weakness can cause a muscle imbalance, affect your range of motion and alter your alignment, which is why you might feel pain or discomfort in your hips during ab exercises.
Fix it: For starters, get out of your chair. The more you move, the better off your hips will be. "Simply getting up for a walk every 30 to 60 minutes is a great way to keep the hips and glutes activated," McLaughlin says.
Regular stretching can also combat tightness and improve range of motion. The most effective hip-opening stretches and mobility exercises work the hips in all three planes of movement, according to ACE.
But stretching is only part of the puzzle. You should also incorporate strength training, McLaughlin says. By strengthening the surrounding muscles like your quads, hamstrings and glutes, you support the entire hip joint. Start with simple exercises like glute bridges, squats and clamshells.
Move 1: Glute Bridge
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet planted on the floor about a foot or so from your butt.
- Driving through your heels, lift your butt off the floor using strength from your glutes. Lift as high as you can while maintaining a neutral spine (don't arch your lower back).
- Lower down in the same fashion and repeat.
Move 2: Squat
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Turn your feet to point out to the side just slightly.
- Hinge at your hips and bend your knees (as if you were going to sit in a chair) while keeping your chest up.
- Either raise your arms out in front of you at shoulder height for balance or bring your hands up to your chest.
- Once you've lowered as far as your hip flexibility will allow, squeeze your glutes and stand back up.
Move 3: Clamshell
- Lie on your side with knees bent and one leg directly on top of the other.
- Slowly lift the upper knee while keeping the feet in contact with each other.
- Slowly lower the upper leg back down.
- Turn to other side to address the opposite leg.
As you gradually strengthen your hips and build a wider range of motion, you should feel less pain in the area during ab exercises.
But "if it's still hard to execute an ab-focused movement without your hip muscles, then that exercise might be too difficult for you in that moment," says McLaughlin. Instead, she recommends sticking to "ab exercises performed on the hands or forearms — like planks — which cause less strain to the hips because they don't contract that space."