For most everyday exercises, your hip and lower back muscles are like silent partners, quietly getting the job done without ever receiving star billing. But if they become stiff and tight, you'll notice quickly — and the possible causes can seem downright paradoxical.
Common causes of tight hip and lower back muscles include injury, too little activity, too much activity and muscular imbalances.
Causes of Tightness
A couple of the most obvious causes for muscle tightness in your hips and lower back are acute injuries — such as muscle strains — or simple soreness from doing more exercise than your body could handle. Odds are that if either of these is the case, you can probably even think back and figure out when the strain happened or soreness started.
Pay attention, though: Not all lower back pain that feels like tight muscles is actually due to muscular dysfunction. MedlinePlus lists a few of the potentially serious injuries that can cause lower back pain and discomfort, including compression fractures, cancer, and ruptured or herniated disks.
If something feels "off" about your back and you can't pin down a likely cause or the symptoms don't ease with appropriate treatment, it's always best to be safe, rather than sorry, and visit a medical professional for diagnosis.
Once you rule out acute injury and soreness, two more common causes of tight hip and lower back muscles are chronic inactivity — which is very common in today's mostly seated, sedentary lifestyles — or, ironically, doing too much activity to the point that you're still and sore.
Consider Muscular Imbalance
You can also end up with tight hip flexors and back muscles from muscular imbalance. Your skeletal muscles generally work in opposing pairs or groups at a given joint: To vastly oversimplify it, think of your muscles as pulleys that make the joint move in various directions. One pulley results in the joint moving forward, while the opposing pulley pulls it back into position — or vice versa.
If one of those pulleys is much stronger than the other, it can cause all sorts of cascading discomfort and imbalance throughout the body. The way your hip flexors and lower back muscles attach to the pelvis makes them particularly prone to this: If your hip flexors are too tight (or too strong) in comparison to their opposing muscles, the glutes, then your lower back muscles are likely to end up tight too — and vice versa, if your lower back muscles are too tight in comparison to your abs.
But frequently, it's the hip flexors where your intervention needs to begin. Why blame them? It's because some popular ab exercises, such as hanging leg raises and full sit-ups, are actually hip flexor workouts in disguise — so it's common to overly develop this muscle, which also tends to shorten when you spend a lot of time sitting down, without realizing what you're doing to yourself.
What You Can Do
If you know your discomfort is from tight muscles, as opposed to an acute injury, you might be able to roll out some of the stiffness with the help of a self-massage tool, such as a basketball or medicine ball, as described by the Cooper Institute.
Staying active is one of the very best things you can do to prevent hip and lower back tightness — as long as the duration and intensity of your activity is appropriate to your current fitness level. If your muscle tightness was due to an injury, your medical care team will guide you in how and when you should return to exercise.
However, if that tightness was due to being immobile, or if it came from overdoing it, the answer is simple — get up and move. Start slow and gradually ramp up your workouts. The idea is to challenge your body to keep going, but not to the point of injury. You can help prevent the return of those tight muscles by building appropriate muscular balance and doing targeted lower back and hip stretches.
Build Muscular Balance
It's good to strengthen all your major muscle groups on a regular basis — in fact, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends it — but if you've developed muscular imbalances in your lower body, adding a few targeted exercises can help.
Some of the exercises that might help restore balance in the face of a lower-body muscular imbalance include:
- Core exercises, such as planks and crunches, to balance out those tight low-back muscles and tight hip flexors.
- Hamstring and glute exercises, such as glute bridges, squats and hamstring curls, to balance out your tight hip flexors.
If you think you're facing a muscular imbalance but aren't sure how many of which exercises to do, now's the perfect time to consult a fitness or medical professional for some hands-on evaluation and advice.
Lower Back and Hip Stretches
What's the opposite of a tight, weak muscle? A strong, flexible muscle — so even as you tackle gentle strengthening exercises, pair them with stretching exercises for those overly tight muscles.
Hold each of these lower back and hip stretches for at least 15 to 30 seconds, and repeat several times on each side. Make sure you're stretching to the point of tension, not pain; these stretches are supposed to feel good, not hurt.
1. Hip Flexor Stretch
This stretch targets the muscles across the front of your hips.
- Stand near a wall, chair or other piece of sturdy equipment you can hold onto for balance if need be.
- Take a large step forward with your right foot and soften both legs so that they bend a bit at the knees.
- Imagine that your pelvis is a bucket of water, and try to tip it back as if you're gently pouring water out the back of your body. This should create a stretch across the front of your left hip.
- Repeat on the other side.
If you don't feel this stretch in the front of your hips, try a different cue: Think of tucking your tailbone underneath you and forward a little bit — just enough to create that stretch.
2. Lower Back Stretch: Plan A
- Lie flat on your back on a yoga mat, a carpeted floor or even in bed. Bend both knees and plant your feet on the mat/floor/bed.
- Gently draw your right knee in toward your chest for a gentle lower-lower back stretch.
- Release that leg, return that foot to the floor, then repeat on the other side.
If you're able to do so comfortably, you can also draw both knees toward your chest at once for a slightly deeper stretch.
3. Lower Back Stretch: Plan B
If you're not comfortable with the other low-back stretch or feel it isn't effective, try this variation using an inflatable exercise ball or stability ball.
- Position the ball between two chairs or against a wall, if necessary, for extra stability.
- Drape yourself across the ball on your stomach.
- Exhale and imagine yourself going limp as you relax into the gentle stretch.
Feel free to make slight adjustments to your position on the ball to encourage the stretch — just make sure not to roll off it.