yourPhysio anatomy lesson first; your hip flexors are the dominant muscle in the ‘knee to chest’ action. Anatomically known as your; Iliacus, Psoas Major and Minor, and your Quadratus Lumborum, these muscles are attached to your hip, to your lower back and your pelvis. Consequently, when overused or tight they can reconfigure your lumbar spine, throw out your hip and back, affect your sacro-iliac joint, and change your biomechanics thoroughly.
Even though stretching is essential for all muscle work, it can actually be damaging if not done properly. When you stretch without warming up your muscles, it increases your likelihood of injury, as you are trying to stretch a cold muscle. So before you stretch, make sure you warm up; walk in place, cross-train, and increase the blood flow into your muscles so you can prevent an injury. As a physiotherapist, I do commonly advise patients to hold a stretch for 20-30 seconds, but why? The reason is because our muscles have a protective reflex to avoid over extension or contraction. When you are stretching your muscle, the muscle spindles, which are the components that produce contraction, activate a reflexive pathway which causes them to shorten in order to compensate for the stretch (called the myotatic reflex). This is what causes your leg to kick out when you tap your knee.
There are two main types of stretching: dynamic and static. Static stretching is what we just talked about, which is a stretching routine that includes holding 30 second stretches for specific muscles. When using static stretching before a sport that requires you to use specific muscles to initiate specific movements, it is hard to relate static stretches to dynamic activity. This is where dynamic stretching comes in. Dynamic stretching is designed to mimic the actions and movements you are expected to perform during a specific sport. For example, this would include kicking around a soccer ball in warm-up before a soccer game, so your body can get accustomed to activating the required muscles. That way, your muscles can make the necessary preparations to prevent injury, as playing a sport requires many specific dynamic and explosive movements.
For your hip flexors, I teach a ‘dynamic lunge’; such that your hip flexors, quadriceps and pelvic muscles are used within the stretch. If you add Kegel exercises to this movement, the pelvic floor muscles are activated more and a greater effort can be applied to this core stretch. Remember those pre-natal classes guys? A patient was recently surprised to know that guys can do Kegels too! Guys are equipped with those same pelvic floor muscles and ladies should appreciate these efforts, as do the men!
Overall, stretching is very beneficial for movements involved in a regular day, and those involved in heavy labor, repetitive activity and sports. Therefore, it should be a priority for everyone to incorporate some sort of stretching into their daily routine (after warming up of course!), in order to maintain optimal functionality. Flexibility is a highly underappreciated component of muscular strength and function, but key to good performance at work, home and recreation.