What we were stretching
We were focusing on the hip flexors. To identify these, you can stand with your heels and back against a wall and then bring one knee up so your hip is at 90 degrees. The hip flexors pull the leg up into this position. Hold the knee up in that position until you feel tiredness in these muscles.
Why we were stretching it
Sitting down for long periods of time (working at a desk, driving, cycling etc.) holds your hip in a closed position and can result in weakness and potentially shortness of these muscles, meaning your hip is less able to access its full range, potentially increasing your risk of injury.
We may also assume closed positions if we’re feeling sad, stressed or vulnerable – it can feel protective to sort of hunch over, and this can be problematic for the same reason, causing shortness in the hips and shoulders. This may be why some Eastern traditions (yoga, tai chi) describe emotion behind held in the hips.
How we stretched it
The rectus femoris is one of the four muscles in the group referred to as the “quad”, on the front of the upper leg. The psoas is a deep muscle running from the thigh bone, through the pelvis, and up to the thoracic spine, roughly at the same level as the bottom of the breastbone. You have two of each – one for each leg.
The first stretch started in a deep lunge. By actively pulling yourself forward using the muscles found on either side of your back, the “lats”, it allows for a deeper stretch. Once you are comfortable you can pull yourself deeper, or move your torso more upright for a deeper hip stretch.
When we were doing the “couch stretches” against the wall, keeping the torso at a low angle and the knee against the wall targeted the rectus femoris. Moving the knee away from the wall a bit and bringing the torso more upright targeted the psoas.
We can stretch in different ways – actively, where we move the muscle through its range at a relatively fast speed (for example, leg swings); passively, where we hold a position where the muscle is lengthened and just hang out there (this is what most people call “stretching”); or we can use contractions of the muscle while in a stretched position to build strength in this position and enable deeper stretching when we relax afterwards.
To do contract / relax stretching, you can either do periods of tensing the muscle as hard as you can for 5 seconds and then relaxing into a deeper stretch for 10-30 seconds, repeating that a few times, or you can undulate between completely relaxed and completely tense, changing tension in waves rather than shifting state from one to another suddenly. The cues we used for contractions in the couch stretch were pushing the foot backwards into the wall and dragging the knee forward on the floor.
Working with a partner
A partner is really useful for letting you know if you’re doing the stretch correctly. Things that a partner should look for when stretching hip flexors are that your hips are “square” (not tilted to one side), your back leg glute is tensed, there is no kink in your hip, and that your chest is up and that your lower back is not arched. If you don’t have a partner, a mirror is handy.
They can also help you access deeper positions but you must have good communication and trust with your partner to prevent going too far in the stretch and causing injury. For the couch stretch, the partner should sit where your bum meets your hamstring. For contract / relax cycles, the partner can resist your knee or ankle to help you target how you’re contracting.
Breathing is really important when stretching. Keep your breathing calm and deep to avoid creating tension through short, panting breaths. These happen mainly in your chest and can cause your shoulders to shrug and the body to get into more “closed” positions, as described earlier. Slow, deep, “diaphragmatic” breathing where your stomach swells out as you breathe in is ideal. As you breathe out, try to relax and stretch further.
The game we played is called Zen Archer.
Names that were mentioned: