What our hips and pelvis are doing is often what sets up the rest of the body. Pain and dysfunction both above and below the hips can usually be traced back to something going on with the muscles surrounding the hips or with pelvic alignment/posture. As Shakira would say, the “hips don’t lie”. As you might have guessed, strength deficiencies in the hips are going to affect our posture and movement in many ways. Our core is made up of everything from the hips up to the shoulders.
The most common thing I see in a rider, and any other athlete’s hip and lower body posture, is weak hip stabilizor muscles. Have you ever had trouble keeping your leg on during a posting or sitting trot, or over a jump? You probably assumed, or were told, that you needed to develop a stronger leg. I know I’ve heard that phrase many times as a rider. Generally, riders don’t have problems with muscle strength below the knee. Where there does seem to be weakness is at the side of the hips in the gluteus medius muscle. The gluteus medius is a small, deep muscle running from the side of your hip bone to the top of your femur. It’s job is to both raise the leg out to the side, and stabilize the pelvis during movement. If this muscle isn’t working properly, the other muscles around the pelvis and lower back have to work harder to stabilize, and do their own jobs; resulting in tightness and sometimes pain. If this muscle does do what it should, the entire lower body will work more efficiently, and be stronger.
PICTURE: (red shows the outline of Gluteus Medius, while the black dots show where it attaches to the pelvis and femur (thigh-bone)).
Want an easy way to test out if your gluteus medius is doing it’s job? Stand up, raise one knee up (so you’re standing on one leg)… did your hips shift over to the opposite side? Now try this same thing with a friend lightly putting pressure on the shoulder of your standing leg as you raise the opposite leg.. can you do it without that tiny shift in weight? If not, then your gluteus medius might be slacking off.
Dysfunction here can result in lower back pain, hip pain, knee pain, and affect how the muscles of your core, back, and legs function both in and out of the saddle. For a little muscle, it has a lot of responsibility.
Now that we’ve established whether or not your gluteus medius is weak, how do we strengthen it? My favourite exercise to get this little guy into action is a hip circuit. Side-lying, straight leg with shoulder, hip, and ankle aligned. Raise the leg with the heel pointed towards the ceiling slightly and lower (x10)—about to the height in the first image, next raise the leg higher – as in second picture (stopping before you feel your hip bone rotates towards your rib cage) x 10. If you aren’t feeling this right where Mr. Glute Med lives, then readjust your hip alignment (shift forwards or back, keeping leg straight and ankle in line with hip joint). If you want to add to this, continue on by keeping the leg straight and doing clock-wise and counter clock-wise circles from the hip. These circles shouldn’t be bigger then a basketball, and the core and hips should stay stable throughout. Have a friend watch to make sure you’re staying in the right position.