Professional and collegiate baseball players spend a lot of time before, during, after and between games with their hip flexors in a shortened position which has been shown to inhibit the actions of the hip extensors (recripocal inhibition) and increase the compensatory stress on the muscles that assist with hip extension (synergistic dominance), especially the muscles of the low back and hamstrings. The primary causes for hip flexor shortening in most athletes are sitting and prolonged periods of time in a “ready” position.
Before games professional players sit at their lockers, sit in the clubhouse and/or sit in the training room while collegiate players sit in the dining hall, classroom, library, lab, clubhouse, dorm room or apartment. During games, both collegiate and professional players are in the “ready” position while on the field and in a seated position on the bench or bullpen when not in the game.
After home games, collegiate players assume a seated position in the study hall, library or dorm room while professionals drive home where many sit and watch TV for an hour or more while waiting to unwind. After road games, collegiates endure moderate to long bus rides back to campus and professionals ride back to the hotel where they play Call to Duty or some other video game to unwind. On get away (travel) days, most minor league players ride a bus to the site of the next game. Major Leaguers take a bus to the airport and board a plane for a 2-4 hour flight to the next city where they take another bus ride to the hotel or home stadium from which drive home.
Before outlining a practical hip flexor stretching program, it’s important to provide a brief explanation of why tight hip flexors have a negative effect on player performance and safety. Muscles work in opposing pairs, agonist and antagonist. In order for the agonist to contract effectively, the antagonist must relax. In the hip, the hip flexor muscles (iliacus and psoas) are antagonists to the hip extensors (glutes). When the hip flexors are tight, the strong, powerful glutes can’t contract effectively (reciprocal inhibition) which forces the weaker, less powerful synergistic muscles for hip extension (low back and hamstrings) to compensate for the stronger, more powerful glutes (synergistic dominance).
If the glutes don’t function properly because of tightness in the hip flexors, the low back and hamstrings are forced to extend the hip. An analogy that we use with some players is that Prince Fielder is the agonist (glutes) and Rougned Odor is the synergist (low back and hamstrings). If Prince can’t do his job, the smaller, less powerful player (Odor) has to compensate which increases stress and can lead to injury and reduced performance.
Tightness in the hip flexors can be determined from the modified Thomas test. In the modified Thomas test, the player is supine on a training table with his hips slightly over the edge of the table with one leg pulled tightly against his chest and the opposite leg hanging off the edge of the table. If the hip flexors are tight, the knee of the free hanging leg will be higher than the hip. If the hip flexors have adequate range of motion, the knee will be parallel to or below the hip.
This test can also be used to assess quadriceps tightness by looking at the angle of the lower leg. If the lower leg is not perpendicular to the floor, the quads are tight. If the lower leg is perpendicular to the floor or beyond perpendicular, the quads have adequate flexibility.
In past experience with the Astros and more recently with the Rangers, data suggest that hip flexor tightness leading to reciprocal inhibition and synergistic dominance can occur in some players in as few as 4-6 weeks in the absence of a daily hip flexor stretching program. While there are a number of methods that can be used to stretch the hip flexors, practical experience suggests that best results occur when a trainer, coach or physical therapist manually stretches the player using procedures similar to the modified Thomas test.
Given the large player to staff ratio, providing a one-on-one stretch for every player on the team is often impractical. The following self-stretching program is recommended for players who need an effective way to stretch the hip flexors on their own.
To utilize the program, players will need a one-inch stretch band and access to a training table. The band is wrapped around the lower legs of one end of the training table so that four layers of band are visible. The stretch starts with the player sitting on the edge of the table with one foot anchored under one of the four layers of stretch band and the opposite leg hanging freely off the table. The player should then pull the free leg to his chest with both hands and lie supine on the table. The tension provided by the band that is around the foot will cause a stretch in the muscles of both the hip flexors and quads. Players should hold this stretch for 20-30 seconds and then switch legs. Three to five sets should be performed on each leg.
Anchoring the foot under more than one band will increase the amount of tension on the hip flexors and quads. Likewise, placing the hands behind the knee of the free leg and extending the leg straight up into the air
will increase the stretch in the hip flexors and quadriceps of the down leg and hamstrings of the free leg.
Good results have been observed in players who self-stretch 4-5 times per week before and/or after practice and games and in those who self-stretch between sets of leg exercises.
Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC-E, FACSM, was the Head S&C Coach for the Houston Astros from 1978-2012, has been a strength and conditioning consultant for the Texas Rangers since 2013 and is currently Professor Emeritus in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake. Adam Noel, MS, RSCC and Chandler Geller, MS, CSCS, USA-W are Minor League Strength and Conditioning Coaches with the Texas Rangers.