In the last Sports Medicine Corner, I talked about compensation patterns and how they relate to chronic muscle tightness and injury. The body is resilient and it will continue to perform and enable us to do the things we want to do even if we have biomechanical deficiencies. It accomplishes this through compensating. Compensation then results in areas of muscle tightness, weakness, and chronic injury.
One of the most common deficiencies seen in runners that results in compensation is what’s called a “hip drop.” A hip drop occurs when full body weight is being supported on one leg, like during the stance phase of running. Typically, a weakness in the hip of the weight bearing leg causes the opposite hip to drop. This results an increased angle of the pelvis and femur, causing muscles to compensate to continue the act of running. Compensation can be found pretty much anywhere in the body from the calf muscle, to the knee, hip, and up to the back. It can occur on the same side or opposite side of the body. Basically, a weakness can wreak havoc on the body!
There are many exercises out there to strengthen the hips and the core. The key is to make sure you are doing the exercises properly and more importantly, make sure they are functional! Functional means that the strength you gain from doing them will turn over into strength that you can use while running.
What’s functional for running? Running takes place in an upright position and on a single leg. It involves bending our knees to absorb shock, then pushing off to propel us forward, over and over again. If we do all of our core and hip exercises either laying on our back or sitting on a machine, the strength gained from those exercises will do us very little good while we are actually running. Building up some strength on the floor initially is ok, but you are cheating yourself if you never challenge your functional core strength.
To make an exercise functional for running, it should be performed on a single leg and involve some degree of knee flexion. To address the problem of a hip drop, try the single leg squat with a leg lift. Ideally, this exercise would be performed in front of a mirror so that you can correct any faulty movement when you see it.
Stand on a single leg on a weight bench, step, or box. Start the motion of a squat by “sticking your butt out.” This will cause your hip to hinge. As your hip hinges, your knee will start to bend. Continue to bend the knee as much as you can while maintaining proper form. Proper form means that your knee stays in line with your foot and your hips stay even with one another. If your knee starts to rotate inward, your hips are not doing their job properly. Only go as far into the squat as you can go with proper form. Continuing to do a full squat even though your knee is rotating in or your hip is dropping just strengthens the poor movement pattern that you have already been compensating with. You want to correct that movement pattern.
A bonus movement that I like to add at the end of the squat is a leg lift with the non-weight bearing leg. When you get to the top (starting position) of the squat, lift the non-weight bearing leg out to the side. This motion is called hip abduction and it will strengthen the gluteus medius muscle as well as challenge your balance. This motion can take the place of that seated hip abduction machine you might use at the gym. A standing hip abduction motion is more functional as it engages the core muscles to stabilize your body during the movement. One full repetition of this exercise involves a single leg squat and a leg lift. Perform 10 reps on each leg. Make sure you switch legs so each has a turn doing the squatting and the abducting.
If you do this exercise with proper form, it is pretty challenging. You don’t need a lot of weight, if any at all. Start off by trying to do a set of 10 on each leg. Wait to see how you feel a day or two after you do this exercise before you progress. If you have never done this exercise before, you are going to be waking up some muscles that might have been sleeping, and your butt is going to be sore! That’s a good thing. When you find that one set of 10 is becoming easy and you are no longer sore the day after, increase the reps to 15, then, increase the number of sets to 2.
Remember, running is a functional movement and the exercises that we do to train for running must be functional. If you have a hip drop, give this exercise a try. Even if you don’t have a hip drop, your glutes will still thank you.