Pilates for your Hips
Do you ever wonder why we do all that side-lying leg work for your hips in Pilates? Why does it feel so tight and burn so much? This is some of the most important work you can do for strengthening your hips and supporting your hips, pelvis, low back, knees, and more. If you've ever been in physical therapy, they make you do these exercises too. And they might even tell you to never stop doing them. That's why we practice Pilates.
Pilates to Strengthen your Hips
Pilates exercises for hips are a huge part of your practice, and a very important part at that. We train all of our clients to strengthen their hips because it is part of your "Powerhouse" in Pilates. Your Powerhouse is all layers of your abdominals, your inner thighs, outer thighs, bottom, and low back muscles. So it's this band around the center of your body that we target to strengthen so that you're moving from your center, instead of from your extremities.
What do you mean by "hips"?
To be clear, when we talk about "hips", we're talking about all the big and small muscles in your bottom, and the sides of your hips...the muscles responsible for lifting your leg to the side, either with your knee facing forward, or your knee facing side (rotated out, also called external rotation). If you speak anatomy, we're talking about your gluteus medius, minimus, and maximus, your piriformis and all the other little rotators. The hips are complicated...there's a lot in there.
If you think about what runners, cyclists, and walkers are doing, their legs are all moving forward and back. It's rare that most people will actually move their legs out to the sides...even swimmers don't get very much practice with this. And I love to practice yoga, but yoga doesn't do any side leg strengthening either. So while yoga is a great practice and I recommend it to many of my clients, I think it's just as important to have a Pilates practice...they compliment each other very nicely. Even as a dancer, I started studying ballet at age 4 and started studying Pilates at age 19. I STILL found Pilates exercises for hips to be extremely challenging, even though I had been working my external rotators for years.
Pilates exercises for your Hips
When lying on your side in Pilates, lifting your leg is fighting gravity, so in terms of "weight lifting", you're actually lifting the weight of your leg with your hip muscles. These muscles are particularly weak, and often tight, on most individuals....and you'll know if that's you because you'll feel it working. It's really important to keep these muscles strong for stability and balance (they help you stand on one leg), and also for stability in your low back and spine. I teach side legs to all of my clients with low back problems.
An easy way to start is to lie on the floor on one side. I even like to lie with my whole back against a wall for extra support. Set your feet up in the same line with your hips and your shoulders and head. So everything is in one line...you can use a wall or the back edge of your mat to help line you up. Prop your head up with your hand behind your head, or a pillow if you have neck or shoulder problems. Bend both knees and stack them on top of each other. Lift just the top knee, being careful not to roll your top hip back (this is where the wall comes in handy). These are called clams...I recommend doing at least 20 of them.
Pilates straight leg lifts
Then, straighten your top leg, and lift it up about a foot off the floor, then do small pulses up and down with the knee pointing forward. Try to keep that straight leg in a straight line underneath you, rather than forward of your hip.
Stretch your hips - a great stretch for sciatica
Just as important as it is to strengthen those muscles, you want to stretch them. A great stretch is sometimes called "thread the needle" or "figure 4". This is an excellent stretch for sciatica. But be careful not to over do it...it can also cause sciatica in some people if done too much. For others, it is the perfect sciatica relief. You can do this stretch seated, standing, or lying down. If you've just finished your side leg series, you can roll over on to your back, and put a pillow under your head. Bend both knees, bottoms of the feet on the floor, and cross you right ankle over your left knee. Now thread your right hand between the hole you've created in your legs, and your left hand on the left side of your left thigh....clasp your hands together and pull that left thigh toward your chest. You should feel a stretch in your right hip. You can also place your left foot flat on a wall and use the wall to hold up your legs...this allows you to relax your upper body. Flex your right toes back toward your right knee to protect your knee.
Sitting in a chair, you can cross one ankle over the opposite knee, lift up tall, and lean slightly forward.
Standing, you can cross the ankle over the opposite knee, hold on to something, and bend your standing leg and sit your bottom back like there is a chair way behind you that you want to sit in.
Whichever version you chose, you should hold your stretch for at least 30 seconds. I prefer to hold it for longer. Feel free to move around a little bit in the stretch by moving your hips side to side...this sometimes helps you find some good tight spots.
If you're ready for more advanced side leg work, there are many exercises to chose from. I recommend going to a private Pilates studio rather than a gym, and finding a mat class or jumping into some private lessons to start. Your instructor can give you more exercises to strengthen your hips. Another way to challenge yourself is to take both hands behind your head, which will make balancing harder. I am also available via Skype, Google chat, or Facetime if you'd like to set up a session with me, and we can go over lots of great Pilates exercises for your hips, core, and more that you can do at home.