While recently shopping for a new pair of swimming trunks, I noticed a peculiar trend: it is becoming quite difficult to find male swimming attire that reaches the knees these days. Is this a new fashion trend (likely) or am I seeing a fundamental shift in fitness and body image? Are we ready to consider the day of the biceps-promoting sleeveless shirt dead and usher in the age of the leg day? Either way, I am enjoying this changing paradigm, where it is suddenly fashionable to focus an increased amount of training time on lower appendages and the posterior chain—those muscles that makes us move.
Let me introduce you all to the most important exercise physiology term you’ve likely never heard of: the hip hinge. Movement through the hip, characterized by a neutral spine and slight flexion of the knee, is the predominant initiator of force in most athletic movements. Being able to properly develop power by pivoting at the hip (not the knees) quickly, symmetrically, and while maintaining a neutral spine will improve your ability to safely move large loads and perform countless real-world activities with decreased injury risk. Because the average adult spends much of their day sitting, we tend to have very tight hips, which results in reciprocal inhibition. Tight hip flexors result in quadriceps dominated movement, which not only exacerbates movement pattern dysfunction, but decreases one’s ability to produce power and increases risk for knee and lower back injuries. There are two ways to improve your hip hinge: 1) movement prep focusing on activating the glutes and 2) properly squatting, lunging, and picking up things from the ground.
While I don’t advocate making every day leg day (the single largest muscle group in our bodies, the glutes, still need rest) there are several reasons why you should make a beeline to the squat rack . . . and not so you can perform barbell curls.
- Squatting, lunging, and picking things up from the ground (correctly) will make you stronger
Power development for almost all human movement begins in the lower extremities, specifically the hips. Whether pressing a heavy load over your head or helping your neighbor move his couch, movement is initiated with the hip hinge and transferred through the core to the upper extremities (unless you want to move incorrectly and risk injury). Learning to properly load and explode through these movements will improve your strength in almost every real-world situation.
- You’ll become a better athlete
Along with that improved power development, strong legs and the movements that result in a powerful lower half will make you faster, more agile, and can even result in improved movement economy. Whether playing a game of pickup basketball or doing your first century bicycle race, the improved ability to properly generate power and correctly move in every direction without inhibition will improve performance. If endurance competition is your thing, you are probably not looking to gain the significant muscle mass that heavy lifting stimulates, but more and more research continues to confirm that supplementing your aerobic training with some lower-body focused strength training can improve movement economy and help you move up the podium at your next race.
- You’ll be leaner
Compound movements, exercises that involve more than one joint, activate almost every muscle in your body, and few compound movements stress more of the body than squats and deadlifts. Studies have shown that free weight compound movements, especially those heavy squats and deadlifts, induce acute hormonal responses, specifically an increase in testosterone and growth hormone secretion, which are associated with increases in lean body mass and decreases in body fat. While there is debate as to how significant these acute hormonal spikes actually are, if your goal includes being strong and lean, more endocrinological response can’t be a bad thing. Furthermore, these closed kinetic chain lower body exercises (where the extremity remains in constant contact with an immobile surface) require activation of your core musculature for stabilization, resulting in more muscular gains, amplified immediate energy expenditure, and indirect development of those abs of steel. Greater hormonal response + increased muscular activation = more muscle, a higher basal metabolism, and an easier time staying lean.
- You’ll decrease injury risk
Movements that are initiated with a hip hinge promote knee stability, can improve balance and proprioception, and help improve range of motion. According to a review of athletic injuries, more than half of all injuries occur to the lower extremities, with ankle ligament sprains being the most common and knee and lower back injuries requiring the greatest recovery time. What’s the single most effective way to decrease the chances of suffering a debilitating injury? A strong lower body that moves correctly. While we tend to think that aches and pains in the knee and back are caused by overuse and tight hamstrings, the real issues are usually tight hip flexors and dormant glutes. Don’t stretch, open those hips up with targeted movement prep and strength training.
If you want to be strong, athletic, lean, and remain injury free (and look good in the latest beach attire), warm-up, grab a heavy barbell, and get hip with the hinge.
Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.