Hip Extension Basics

Glutes, Hamstrings, and Why You Need Hip Extension Exercises

woman doing leg lifts
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Hip extension involves some of your strongest muscles, the hip extensors. It is an important part of stabilizing your pelvis and is required for much of your daily movement. Hip extension is a source of great power for sports and exercise. Unfortunately, many of us are losing the power of hip extension. Find out what hip extension is, why we need it, and how we can strengthen our hip extensors.

What Is Hip Extension?

Simply put, hip extension happens when we open our hip joint. We are extending our hip anytime we increase the angle between the thigh and the front of the pelvis and that can start from any degree of flexion. We are actually in hip extension when we are standing, and when the leg goes to the back.

The Key Muscles

You know all those popular "butt exercises" that have us lifting our legs to the back in various positions? Those are hip extension exercises. They are great for toning the buttocks because the gluteus maximus (butt muscle) is a primary muscle of hip extensions.

The deeper layer of the glute is the most significant in hip extension. The hamstrings—long head (not short head) biceps femoris, semimembranosus, semitendinosus—are also prime movers in hip extension. Gluteus medius and adductor magnus assist hip extension.

The gluteus maximus is one of the strongest muscles of the body and hamstrings are, or should be, naturally strong as well. With those two as prime movers, you can see that hip extension has the potential to be very powerful. We use hip extension a lot in daily life to stabilize the pelvis and propel us forward in activities like walking, standing up, and stair stepping.

Athletes, of course, call on even more power from hip extension in running, jumping, swimming and so on.

Why We Need These Exercises

Why then, when two of the most powerful muscles in the body are involved in moves we make every day, do so many of us need hip extension exercises? There is an "if you don't use it, you lose it." component here. We don't make enough hip extension moves in our daily lives. Those we do make aren't challenging enough or done properly enough to keep our glutes and hamstrings toned and strong.

Modern lifestyles have far too many people sitting for long periods of time and many not exercising at all. There is another dynamic that influences our need for hip extension exercises. Hip flexion—a decrease in the angle between thigh and pelvis—is literally taking over in our lives and workouts.

Sitting a lot tightens our hip flexor muscles and weakens our hamstrings (tight hamstrings are weak).

Just the opposite of what we need for full, powerful hip extension. And, the focus of the much popular exercise is on hip flexion without balancing that out with hip extension. An example would be cycling (including indoor spinning) where there is never a full hip extension.​

Additionally, the current obsession with ab exercises has many people confusing their hip flexors with their abdominal muscles or at least working hip flexors a lot without regard to strengthening the muscles needed to balance out hip flexion, the hip extensors. One answer to tight hip flexors is stretching, which is great, but it is not enough.

The flexors and extensors have to work together to keep the pelvis neutral and allow a powerful and safe range of motion through the hip.

Hip Extension Exercises

Now that you have a basic introduction to the idea of hip extension, which muscles and involved, and why it is important (beyond the better butt) let's talk about exercises that promote hip extension. Full hip extension exercises work the major muscles of hip extension, the glutes, and hamstrings, by taking the leg back behind the pelvis thus opening the hip more. Pilates swimming is an example.

Often, exercises meant to strengthen the glutes and hamstrings employ resistance from exercise equipment, body weight or gravity. Examples of both full extension and resistance exercises are below. Pilates, a system of fitness that emphasizes balanced musculature, has a lot of exercises that work hip extension.

The Pilates approach is particularly beneficial as it is full-body awareness exercise that protects the back and stabilizes the hips as you move thereby strengthening and integrating the whole structure.

This attention to detail is quite relevant in hip extension as there is a strong tendency to cheat full hip extension exercises by tilting the pelvis to the front (anterior tilt), increasing our lumbar (lower back) curve and "impersonating" a hip extension which puts a lot of pressure on the back.

Or, we find ourselves giving way to the leg going back by leaning forward—that's not really working the glutes and hamstrings. So, with no cheating, here are some exercises that will strengthen your hip extension.

Sample Pilates Hip Extension Exercises

More advanced Pilates exercises work hip extension in an interesting way when the exercises call for upper body flexion and hip extension. 

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