HIP TO BE SQUARE
by Julie Gudmestad
Published in Yoga Journal, Sept/Oct 2003
The hip adductors create stability in inversions and arm balances as well as in standing poses. Here’s a primer on these little-known muscles.
DURING A YOGA CLASS, it’s not uncommon to be instructed to stretch your hamstrings, tighten your abdominals, or engage your quadriceps (front thigh muscles). But can you remember the last time you heard a teacher mention your hip adductors? Given that they are one of the largest muscle groups in the legs, you would think they play a big part in yoga poses. And they do.
They are active and essential in standing poses, inversions, and arm balances, and they are stretched in standing and seated forward bends. If the hip adductors are such an integral part of so many poses, why do they languish in relative obscurity? My guess is that one reason is the complexity of their actions, and another is their location—they’re found deep in the inner groin and along the inner thigh. The other thigh muscle groups, the quadriceps in front and the hamstrings in back, are much better known and discussed, but for many yoga practitioners the size, location, and function of the adductors remain mysterious.
One day many years ago, when I was a physical therapy student, I was quite surprised when I came upon a picture of the three thigh muscle groups. It was a cross section of the thigh, about halfway between the knee and the hip. The surprise was that the adductors were noticeably larger than the hamstrings and just about as big as the quadriceps.
This revelation got me thinking about the adductors’ purpose. Why do they need to be almost as large as the quads, whose action we know to be crucial for everyday activities such as walking up inclines, climbing stairs, and rising from chairs?
Before we dig into the function of the adductors, let’s clarify their exact location. There are five adductors, and they all originate on the pubic bones and the ischial tuberosities (sitting bones). Two of the adductors, the pectineus and the adductor brevis, are quite short and insert on the back of the upper femur (thighbone). The adductor longus and adductor magnus are longer and larger, and insert at the back of the thighbone, on the middle and lower part of the shaft. The longest adductor, the gracilis, inserts below the knee, on the inner upper tibia (shinbone).
Together, all five of these muscles adduct the hip; in layman’s terms, they pull the thighs together. Several of them also have good leverage to flex the hip, pulling the thigh and torso toward each other. The other actions of the adductors are quite complicated. Depending on the position of the leg, they may also help rotate the thighbone internally or externally in the hip socket, or help extend the hip. (A hip is in extension when the upper leg is in line with or slightly behind the torso.)
Your adductors are quite easy to feel with your own hands. Start by lying down on your back with your legs out straight, and slide the tips of your right fingers down your belly until you can feel your right pubic bone. Then move your fingers about an inch and a half out to the right and about an inch down into your right groin. Squeeze your thighs together and you will feel the large adductor tendon become firm as the muscles pull it taught. If you continue this squeezing action, you should be able to trace the firm shape of the contracting muscles most of the way down to your knee.
Grounding Your Legs
SINCE YOU NOW KNOW where the adductors are, let’s take a look at their action in yoga poses. To begin to feel this action, stand upright in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Place a block between your upper thighs, with the smallest faces pointing forward and back, and bring your feet as close together as you can without cutting off the circulation in your legs. You may notice that the presence of the block tends to make your weight roll to the outer edges of your feet.
Now press your inner thighs onto the sides of the block, feeling the firmness of the adductors as they perform this action. Make sure you are pressing evenly with your right and left legs. (Some people’s adductors are stronger on one side, and this exercise is a wonderful opportunity to train the muscles for a more balanced action.) Also notice that as you press on the block, your weight becomes more evenly balanced between the inner and outer feet, and your legs ground firmly into the earth.
After holding this action for a minute or more, remove the block and re-create the same action in Tadasana with the inner edges of the feet touching each other. The action of the adductors will make your two legs feel like one—a strong, grounded foundation for the upward growth of your pose.
The adductors perform the same action in inversions such as Sirsasana (Headstand), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Upward-Facing Tree Pose, more commonly called Handstand), and Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand); in all of these poses, their job is to hold the thighs firmly together. This action can be difficult to accomplish if the adductors on one side are stronger than on the other, a problem commonly associated with scoliosis or a leg-length discrepancy.
It can also be difficult if you have a fairly common form of adductor-abductor imbalance in both hips: relative weakness in the adductors combined with relative strength and shortness in some of the abductors. (The abductors are the muscles of the outer hips and buttocks—the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and tensor fasciae latae—that lift the leg out to the side.) To overcome such an imbalance, you can work to build strength in your adductors by regularly squeezing a block while standing or while lying on your back with your legs out straight. Performing this squeezing action in inversions will also strengthen your adductors; over time, try to increase the duration of your upside-down poses, all the while imagining you are pressing a block between your legs.
Your adductors will also be worked hard in some arm balances, including Bakasana (Crane Pose), Bhujapidasana (Shoulder-Pressing Pose), and Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose), because these postures demand that you squeeze your thighs strongly onto your upper arms.
Every Step You Take
NOW LET’S GET BACK to the question of why the adductor group is just about as big as the heavily used quadriceps. When you consider the adductors’ action of squeezing or pulling the thighs together, activities that might come to mind (in addition to yoga poses) include horseback riding and swimming the breaststroke. But why do we all have such a large muscle group when many of us never pursue these activities? The answer lies in the fact that the adductors contract during every moment you stand, however briefly, on one leg—in other words, with every step you take. To bring stability to the leg and pelvis, help keep the pelvis level, and assist with balance as you stand on one leg, the adductors co-contract with the abductors.
Throughout the body, two antagonists (muscles or muscle groups having opposite actions) often work together like this, co-contracting to help stabilize a joint. Other examples of this phenomenon include the wrist flexors and extensors in Handstand, and the abdominals (which flex the spine, curling it forward) and the erector spinae (the back muscles that extend the spine, arching it back) when you are standing upright.
The stabilizing function of the hip adductors and abductors is vitally important in many standing poses. When you are practicing a one-legged standing asana like Vrksasana (Tree Pose), it can make an enormous difference in your balance and your endurance in the pose. If you are standing on your left leg in Vrksasana, press your right foot firmly into your upper left thigh and simultaneously press your inner left thigh into your foot, just as if it were the block you used in Tadasana. Notice how strong these actions make your foundation.
Similarly, you can improve your stability in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) by eliciting a co-contraction of the adductors and abductors. As you stand on your left leg and lift your right leg forward and up—holding your right foot with your hand or a strap, or resting it on a chair or ledge—bring your awareness to your left leg. Recall the feel of the block touching your inner thighs in Tadasana, and press your left thigh into the imaginary block just enough to bring a sense of strength and groundedness to the standing leg.
In both these poses, be careful not to press too hard with the left leg; if you do, the right side of your pelvis will probably rise. Remember, one of the goals in both Vrksasana and Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana is to have a level pelvis.
Balancing Strength and Stretch
ALTHOUGH THE ADDUCTORS need to be active and strong in some yoga poses, in others—especially forward bends—they need to relax and lengthen. In poses like Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose) and Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend), flexible adductors can make the difference between for- ward bending deeply into the pose and struggling just to sit upright. If you struggle in Baddha Konasana, chances are that your knees are higher than your hips, which causes your pelvis to tip back and your spine to slump. To remove the struggle and help your spine lift, sit on a firm cushion or one or two folded blankets; create enough height so that your knees are no longer higher than your hips. Or you can roll a blanket, place it near a wall, and sit with your sitting bones on the blanket and your back supported by the wall. Putting height under your hips and using the wall for support can also help you be more at ease in Upavistha Konasana. You may want to prepare your legs for that pose by practicing Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) while lying parallel to a wall. Stretch your leg nearest the wall up so it’s perpendicular to the floor, then open your leg out to the side. Adjust your distance from the wall so your foot is supported by the wall and you feel a moderate stretch in your adductors. (The distance of your foot from the floor is a good indicator of your adductor flexibility.)
Whichever poses you are working on to lengthen your adductors, give the stretching plenty of time. I like to spend a minimum of one to two minutes in any asana of this sort. As you work patiently, it helps to visualize your adductors, inviting them to let go with each exhalation. Remember, these are big and potentially strong muscles, and they need plenty of time to relax deeply. They will also probably need months of regular stretching to change their length. But eventually, a well-rounded yoga practice that includes both strengthening and stretching your adductors will mold healthy muscles that are both powerful enough to do their job and flexible enough to allow you to move freely.