Overactivity of hip flexors when rowing

Rowers report feeling more flexible through the rowing stroke in their hips after performing hip flexor stretches.  How can this be when the hip flexors restrict backwards movement of this hip and the rower never takes their hip into this position in the rowing stroke?

  • The hip flexor muscle group is large.  It extends from the upper lumbar spine (low back) and inserts onto the front of the hip.
  • Importantly, this muscle has an attachment onto the capsule on the front of the hip joint.
  • When this muscle is tight or overactive the rower will feel a pinch or restriction at the front of the hip when coming into the most compressed position at the catch.
  • This can restrict the hip moving into a fully flexed position and can result in more movement coming from the low back to gain length at the front of the stroke.
  • Increased flexed (forward) motion of the low back within the rowing stroke has been linked to low back pain.

The most important thing for rowers and coaches to understand is how hip flexors become tight or overactive in the first place.  

Tightness can come from prolonged sitting during the day at school or work or from longer periods of travel.  Overactivity can come from the way the the rower moves in the boat.  Ideally, the rower should use their hip flexors to tilt their pelvis forward to initiative ‘rock-over’ as the first part of recovery.  The trunk and pelvis should then remain relaxed as the boat moves under the rower and the rower progresses up the slide.  The hip flexors should then be in a relaxed state as the hips compress at the front of the stroke and therefore should not act as a restriction.

Overactivity of hip flexors can come about under two different circumstances;

  1. The rower does not achieve early rock over (due to timing issues or tight hamstrings) and then has to use the hip flexors to bring the pelvis to upright throughout the recovery and coming into the catch
  2. When a rower begins the drive, they may lift their shoulders, losing the connection on the front of their abdominal wall, this results in a raising of the chest and a reliance on the hip flexors to stabilise the pelvis and spine through the drive rather than the gluteal and abdominal muscles – overusing the hip flexors through the drive makes it very difficult for the hip flexors to achieve early ‘rock over’ as they are still stabilising the spine at the end of the drive, the hip flexors often continue to be active as the rower attempts to tilt the pelvis during the recovery

The best way to reduce hip flexor overactivity and tightness is to make technical change to the rowing stroke.  However, this can take years to develop and optimal technique can also deteriorate when fatigued.

Knowing how to effectively stretch hip flexors and reduce tension held in this muscle groups is an effective way of managing overactivity in these muscles.

Hip flexor stretch – Tuck pelvis under to focus on hip attachment
Hip flexor stretch – Stretching up to focus on spinal attachment
Active movement – Leg swings for reducing tension held in hip flexors

Hip Flexor stretches are best done after a rowing session or after long periods of sitting.  Active movement to reduce hip flexor tension is best performed before a training session.