By Tom Gellie
(Editor’s note: please visit Tom’s website FuncionalBody.com for more great info)
Skiing requires a dynamic stance that can constantly change and adapt to terrain, speed, and other forces. Technically speaking, we use three body joints to make these adjustments in stance: the ankle, the knee, and the hip. A good friend of mine Paul Lorenz has a great article on stance that would make a good companion to this article. As a continuation of this series on body alignment and mobility for skiing, we are now going to turn our focus to the hips. More precisely, we are going to look at becoming physically aware of how the hip joint functions and how to differentiate it from the waist. I hope to help clarify the differences between these two areas and why it is vitally important to do so. Then, we will look at how we can train proper hip function into your daily routine. Habits of movement and posture in everyday life contribute significantly to how your body functions while skiing.
The hip joint is the joint between the round head of the femur (thigh bone) and the acetabulum of the pelvis (round socket of the pelvis). It is the major junction between the lower body and the upper body and therefore is key to a body’s balance. The ball-and-socket design of this joint allows a great range of movement in many directions. Today, we are going to keep it simple and focus on how it functions while flexing and extending fore and aft.
To feel where this joint flexes, lift one knee off the ground while keeping your spine neutral. Note where the crease in your leg occurs after flexing. If you have pockets on the front of your pants, the crease may be across the top of your pockets. Feel around and notice that the bony area often referred to as “the hips” is found above this crease. This bony ridge is actually the crest of your pelvis – this crest does not correspond to your hips! I point this out because many skiers will flex their lower backs when cued to bend their hips. Instead of flexing at the true hip joint, they fold nearer to their belly buttons. With bulky ski clothing on it can be difficult to determine whether you are flexing at the hip or at the lower back.
Take a look at the picture shown above and notice that if you were to flex at the point in line with the bony iliac crest, you would be flexing in your lower spine. The hip joint is a lot lower than this – roughly a palm’s width lower.
So why is it so important to differentiate the two points of flexion? Well, the main reason is for your spinal health. While undertaking a dynamic sport such as skiing, you ideally want to maintain a neutral spine. As you move your hips through a full range of motion, the spine should maintain a neutral alignment. This is because a neutral spine is in a much healthier position to absorb impacts and forces generated while skiing. Think of Olympic weightlifters you have seen. They are great examples of athletes who aim to keep a neutral spine when loading forces onto their bodies. A key aspect to their success is mobilization of their hips. As skiers, we should also be aligning our spines to achieve optimal performance.
The problem with flexing your lower back or waistline while skiing is that you end up forcing the lower back to take on more than its fair share of the load. Say you ski the bumps and you flex through your lower back. The impact from skiing into a bump levers on your spine as opposed to traveling through it. Ever felt like you can’t stop your head from bobbing forward when you ski the moguls? Probably caused by you flexing at the waist and not the hips. This is a recipe for back pain and – worst-case scenario – a herniated disc. In comparison, your hip joint is better designed to deal with load and articulates with a much larger range of motion. This allows you to manage pressure more easily and in a multitude of various angles.
Another reason you want to be aware of how to flex in your hips is to help recruit the correct muscles for skiing and balance. Bending at the spine and bending at the hip trigger different muscles to stabilize the pelvis.
If your skiing stance involves flexion through the lower spine, your body will respond by tensing muscles that hold your pelvis to your legs. This essentially locks out your full range of movement and mobility. Try it now. Standing in your skiing stance, flex forward at the level of your belly button. Notice that your “glute” muscles (buttock muscles) and rotators respond by grabbing onto your leg.
At this point, a narrative starts to form. First, the lower back becomes the natural point at which you will further bend and rotate as you ski down the mountain. Your legs become functionally limited to their range of motion within the pelvis. What happens next? In order to angulate and balance against your outside ski, you tilt your spine sideways because your pelvis is glued to what your legs are doing. Not a great biomechanics story.
It could have been different. Imagine that you made your point of flexion the hip joint and kept your spine neutral. Now, your body responds by engaging muscles that help stabilize the pelvis to the spine. This is the natural response of your nervous system communicating that you want the hip joint to stay mobile and ready to react. You have issued a call to action to keep the spine quiet! For your skiing, this equates to your legs being free to turn, your pelvis feeling free to move laterally for strong edge grip, and your spine staying safe in its neutral position. A much happier ending.
Finally, you should be aware that flexing in your lower spine results in your pelvis tilting posteriorly. You can feel this backwards tilt if you slouch in a chair. A slouched position in a chair is essentially the same posture as a flexed waist whilst skiing. With your pelvis tilted posteriorly, your centre of mass falls behind your feet very easily. Hello, backseat skiing!
Hopefully, these scenarios illustrate why flexing through your hips is important enough to inspire you to practice hip awareness. Most of us spend so much time seated that our hips lose mobility. We compound the problem by sitting in chairs that allow our pelvis to roll under, causing us to slouch. This serves to reinforce the pattern of flexing through the waist in an attempt to lean forward whilst skiing. So, without further ado, here are some hip awareness exercises and some homework to help re-pattern your body.
Exercise: Hinging at the hip joint with a stable spine.
Begin standing, place your thumb between your chest with the palm facing down. Next place the other thumb against your pubic bone, palm facing down, and creating two parallel lines. What you have done is pinpoint one hand on a piece of your pelvis and one hand on your spine. You have begun with the two points aligned horizontally. Now assume your ski stance and flex forward at your hips. If you have flexed accurately at your hip joint your hands will reflect this by staying on the same plane. A crude check is that you will have tilted your private parts towards the ground. Ensure that your chest moved with the pelvis indicating your spine stayed neutral through hip flexion. Get a friend to view you from the side and help with guiding the movement.
Two incorrect movements are shown in the pictures. One is flexing at your waistline. This will show up as your palms moving closer together. The top hand angle tilts downward and the bottom hand tilts slightly up reflecting spinal bending. The second, is to flex your hips, but without maintaining a neutral spine. It will show up in the exercise as your hands moving further apart. Your top hand will stay fairly horizontal and your bottom hand will tilt with the angle of the pelvis.
Your homework is to practice sitting down and standing up with accurate hip flexing. At work when you decide to take a seat, first flex your hips, reach your hamstrings back, and then descend slowly without using your hands as help. When it is time to get up, begin by shuffling your body forward to the edge of your chair. Place your feet closely underneath you. Follow this by flexing forward at your hips. Keeping a neutral spine hinge further until you are far enough forward that you can push through your feet to stand up. Again the goal is to not use your hands. Try and attempt as many different chores and daily movements incorporating hip hinging to help engrain this movement pattern. Squats at the gym are great but being hip conscious in daily life is where you will reap the greatest benefits through repetition.
Our bodies are designed for movement. Learning how to use them functionally will give you an advantage in whatever sport or hobby you choose. In this article, we focused on the hip and pointed out why it is important to flex in this joint for skiing. Hopefully, you are more aware of the differences between flexing the hip joint and flexing the waist. If you are interested in taking your skiing to the next level I highly recommend becoming more aware of your own body and how it functions. Yoga, pilates, anatomy and physiology books, are all great resources. Finally, a shameless plug for my own profession of Structural Integration. Structural Integration combines movement awareness, soft tissue manipulation and organization of segments of the body to help you find your ideal alignment. A major focus are functions of the body; pelvic balance, spinal health and joint mechanics to name just a few. It has been the easiest and most interesting way for me to discover how my body moves and reacts at a high functioning level.
Thanks, Tom Gellie