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Path to Painless Knees – Fixing Hip Extension

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You’re confused.  I get it.  About a week ago I claimed you didn’t know what hip extension was and did nothing but prescribe a high volume of activation exercises.

Whoopie.

Truthfully, you probably know what hip extension is.  It’s that you don’t know how it feels. Does a deadlift feel like a bird dog to you?  Aren’t they both powered by hip extension?  They should feel more similar than you think, and if they don’t you need to keep reading.

By most standards, you may have perfect squat and deadlift form.  But just because you’re setting your back and lifting a lot of weight doesn’t mean you’re maximizing hip extension.  I know we glorify strength, but I’m going to squash it right now.  Weight on the bar doesn’t matter.

VECTOR TRAINING REBORN

I’m not a big science guy.  That’s why I had to search Bret Contreras’s blog for this next section.  But I’m going try to appeal to the scholar and meathead in us all by using both fancy and childish terms.

Most exercises train the axial vector, or what I like to call, the up and down vector.  During a squat your body moves up and down.  In a deadlift, you bend down to the bar and stand up with it in your hands.  Although hip extension takes place in a squat and a deadlift, we don’t actually propel ourselves horizontally.  Once we set our feet in these lifts, we don’t move.  The heavier up and down vector training becomes, the more vertical a bar will travel.  Mark Rippetoe harps on keeping the bar path vertical for squats and deadlifts because heavy things like to take the shortest path between two points.

Hip extension happens in the anteroposterior vector, or what I call, the back and forth vector.  Sprinting is a great example of a back and forth movement where we propel horizontally.  Great sprinters glide across the ground, using little axial, or up and down, motion.  We can’t maximize hip extension unless we have some horizontal propulsion.

The question then is, how can we use the muscles that propel us horizontally, without propelling horizontally?

THE BASICS

Home base for hip extension is the romanian deadlift (RDL).  If you’re wondering about hip thrusts, they are a good exercise.  But the amount of quadriceps activation is disheartening (discussed in the first article).  In contrast, the RDL is raw standing hip extension.  No knee bend.  No chance for quadricep involvement.  Just your backside and your mind.  This is the movement that teaches you hip extension, and it’s different from what you know so clear your mind of what you think an RDL is supposed to be.

You may think I’m a crazy for complicating the shit out something as simple as lowering and raising a bar, but I’m validated through one of the most popular speed experts, Kelly Baggett. Baggett is a mastermind when it comes to making complicated information seem like a children’s book.  And if Kelly says something is difficult, it must be difficult.

The Romanian deadlift is basically a slower o-lift. Done correctly it should target the glutes. However I’ve always thought it is the hardest exercise in existence to teach and do correctly.

-Kelly Baggett during an interview at Empowered Athletes

What you’re about to learn is, well, different.  My girlfriend can squat and deadlift with what many would see as perfect form – a nice back arch, below parallel – a testament to my awesome coaching.  But when it comes to teaching her how to power the lifts through hip extension, clumps of my hair end up on the ground.  She just can’t get it. But if you can, you have it made.  You’ll see your health improve.  You’ll move differently.  You’ll walk up steps differently.  It’s a golden ticket – a life changer – so take notes.  Fixing hip extension is one of the few steps needed to fix knee pain.  Don’t underestimate it.

As I said before, don’t worry about a vertical bar path.  It won’t happen. It can’t happen. It turns the RDL into a glorified back extension.  This negates the power of the hips.  And referring to Bagget again, No Glutes = No Results.

Let’s take a look at how to avoid it.

The average trainee doing o-lifts and RDLs uses way too much back and not enough glute.”

-Kelly Baggett

#1 BACK EXTENSION

Most people that power the RDL through back extension will have a nice arch in their lower back that never goes away, even when they hit lockout.  Their lower back arch is “correct” by most standards, but most standards need changed.  The extreme anterior pelvic tilt makes it harder to use our glutes.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3-0FRsblTg

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRoqrKyboH0&feature=fvst

#2 HIP EXTENSION

Powering the RDL through hip extension requires tightness and stability everywhere but in the hips, because they are the only thing moving.  Most people will have a neutral spine, and will squeeze the glutes at lockout, indicating hip involvement.  The bar won’t travel as far down the shins because the lift stops when the hips hit their sticking point as opposed to the lower back and hamstrings.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRNQJ-EDoVY

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QifKBQDcW_8&feature=channel_video_title

CUES

The above may sound confusing, so here is an easy way to conceptualize each scenario.

For back extension – imagine you have a rope around your neck that is tied to a car behind you.  If the car speeds away, you’ll lose your balance backwards by leading with the chest and contracting through the lower back.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjlgBqq5Wwg

For hip extension – imagine you have a rope around your glutes that is tied to a car in front of you.  If the car speeds away, you’ll lose your balance forwards by leading with the hips and contracting through the glutes.  It will look like an air hump.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PxP8XCoOE80

PAWING

With back extension, you lose balance backwards.  With hip extension, you lose it forwards.

If you act out the hip extension scenario enough times, you can feel your feet pull on the ground right before you lose your balance.  This is what propels you forward, and is what Baggett calls pawing the ground.

“There has to be some emphasis on pushing the hips back and pawing back on the ground from that position (like a bull pawing the ground), even though the feet won’t move.”

-Kelly Baggett

To learn how to paw the ground, stand in a split stance with your left leg in front.  Keep your bodyweight on the left leg, allowing the right leg to move freely.

From this position, with your right leg, do an upright Modified Bird Dog 1 and drag your right leg across the ground.  The rules don’t change.  The movement is powered from the glute and that is the only place that should drive the movement.  With each repetition, shift more weight to the right leg.  The drag across the ground will become slower (second video).

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6H-iO3TbFk

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2pHLHwvfCI

Eventually, you’ll apply so much force that your foot won’t move and you’ll be scissoring the ground between both of your legs.  Find the sweet spot in this position so that when you’re pulling back on the ground, your glute is what is contracting.  You’ll have to tilt your upper body forward slightly, bending at the hips, to get your hips in a favorable position.  Do some isometric contractions once you find the spot.

Instead of our right leg being the free leg, it’s now going to be the grounded leg while our left leg moves.  Remember, our right leg, although not moving, is still going to be doing the same modified bird dog motion.  Shift 60% of your weight to your right leg, and do the same scissor motion you did from above.  Your left leg should slowly glide across the ground as you stand upright.  I know I keep stressing this, but your glute is powering this.  Not your hamstring.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8ZIMAK0pUI

With each repetition, put more weight on your right leg, always squeezing the at lockout.  Work up to having all of your weight on your right leg.  If you’re doing them right, these are short range of motion unilateral RDL’s that help learn how to paw the ground.

In the video above, at :30, I do an advance variation of this to help activate the glute even more.  Again, the hip stabilizes the leg that is on the ground.  By lifting the knee it gives you more horizontal motion making it easier to activate the glute through out the entire range of motion.  From start to finish, you should feel it in your glute.

FUNDAMENTAL TIP TOE POSITION

Pawing the ground teaches us how to use the muscles in charge of horizontal propulsion without actually propelling horizontally. As Bagget says, it’s like trying to bench press the bar from a military press position in hopes of getting maximal pec activation.  It’s not easy because the force is coming from the wrong direction.

But since you’re learning how train hip extension from a standing position, you’re going to have to make sense of it.  This is where the fundamental tip toe position (FTTP) becomes important.  It’s the bridge between actually travelling horizontally and theoretically travelling horizontally.

The FTTP is easy get into.  Stand with your feet shoulder width, toes pointed forward or slightly out (10 degrees or less), get on your tip toes, and squeeze your glutes.

Let me say that again for those with reading HDD.

1)  Stand with your feet shoulder width

2)  Toes pointed forward or slightly out

3)  Get on your tip toes

4) Squeeze your glutes

The FTTP. Use your pointer finger to palpate your obliques.

Being on your toes challenges your balance, and squeezing the glutes forces the abs to contract to keep the body in equilibrium.  Try it out and palpate your abs – obliques especially.  The abs and glutes work together, remember this.  That’s why anterior pelvic tilting hinders glute function.

The FTTP transitions into an RDL by rocking to an even weight distribution while thinking about driving your hips to the wall behind you.  Don’t worry about your upper body, or how far down you can go.  Your torso will move naturally with your hips, like a hinge.  The sticking point will come soon.  The farthest I’d recommend going is fingertips to knee cap level, but some may have to stop even higher.  Going lower kills ab tightness and turns the RDL into a back extension.  Keeping the midsection tight creates a grinding resistance as you reach your hips back, and this is what you want.

About as far as a beginner needs to go

Pause at the sticking point before pawing the ground to shot your hips forward into the FTTP.  Envision the rope tied around your glutes and the car pulling away.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHYFjCqu1MQ

The top of the lift resembles the snap of a kettlebell swing, only you rise on your tip toes.  Neghar Fonooni has a wonderful snap at the top of her swing.  This lockout and snap is what you’re after.  She doesn’t posteriorly rotate her pelvis, and a lot of people trying to learn this type of RDL will.  Come up to a neutral spine position and squeeze the glutes – just try to think of the snap you see in this video.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lEZ9buytGo&feature=channel_video_title

AMERICAN DEADLIFT?

If you’re a fan of Bret Contreras, you’ve probably seen his American Deadlift Video.  The RDL I teach is similar to his American Deadlift, but the main difference is that he advocates tilting your spine and shifting from anterior to posterior tilt during the movement.

During the RDL I teach, the spine stays neutral throughout, even at lockout as mentioned in the previous section.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAVMj6GJwfY&feature=player_embedded

PROGRAMMING

When you’re relearning hip extension, stay away from the barbell.  Start by doing the kind of RDLs I described, but finish in the FTTP.  It’s an easy movement to “get” so spend one to two weeks doing 100-300 reps of them per day.  You’ll know you’re doing them right if your glutes catch fire, you feel a grinding resistance on the eccentric, and you feel yourself pawing the ground.  Truthfully, this exercise will eventually top all of your glute activation exercises and be used in their place for rhythmic sets of 20-100. But don’t rush the process.  Give this exercise a try, and watch your health improve.  Ingrain this motor pattern because next time, I’m going to teach you ways to load it for strength training.

 

 

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13 comments… add one

  • Hello! I’ve been meaning to try to implement these drills, but I have a serious question about these drills. By nature, I already have huge glutes, so I fear that my posterior will stand out even more. Vain, I know. But my question is this: Do you feel personally that your glutes have increased in size accordingly to the increase in activation?

    I hope I’m not being to silly here, but it’s an honest worry for me.

    Reply
    • Simple activation stuff, not really. But I can’t say for sure because I’ve always coupled it with training heavy lower body stuff so I don’t know. My legs are large, but no where near large enough to discourage me from training them.

      Reply
  • Ah I see. Thanks so much for the response! I can’t wait to dive into the glute activation. I’d like to improve that area if I can. Thanks again! I’ll be sure to let you know if anything interesting happens (as a result of the activation) just for future knowledge for any commenters.

    Reply
  • Great article! Forgot about the FTTP, tried it all this week and I felt much more athletic for some reason. Running and jumping feel a bit easier. Is this something that you’ve noticed as well? Hips actually doing their job?

    Reply
    • anthony mychal October 17, 2011 1:13 pm

      Hips doing their job will always make you feel better. Be sure to stay in touch, because the FTTP is only one piece of the puzzle in incorporating the hips into movement.

      Reply
  • Thanks for this. It completely changed how I do RDL’s. Pawing the ground is a great cue.
    Are you still going to write about loading the movement?

    Reply
    • Jeroen, this is detailed and oh-so-much-more in An Athlete’s Guide to Chronic Knee Pain. It’s my baby and took me forever to write.

      Reply
      • Thanks Anthony. I already thought of that and bought your book yesterday. Lots of good info so far. I have one question: (I have read it only once, quickly, so apologies if I missed this.)

        In almost straight leg movements, like an RDL, running or walking, it’s relatively easy to visualize and feel horizontal propulsion, and to use the ‘pawing’. In bent knee movements, like a squat or a DL from the ground, this is much harder, because it feels so clearly vertical. Any tips or cues? Thanks.

        Reply
        • Well, I orient the program so that it slowly gets integrated into bent knee movements like squats. That’s one of the points of the entire program. It’s more of a familiarity thing.

          So when you practice and get “good” you can use them from any position.

          Reply
  • This is just what I needed I cannot thank you enough. I have been dealing with knee and hip problems due to a huge quad/knee dominance in my lower body. I am working on retraining my nervous system to use the glutes and hip extension . Id been using bridges and I think those are bullshit. Bridges don’t really have any carryover into standing movements. I dont believe that you can really activate a muscle, you have to incorporate it into movement. It seems like this is a large part of your philosophy. The last stage of the pawing movement works INCREDIBLY well, and I realized why, its is basically gait broken into reps. I have a question. I have done RDLs 2 times over the last week. I was working fairly easily with 135 for sets of 5-8. I felt nothing in my glutes, but my hammies are still incredibly sore. Do you think there is a risk of screwing up the motor programing so that my hammies will dominate that motor pattern. Or could I continue to do them and at the same time work on the high volume glute activation drills? It also seems like my hammies are activating a lot more than they should because they are getting stretched too early (about knee level Im stiff as fuck) so maybe once they loosen up there wont be that huge stretch and resulting contraction? Would it also be good to practice a bent over hip hinge position and contract the glutes? As of now I have to voluntarily do that, should it get to the point where it is automatic and actually impossible to prevent? And maybe then go into RDLS? Lemme know what you think. I really like your content and views on training and movement by the way, keep it up.

    Reply
    • The good thing about bridges and other small movements is that they are low load, and low “threat” so that you can solidify your mind-muscle connection for more complex movements.

      In general, if you’re just moving into RDLs, you should be feeling it in the glutes. If you aren’t, I question your glute use.

      I have a few more posts on knee pain here, check ‘em out. They’re around the time I wrote the post about barbell rowing, as it uses the same glute firing mechanism.

      Reply
  • hey. When you said learning how to properly use hip extension would be like a golden ticket you we’re exaggerating. Thank you very much. The way I run is now way way different and now I understand what they say that when you run you propel yourself w/ hip extension, so this is what it should feel like (pawing).

    I was strength training last year and this year decide to take up running. I thought that my strength from DLs and squats should spill over to running but it did not. I was wondering why; logically it should. And now I know/understand why.

    What do you think of doing RDLs daily at 2 sets of 10-12 daily 135 pounds?
    Now that I’ve got the golden ticket, I don’t want to lose it to an occupational hazard of sitting 8-12 hours a day.

    Reply
    • It’s fine, in my opinion, as long as you give the body the time to adapt to the initial high frequency. Also depends on your DL max, of course.

      Reply

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