By: Sammy Cusimano
“Lift with your legs” is an old saying that we have all heard through the years to prevent any lower back injury while moving anything heavy. This proverbial gem of truth is technically the utilization of the “hip hinge” movement. Whether you are moving furniture in your house or performing a compound free weight exercise in the gym, it is imperative that you do not injure the lower back by stressing the spinal column and lower back muscles, tendons and ligaments. Basically, the hip hinge is moving the trunk of the body using the pelvis and not the spine. It is a very primal movement that ensures that the vertebrae of the spine remain in alignment while the body is in motion. Oftentimes, the first instinct is to bend at the spine while lifting an object; however, the spinal column is not designed to bear any weight in a forward motion. Awareness and use of the hip hinge movement will engage the correct joints and muscles to safely and effectively perform lifting motions in and out of the gym.
The basic technique of the hip hinge is very simple, but until you get accustomed to the proper form, it can take some time to be aware of the motion and positioning of a few parts of the body at once. Your muscle memory will eventually take over and anything less than proper form will instinctively not feel right to you, once the hip hinge is established as second nature to your own body. It is a similar feeling to when you were first learning to ride a bicycle. Initially, it seemed to be so complex; however, as the action was etched into the brain as muscle memory, you no longer had to even think about the individual steps of the technique. This is how the hip hinge will be once you perfect the movement properly.
In order to begin the hip hinge motion, the first step is to slightly bend the knees with the feet pointed forward in the same direction. This is the proper stance that will serve as the base of the motion. The next step is the engaging of the abdominal muscles. By pulling the midsection towards the lower back, the torso will be kept straight. Make sure to flatten the lower back so that the spine is aligned correctly, with no bending of the lumbar area. When performing any type of hip hinge motion, it is extremely important to utilize the pelvis rather than the lower back during the movement. Even the shoulders are pulled slightly back to avoid any rounding forward. The ultimate goal of the hip hinge is to place the tension of moving the body in a forward position, with no stress on the lower spinal area. The vertebrae of the back are meant to protect the spine and keep the body upright in a proper posture. They are not designed to withstand weight-bearing movements; however, the hip flexor muscles and the pelvis are fully capable of forward motion, weighted movements.
Teaching the body to perform the hip hinge movement regularly can take time, but there are some tried-and-true methods that help develop muscle memory of the motion very quickly. The simplest way to train the body to stay in alignment, via the hip hinge, only requires a broom handle or any straight dowel of about 4-5 feet in length. This technique is very effective because it takes all of the guesswork out of the motion, by providing a very clear-cut method of knowing if the hip hinge is being performed properly. Begin by holding the dowel/broom handle directly behind you with it touching three main spots:
1) The sacrum (the last of the lumbar vertebrae of the lower back)
2) Between the shoulder blades
3) Behind the head
Once the dowel is touching all three areas, proceed to bend forward with the dowel still touching the three points of the body. If the dowel loses contact with any of the three points, then the hip hinge has been compromised. Another tip that may help while learning the proper way to hip hinge is to keep the eyes forward the entire time that the body is moving. Where the eyes go, the body will follow. If the eyes look down, then the back will be more likely to round towards the ground. The eyes should always be kept at eye level or slightly above eye level to ensure that the back stays straight. Practicing the motion using the dowel will help you to get the feel of the hip hinge motion before attempting to perform the movement during a free weight exercise such as squats, deadlifts or kettlebell swings.
The hip hinge is crucial in order to keep the body safe while performing compound exercises (engaging more than one muscle simultaneously). Squats and deadlifts are very similar movements; however, the weight being lifted is located up high during a squat and down low during a deadlift. They are almost inverse weight resistance motions related to each other. The basic stance for each is similar. This makes the hip hinge motion of each exercise similar as well. When performing each movement, it helps to keep the eyes slightly up at an angle while the weight is being lifted. The eyes can return to the forward position to check technique and form, while the body is in the full standing position. By keeping the eyes slightly up during the up and down motion of each exercise, the lower back will remain straight. When doing any hip hinge movement, it is very important to push the glutes back. This is especially pivotal in the proper technique of the squat and deadlift.
The kettlebell swing is another full-body compound exercise that has gained a tremendous amount of popularity in recent years because of its overall effectiveness as a metabolism-boosting, muscle-toning technique. Begin by standing with feet shoulder width apart and hold the kettlebell with an overhand grip, using both hands. Slightly bend the knees and start the first repetition by gently swinging the kettlebell forward to generate the momentum needed to perform the dynamic exercise. As the kettlebell swings backwards between the legs, smoothly pull forward until it swings to shoulder height. Never go higher than the shoulders, and never turn the swing motion into a squat. Maintain slightly bent knees so that the hips do the work. Continue repeating the movement, utilizing the hip hinge motion the entire set. The hip hinge is what makes the kettlebell swing so effective. When performed correctly with a straight back, the exercise will not cause any pain or injury to the lower spinal area, but the hip hinge is undeniably necessary for the kettlebell swing to work properly.
Mastery of the hip hinge is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your very own body. It is a highly functional movement that can be used in the gym during workouts, in the yard while gardening, in the house while moving furniture and so many more possibilities. The spine is the center of the body, and it is essential to keep it healthy and strong or the rest of the body will be affected. The most effective ways to keep the back healthy are awareness and proper technique during daily activities. The hip hinge movement helps maintain overall wellness by increasing awareness of spinal alignment, while also using the appropriate joints and muscles when physical demands are placed on the body. Work with your body, and your body will work wonders for you!