Neglecting Your Hip Abductors and Adductors Can Mess Up Your Walk, Sleep and Balance

A recent video of Jean-Claude Van Damme doing a split between two moving trucks made quite a stir and produced a number of copycats trying to do something similar. Mr. Van Damme continues to demonstrate a remarkable strength and flexibly in his abductors and adductors, the inner and outer thigh muscles. And if you do not harbor the aspirations of doing splits between the trucks (or any splits really), should you just forget about those muscles?

Today we will explore why the balance between the muscles of the inner thigh (hip aDDuctors) and the outer hip (hip aBDuctors) is important and discuss 6 common misconceptions that we have about those muscles.

Misconception 1. You Don’t Need to Strengthen Your Abductors and Adductors 

An anatomy diagram of the hip abduction muscles and hip adductorsYes, the main job of your hip adductors is to move the leg in toward the midline, and hip abductors to move the leg out. But another important role of those muscles is to stabilize your pelvis when you walk. Think about it for a moment – if you lifted your left leg up without changing the position of your pelvis, you would topple over to your left.

To avoid falling, your right leg needs to shift more toward the midline, which is accomplished by your adductors contracting and your abductors stabilizing. This dance happens every time you shift the weight to one leg, which means every time you take a step. Therefore the imbalance between your adductors and abductors will affect your walking gait and your balance.

An anatomy diagram showing the importance of the hip abduction muscles, which stabilize, and the hip adductors, which contract, and can create imbalance when weak or tight

If your abductors on one side are not strong enough to hold the pelvis leveled, the opposite hip will drop down as you walk. Or it can cause other muscles to compensate and become overly tight, which we will discuss later.

Misconception 2. The Adductors are Too Small to Affect Movement

Actually, your adductors are bigger than your hamstrings and only slightly smaller than your quadriceps, which means that they can generate incredible power. It also means that they can pull bones out of alignment if they get tight.

Showing the hip adductors on a woman in Mountain pose (Tadasana), which will tighten and try to rotate the thighs internallyMisconception 3. Keeping the Feet Together in Tadasana Will Build Strength

Originally, keeping the feet together in Tadasana (Mountain pose) was meant to teach discipline to young boys. It has this military quality to it. For the rest of us, keeping the feet together is not very stable and causes us to tense the inner thigh muscles, creating an imbalance between the inner and outer hip.

It is especially pronounced in women, since we naturally have wider hips. We already spend way too much time in our lives tightening our inner thighs; wouldn’t it make more sense to work on aligning the joints (hip over knee over ankle) and restoring the balance between the inner and outer hip?

Misconception 4. Crossing the Knees While Sitting Is Fine

Whenever you sit with your legs crossed for an extended period of time, you tighten your hip adductors (inner thighs) and weaken your hip abductors (outer hip). As we sit more and more and walk less and less, this pattern of imbalance becomes more common and more pronounced.

This dysfunctional relationship can result in difficulties with walking and balance, and also hip pain. This pain is likely to show up while walking or while lying on an affected side at night. It can either be focused in the hip area or radiate down the leg. It can show up both on the side of the leg and the back of the leg, which means that sometimes it can be misdiagnosed as sciatica (of course, someone can have both issues at the same time).

Woman in Tree Pose (Vrksasana) to stabilize the hip abductors by balancing on one legIf we want to restore balance to the adductor/abductor relationship, we need to both release tension in the adductors (inner thigh) and strengthen the abductors (outer hip). Remember that hip abductors play dual roles – as movers and as stabilizers, so ideally we would want to use them in both capacities.

In our yoga practice we often work on the stabilizing role of the abductors by balancing on one leg. Here is an interesting thing: if the abductors on one side are not strong enough to hold the pelvis level, the QL (quadratus lumborum) muscle on the other side might step in to help pull the hip up. Which means that in a pose like Vrksasana (Tree Pose), for example, one hip will be pulling up.

Skeletal diagram of two poses to stretch the hip adductors, Butterfly yoga pose (Baddha Konasana) on the left and Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend (Prasarita Padottanasana), on the rightIn a yoga practice we also often do movements that stretch the inner thighs by abducting the legs, but notice how none of these require an active engagement of the outer hip that happens when you move the leg out to the side against gravity.

As a result, the typical pattern of imbalance remains largely unchanged for many people. Even if you manage to briefly stretch your inner thigh muscles, they will tighten right up from habitual movement patterns and the abductors will not be strong enough to resist it.

Misconception 5. The Adductors Don’t Affect the Piriformis

The infamous piriformis muscle is responsible for rotating your hip outward and is a common reason for the literal pain in the butt. Another job that your adductors AND abductors do is rotate your hip inward. If either of them gets tight they can pull your hip inward, putting strain on the piriformis muscle.

Misconception 6. Use the Abductor-Adductor Machine To Strengthen Your Muscles

Most fitness experts agree that the popular hip abductor/adductor machine you will find at most gyms is not the best way to strengthen your muscles. The problem is that this movement does not replicate anything that you do in your day-to-day life; therefore it is not a “functional movement.” In addition, using heavy weight on this machine can strain your back and tighten your IT band to the point of pulling your knee out of place.

The Take-Away? Give Your Hip Abductor and Adductors Some Love in your yoga practice

To summarize – do not ignore your adductors/abductors. In your yoga practice make sure to include the movements that contract and stretch your inner thighs, as well as movements that make your hip abductors both stabilize the pelvis and move the leg out to the side. And watch out for compensation patterns from other muscles!

Reprinted with permission from SequenceWiz

YogaUOnline contributor Olga KabelEducated as a school teacher, Olga Kabel has been teaching yoga for over 14 years. She completed multiple Yoga Teacher Training Programs, but discovered the strongest connection to the Krishnamacharya/ T.K.V. Desikachar lineage. She had studied with Gary Kraftsow and American Viniyoga Institute (2004-2006) and received her Viniyoga Teacher diploma in July 2006, becoming an AVI-certified Yoga Therapist in April 2011. Olga is a founder and managing director of Sequence Wiz– a web-based yoga sequence builder that assists yoga teachers and yoga therapists in creating and organizing yoga practices. It also features simple, informational articles on how to sequence yoga practices for maximum effectiveness. Olga strongly believes in the healing power of this ancient discipline on every level: physical, psychological, and spiritual. She strives to make yoga practices accessible to students of any age, physical ability and medical history specializing in helping her students relieve muscle aches and pains, manage stress and anxiety, and develop mental focus.

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