They may be a far less talked about muscle group than most of the others, but your hip abductors are very important when it comes to proper body functioning. You use them nearly constantly when you're moving, and hip abductors are integral to our standing and walking as well as rotating our legs. Hip abductors, when properly strengthened and used, keep our knees from knocking inwards and our backs from hurting, and can also help us craft shapely backsides.
Interested in learning more about this often-forgotten muscle group? Read on to learn what hip abductors are, the benefits of working them out, and a series of sample exercises for you to try, provided to us by personal trainers.
Meet the Expert
What Are Your Hip Abductor Muscles?
There are seven different muscles that make up the hip abductors. Certified personal trainer Jessa Olson tells us, "The primary hip abductor muscles are the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and tensor fasciae latae (TFL). The secondary hip abductors are the piriformis, sartorius, and gluteus maximus." She notes that the act of hip abduction is simply the movement of the leg away from the body. Because this can be in any direction, that means your hip abductors are used anytime you move your legs.
As for their importance, trainer Martin Miller says hip abductors "have multiple functions that include controlling the pelvis and lower extremity during functional activities as well as raising the leg laterally, or to the side, when someone is in a non-weight bearing position." Our hip abductors play a key role in our bodily movements, and it's necessarily that they work well. He notes, "It is essential for optimal human movement that the hip abductor muscles function properly as they help to control the positioning of the pelvis and lower extremities. When there is an imbalance in the hip abductors during activities such as walking, running, or jumping, there will be much greater stress placed throughout the body, increasing the chance of injury in the entire lower body and lower back/pelvis."
Benefits of Hip Abductor Exercises
We may not think about them much, but we benefit greatly from strengthening our hip abductor muscles. Olson says that the benefits of hip abductor exercises include "reducing knee valgus, better muscle activation and performance, and decreasing pain."
She explains that "knee valgus means when your knees cave inward," noting that it happens "when there is a lack of hip strength." This is an occurrence that's also called being "knock kneed," or a collapsing of the knee. Some people have this condition on an ongoing basis, while others experience it only during weight-bearing activities or exercises like squats. If you've noticed that when you exercise your legs, your knees shift inward toward one another, you're experiencing knee valgus, and exercising your hip abductors can reduce that.
As for improved muscle activation and performance, Olson says this is important because "when we have imbalances, other muscles pick up the slack. Increasing hip strength will strengthen and lengthen our hips to make the 'right' muscles do the work." For any exercises you do, of course you want to use the intended muscles.
Hip abductor workouts can reduce pain in these areas of our bodies: hips, knees, legs, back, pelvis, and hamstrings.
Who Should Avoid Hip Abductor Exercises
Everyone can benefit from hip abductor exercises, but is it safe for everyone to do them? Mostly, yes. Miller notes that in order for these workout moves to be effective, "it is important to be able to execute the exercises with ideal form and technique so that the hip abductors are safely worked while not creating excessive strain or allowing compromised form and technique."
As for who should avoid these exercises entirely, Olson tells us that anyone with a hip injury should consult their practitioner first. She says that if you have weak or inflexible hips, it's best to perform these moves slowly. And if you are new to exercising period, it's best to consult with your practitioner before trying anything new.
Four Hip Abductor Exercises
Now that you know how much you'll benefit from hip abductor exercises, and whether they are safe for you to try, here are some to get you started.
Side Lying Hip Abduction
- Lie on your side and bend your bottom leg. "Ensure your head is in a comfortable position, feel free to support your head with your hand or a pillow if more comfortable," Miller says,
- With your top leg straight and your foot in a neutral position, raise your top leg in a slow and controlled manner. Miller says this should be up to, but no more than, 45 degrees.
- Pause at the top for a moment, then lower your leg slowly. The movement is finished once your leg has touched the floor.
Standing Hip Abduction
- Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart.
- Put your hands on your hips if you're able to balance well that way. If you aren't able to balance, place them on a stable object such as a chair.
- Hold one leg steady, and lift the other leg out to the side, keeping your foot in a relaxed position and leading slightly with your heel. Miller says to perform the move "until you start to feel your lower back move, or no more than 45 degrees."
- Pause with your leg out for a moment.
- Slowly lower your leg to your starting position while keeping your foot off the ground, and repeat.
- Stand with your arms extended in front of you. Olson says that your palms should be facing down.
- Slowly begin to move forward by swinging one leg up and extending it straight out. As you do this, extend the opposite arm in front of you.
- Lower your leg and arm back to the starting position, then repeat on the other side. This will give the appearance of a stiff walk, like Frankenstein. Olson says that this move will increase your range of motion while working your hips, quads, and hamstrings.
Threading the Needle
- Lie on your back. Bend your knees, and put your feet close to your hips.
- Place one ankle at the bottom of the opposite leg's thigh.
- Put your hands around your thigh or your shin, if easier, and bring your leg toward your chest.
- Pause and hold here. Olson suggests staying for up to one minute in this position, noting that you'll feel the stretch in your hips and glutes.
- Return to your starting position, then repeat on the other side. Olson says this move is ideal as a cool-down exercise.
The Final Takeaway
Our hip abductors are a group of seven muscles in the center of our bodies. They are integral for everything we do with our legs, because they are the muscles we use when we move our legs away from our bodies. Hip abductor workout moves can reduce pain, improve musculature, and keep us limber. They should be avoided by anyone with a hip injury, and anyone who has a lack of flexibility in their hips should exercise caution when performing them.
Strengthening our hip abductors helps our fitness overall because it helps us use the correct muscles when exercising, rather than getting off-kilter and compromising with the wrong muscles. Strong hip abductors means everything from less knock knees to a stronger rear end. You may not have been familiar with this muscle group before, but it's an important one for your overall fitness.
Kak H-B, Park S-J, Park B-J. The effect of hip abductor exercise on muscle strength and trunk stability after an injury of the lower extremities. Journal of Physical Therapy Science. 2016;28(3):932-935. doi:10.1589/jpts.28.932