Few months ago this 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. Do not try this at home! Mr Van Damme continues to demonstrate a remarkable strength and flexibly in his 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. I don’t need to work on my adductors/abductors unless I intend to play hockey or do splits.
Yes, 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.
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. Adductors are small, so they don’t have the power to affect the movement much.
Actually, your adductors are bigger then your hamstrings and only slightly smaller then 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.
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 has nothing to do with my hip pain.
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).
If 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, for example, one hip will be pulling up.
In 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. Adductors have nothing to do with my piriformis
The infamous piriformis muscle (that we will explore in depth next week) 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. More about it next week.
Misconception 6. I can just do the “thigh machine” at the gym
Most fitness experts agree that the popular hip abductor/adductor machine 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.
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!
Check out this sample yoga practice to promote a balanced relationship between your adductors and abductors. Give it a try!