Hip-strengthening exercises for runners should be one of the cornerstones of any training plan. Not only will they help build stability in your hips and pelvis, but they’ll also pair beautifully with glute activation drills to keep your stride strong and effective. We’ll take you through our favorite hip-strengthening exercises, drills, and mobility work so you can start supplementing your training today.
Even a runner with some miles and races under their belt might wonder, what’s the difference between training my hips and my glutes? You’re not the only one! The hips and glutes work closely together to move your body through space, whether forward, backward, or side-to-side.
We can separate the two muscle groups for the sake of understanding their respective roles, but remember that they are closely intertwined, both anatomically and in the movements they perform.
To start, think about every step you take while running. In the moment of impact with the ground, your body weight is solely on that landing foot. All sides of the hip (abductors, adductors, hip flexors) are working to keep your balance, stabilize your leg, and prepare for the next step forward. In the case of weak hips, the body will call on other muscle groups to support you, whether that’s the glutes, hamstrings, or back. Done often enough, this can lead to overuse or compensation injuries and an inefficient running form. It’s important that every part of the chain does its share of the workload.
Let’s dig into that idea of stability. Imagine that your hips and pelvis are a bowl. When you set the bowl on a table, it’s level. If your hips drop to one side or the other as you run, it’s like the bowl is being tipped to the side. Whatever is inside will slosh out. Your hips are put in a similar position, and each drop side to side can cause problems such as lower back pain, knees that collapse inward while running, or IT band pain.
We’ll go into further detail below on how to build hip stability and single-leg strength to prevent that hip drop, and if you’re interested in more, click here to read about how hip posture affects your running form.
Now, let’s be sure to understand how your glutes work with your hips. You’ve probably already heard that the glutes are the largest muscle in the body, and that’s true. They are made up of three different regions: the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and the gluteus minimus. All together you’re looking at all the musculature from the top of your hamstrings to the bottom of your lower back.
The gluteus medius is located on the side of your leg at the hip and is often the first spot to look at when it comes to strengthening your hips and engaging your glutes. By ensuring that the gluteus medius are working, they take some of the demand of the hips, preventing fatigue and lending strength to your stride. The glutes also help add stability to your pelvis, preventing the hip drop mentioned above.
Now that we have a better understanding of the critical role of the hips in running, let’s get into some of our favorite exercises to build hip strength and practice glute activation.
The bridge is a particularly great exercise for building hip strength for several reasons.
We’ll cover 4 variations here, suitable for the very beginner all the way to someone experienced with strength training. Each variation will challenge the hips in a different way, contributing to overall strength and control.
Starting off with this variation gives you a chance to practice feeling your gluteus medius, that side hip, working in conjunction with your gluteus maximus to lift your hips up. Keep your back in a neutral position to avoid hyperextension.
It might be tempting to jump straight into the other variations, but make sure your form is spot on before progressing.
The next variation will still focus on using bodyweight only, but the demand for stability increases. By moving from a bilateral (both legs) to unilateral (single leg) movement, the hips have to work twice as hard to keep your hips level.
This is a fantastic variation to understand just how your hips work while running to prevent that hip drop.
Again we’re upping the demand on your strength by adding instability. Instead of moving on a single leg, both legs now work to counteract the movement of the feet being suspended. It may look easy, but once you try it you’ll feel your hamstrings light up to assist. Be sure to focus on keeping the glutes working and don’t let the hamstrings overcompensate.
The final variation moves back to stable ground but adds weight. By holding a dumbbell across the hips, you’ll build strength in addition to stability. If you don’t have a dumbbell, try pinning one end of a resistance band under your right foot, pull the band across your hips, and pin the other end under your left foot.
By now you’ve got a good feeling for how your hips contribute to your single-leg strength, stability, and balance. Building on that, the following glute activation drills will help build that awareness. Just like the hip-strengthening exercises, you’ll notice that even though these are glute activation drills you’ll still feel your hips working. Just another example of how these two muscle groups work in tandem through these movement patterns.
For the following simple exercises, you’ll need a small miniband to help isolate the glutes, which can be widely found online or in your gym.
Play around with the order in which you perform these two groups of exercises and see if you notice a difference. If you activate the glutes first, can you feel more engagement while performing the bridges? On the other hand, if you complete your bridges first, are you more aware of your hips working to stabilize your leg while completing the glute activation drills? There is no right or wrong here. It’s all about building the awareness of your individual body and how you get the most out of your work.
Lastly, let’s take a look at how one of our favorite mobility drills can help you prevent injury and improve your range of motion so you can amp up your training. This drill, called the couch stretch, looks deceptively simple. It’s an intense mobility drill that targets the front of the hip, the hip flexors. You’ll also feel a big stretch in the quads of the bent leg. By working at the end range of the hip flexors, you’ll actually be increasing your hip extension capabilities. In other words, you’ll be able to swing your leg farther back behind you. This allows for a bigger stride for when you want to bump up your speed.
As for injury prevention, by keeping slack in the muscles of your quads, you’re helping prevent runner’s knee. When the quadriceps muscle is tight (tight calves can be a culprit here, too), it can pull on the knee, causing pain. Those tight quads can also pull on the hip, encouraging it to tip forward and cause an anterior tilt or arched low back. None of those are good things for a runner!
There are 3 levels of progression with the couch stretch, so play around to find the right set up for you.
Whichever version you choose, try to stay in the position for 2-3 minutes per leg to be most effective. It’s best done after the exercises and drills above so your muscles are already warmed up.
For even more information about how your hips and glutes relate to your running, check out Coach Nate’s video on engaging your glutes while running. He’ll walk you extra awareness drills and to keep you running well and injury-free.
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