If you’ve ever ended a ski day, or woken up the next morning with an achy low back, you’ve probably asked yourself questions about why that is happening and how you can prevent it. While there are multiple factors that can play into protecting your low back, today we are going to focus on one, often overlooked, region: the hips. Other factors to keep in mind connected to back pain with skiing are core strength and stability, eccentric control of the quadriceps, lower body endurance and skiing form.
Why is good hip mobility important in skiing?
Having adequate motion in the hips allows you to move freely through the ball and socket joint as you piston up and down through the squat-type movement involved in performing ski-turn or absorbing bumps and shocks from the snow. This joint is meant to move in this fashion, but if we either aren’t able to move enough or don’t properly use this motion, the movement will have to come from somewhere else. This often ends up transferring the load up the chain through the pelvis to the lower back and over-straining muscles, ligaments, and discs in that region. Having good hip motion not only allows you to keep your back in less stressful positions, but also puts you into a place to best use your gluteal or buttock muscles. These are an important power source to compliment the quadriceps when controlling the momentum created by gravity pulling you down the hill or when powering through a turn.
How much hip mobility should I have?
The goal is to have enough movement in your hip joints to achieve your skiing stance while maintaining a neutral spine position. In other words, you don’t want your low back to round significantly or your tailbone to tuck under when you’re skiing. The actual amount of motion you need will depend on your skiing style and goals. For example, a competitive mogul skier who’s knees come up close to their chest will need more mobility than a recreational skier cruising groomed runs.
You can test your hip mobility and spine position by standing one foot in front of a wall, facing away from the wall, hold a ski pole or broomstick along your back and align yourself so that the back of your head, your upper back, and your tailbone all touch the pole/stick. Now, perform a squat motion and tap your buttocks against the wall, then stand back up. Did you maintain contact with the pole at all three points during the entire motion? If yes, congratulations! You’ve met the basic benchmark for adequate hip mobility. If not, this is an area that could use some work, either to create more flexibility and available motion, or to learn to use your motion more effectively.
You can see a video of this test in our free self-assessment screening here.
Reasons hip mobility can be lacking
There is a wide spectrum of “normal” mobility in the hips. Some factors we are born with including the geometry of our hips – the angle at which they come out from the ball and socket joint can vary from person to person – or the general laxity or stretchiness in our joints and ligaments. There are a number of other more transient factors including tightness in muscles related to use or prolonged time being in one position (think desk-jockeys), also tightness deeper in the joint capsule can affect the ability of the ball and socket to slide properly. These are change-able factors. Other factors related to over-use or traumatic injuries can affect hip mobility, particularly femoro-acetabular impingement (FAI) which affects the labrum, or soft tissue around the joint.
What can I do to improve my hip mobility?
Start by addressing tightness in the muscles that can prevent hip flexion – work on stretching and/or rolling the gluteals and deeper hip rotator muscles such as the piriformis. Then work down into stretching capsular tissues by performing more oscillatory movements.
Hip hinging and optimization of movement
Once you have ensured that you have enough motion available, it is time to make sure that you are using that range of motion to your full advantage so that you can make full use of your powerful gluteal muscles and prevent excessive strain from transferring up to your back. Sometimes, even when we have enough motion there, our bodies have gotten into habits of using other movement patterns and it requires some retraining and repetition to develop new motor plans and “muscle memory.” Practice keeping your spine in the neutral position as you do squatting movements – go only as deep as you can before the low back wants to round or the pelvis starts to tuck under. Perform high repetitions at zero or low resistance to retrain your neuro-motor system.
If you would like more guidance in mobility work, our 6 week on-ramping program includes joint mobility techniques and motor control exercises to help you gain and utilize good hip motions. Check out which program matches your needs and skiing style best on our programs page.
An additional note for back-country skiers: hip rotational mobility for kick-turns
Performing a tight switch-back requires a large degree of external rotation mobility at the hips. Working on butterfly-sits and single-leg airplane twist type movements can help work on opening up the necessary movement for the oh-so-necessary kick-turn.
Call to action:
Work on hip mobility for at least 2-4 weeks prior to beginning your season to prime yourself for optimal movement.
If you are not making progress towards meeting the benchmarks for mobility or you experience consistent pain when trying to work into these ranges it would be worth consulting a local physical therapist or sports medicine physician for further evaluation.
Kristen Vaughan is a co-founder of the Alpine Training Project as well as an avid backcountry and freeride skier. She grew up slashing pow in Whitefish, Montana and now enjoys finding new lines at Crystal Mountain in Washington or exploring volcanoes and peaks of the Cascades. Kristen is a physical therapist at Union PT in Seattle and loves the process of helping people work through injuries in order to get back out there, doing what brings them alive. She also coaches womens freeride clinics in the Pacific Northwest.