Improving inefficient gait patterns is often a focus among fitness professionals working with older adults. Walking problems can diminish independence and increase injury potential. A recent study suggests that regular stretching of the hip flexor muscles can improve gait patterns among this population.

The purpose of a study published in PM&R (2011; 3 [4], 324–29) was to determine the effectiveness of a 10-week hip flexor stretching program on walking patterns among 82 older adults. Participants were separated into two groups: one was assigned to a twice-daily hip flexor stretching program, the other to a shoulder abductor stretching program. Subjects were measured pre- and post-intervention for passive hip extension range of motion, dynamic peak hip extension, peak anterior pelvic tilt, stride length and gait speed during walking. At the end of the 10 weeks, both groups showed decreased anterior pelvic tilt. Those in the hip flexor group with limited peak hip extension also showed improvements in stride length and peak hip extension during walking.

Katy Bowman, IDEA author, and director of the Restorative Exercise Institute in Ventura, California, lays out the connection between hip flexors and gait patterns. “During ideal gait, the weight-bearing leg needs to push back to catapult the rest of the body forward—similar to how your car wheels roll the car ahead by pushing into the ground,” she explains. “Tight hip flexors reduce the amount of hip extension, decreasing the action of the glutes and the full length of the stride.” Bowman adds that these days, most individuals can benefit from a hip flexor lengthening program. For example, clients who sit most of the day or who participate in hip flexion–driven or seated activities like soccer, cycling or rowing should incorporate hip flexor stretches into their exercise routine.

What’s Bowman’s favorite hip flexor stretch? “I’m a big fan of the low lunge (see image), keeping the knee on the floor and being careful not to lift the ribs or arch the back. Because the psoas attaches to the lower thoracic spine, the rib thrusting in the more advanced yoga pose (with arms overhead) tends to take the stretch away from the hip flexors.”