If you think about your legs—actually don’t think about them, look at them. Your legs are three-dimensional. Cylindrical in shape, with feet at the bottom and a pelvis at the top. Seems utterly elementary, no? Well, maybe not. As I sit at my computer typing what will be a brilliant anatomical blog (I hope!), I am seated with my hips and knees in flexion: the same action you do when you sit at your computer, or when you drive, or ride a bike, or run, or when you walk. In these movements, you utilize multiple directions of movement but only one plane of movement. The sagittal plane: the back and forth plane as it were.
Now, think about a speed skater or a roller blader or a cross-country skier. When they move they go forward but they also shift from left to right, into a second plane (called the frontal or coronal plane). That action also incorporates two more directions of movement: ADduction and ABduction. ADduction is when you draw your legs towards each other, ABduction is when you move them away from each other. The simplest illustration is jumping jacks. When you jump apart you ABduct. When you jump your legs together, you ADduct. The two antagonistic muscle groups that control these motions, are conveniently called ADductors and ABductors. Quick definition: An antagonist is a muscle that performs the opposite function of another muscle, called the agonist. They usually come in pairs.
Back to the first plane: forwards and backwards, flexion and extension. We sit, we stand, we bend over, we drive, we run, we bike, we walk. Those activities are all flexion-extension-flexion-extension. We know that repetitive muscle action creates habits of adaptive shortening in our muscle tissues. But what about muscles we use minimally because of daily life, like the abductors and adductors? When was the last time you started randomly fake speed skating or square dancing spontaneously? I’m guessing never. Mostly likely the only time you focus attention on these muscle groups is when you are at the gym doing lateral lunges, using the weight machines or in a yoga class practicing Prasarita Padottanasana and realizing how tight they are. Sidebar: Best gym reference ever…years ago, a friend at the gym referred to the AD/ABduction machines as the “Yes” and “No” muscle machines. Use your imagination. Moving on.
Both these often ignored muscle groups are immensely important to pelvic/hip stability.
The major hip abductors are: All three Gluteus siblings, Maximus, Medius and Minimus; the Tensor Fasciae Latae (TFL); and the Sartorius. These muscles not only move the leg laterally away from the centerline, but are totally key for hip stability. If they are weak, the pelvis will not remain horizontal when balancing on one foot or when walking. An imbalance on one side can create compensatory action on the opposite side, establishing poor postural habits or lower back pain. Weakness in these muscles can also allow for the knees to buckle towards the midline, throwing off alignment of the leg from hip to ankle.
The adductor group is made of 6 muscles: Adductor(s) magnus, longus and brevis; Pectineus; Gracilis; and drum roll please…Gluteus Maximus’ lower fibers doing double duty by partaking in adduction as well as abduction. The adductors stabilize the leg at the hip socket, keeping the leg aligned with the hip when walking, running or weight bearing. Again, weakness in this muscle group can create postural issues including bowing of the leg outward, possibly creating adaptive shortening in the abductors, which can lead to pain in the outer hip.
YTU has specific and effective movements to strengthen and stretch these connected muscles groups. In related articles I mention Prasarita Lunges and Adductor Slides; I would also recommend Abductor Lifts. Yoga Tune Up® has two versions of this exercise, one static and one dynamic. The dynamic version helps get synovial fluid into the hip socket while strengthening the muscles with slow, controlled motion. The static version is an isometric hold in which you work against gravity to fortify the outer hip. Strong hips, strong legs, strong posture. A more balanced you, top to bottom, left to right!