Hip injuries are very common in the sports of weightlifting, powerlifting and CrossFit. However, what most people don’t realize is that the cause of the pain was often there long before the symptoms started.
A great exercise that I’ve been using recently during the rehab process of patients dealing with hip injuries is the “airplane” (or “tippy bird”). It was designed by Dr. Stuart McGill as an active flexibility exercise for the glute muscles and an essential part of a comprehensive warm-up for those who lift weights!1,3 In order to adequately prepare your body to hoist massive weights in training or competition (and do so pain free) you must first enhance your sense of control and balance. This exercise does just that.
But why would someone who can squat 600 lbs. easily need to work on their balance and sense of control? It’s because a majority of the injuries we develop as athletes don’t often arise due to strength deficits but instead are due to insufficient control of the strength we do have. This lack of balance and control leads to an accumulation of micro-trauma that adds up and develops in to the aches and pains of injury.
Today I want to share with you not only the “hip airplane” but also the progression I use to teach the exercise.
In order to perform the full airplane movement, you must first show the necessary stability and coordination to balance on one leg. Perform this exercise barefoot so you can feel your toes gripping the floor and your bodyweight spread evenly across the tripod foot. This will help you activate the smaller muscles of your feet that are essential in creating a stable body from the “ground up.”
Step 1: Assume a single leg stance. Lock your ribcage down by bracing your core.
Step 2: Spread your arms out to the side and rotate your torso forward over your stance leg while kicking your back leg behind you. Keep your trail leg completely straight and your stance leg knee locked in a slightly bent position. Imagine that your body is a teeter-totter or seesaw. Draw a line from your shoulder through your hip down to your knee/ankle. Keep this line straight throughout the Superman exercise. If you are familiar with a wide range of weight training movements, this will be similar to the single leg roman deadlift or RDL.
Step 3: Once you have gone as far forward as possible without losing balance, hold that position for 10 seconds before returning back to a standing position. Make sure your heel is jammed into the ground and you are gripping the ground with your toes. The end goal with this movement is to be able to balance with your chest completely parallel to the floor for the full 10 seconds. If you are doing this correctly, you should feel some tension in your upper hamstrings and the glutes of your stance leg.
Recommended sets/reps: Start with 1-2 sets of 10 reps for a minimum 10 second hold.
The Hip Airplane
The airplane will be performed exactly like the “superman” exercise above, except we’re going to introduce some rotation to the movement. This addition not only increases the difficulty of maintaining balance (as you’ll soon find out) but it teaches your body to actively control your glute muscles through a full range of motion. This is a concept Dr. McGill refers to as “steering” your strength.1
Step 1:Assume a single leg stance once again. Lock your ribcage down by bracing your core.
Step 2:Rotate your body forward over your stance to a point you can hold without losing balance (this does not need to be a parallel chest position to the ground like the “superman” to start).
Step 3:Instead of holding for 10 seconds, rotate your torso in towards your stance leg (hip internal rotation) followed by rotating it away (hip external rotation). A cue that helps some is to think about moving your belly button towards your stance leg and then out away to the side.
Step 4: Perform 3-5 rotations before standing back up. You should feel this exercise working the glutes of your stance leg.
Recommended sets/reps: Start with 1-2 sets of 10-20 reps (progressing the amount of reps as you can do while maintaining your balance).
I find that these have been extremely helpful with those who have been dealing with anterior hip pain (especially a hip joint impingement). For those who are dealing with this specific injury, I recommend onlyperforming the external rotation portion of the airplane movement (rotating the torso away from their stance leg) as internal rotation may cause an irritation of symptoms.
As you gain better control over your balance and steering ability during the rotational part of this movement, you can start learning forward with a more inclined trunk position to increase the difficulty.
A research article published in 2017 on the effects of glute activation exercises included a resisted variation on the “hip airplane” that I have found to be particularly interesting.2
In order to continue progress during the rehab from a hip injury, the “airplane” may not be enough to challenge the athlete’s balance and coordination. The simplest way to increase the difficulty of the movement is to stand on an unstable surface (like a foam pad or even a small pillow). However, another way is to use RNT (reactive neuromuscular training). In previous blog posts we have discussed the use of RNT to teach an athlete to feel for how he or she is moving (also known as proprioception).4This banded progression uses this method to teach an athlete how to improve their ability to “steer” their strength.
Step 1:Assume a single leg stance just as you did with the prior two exercises, however this time have a light resistance band secured around your stance leg knee pulling laterally away from your body. Also, hold a light dumbbell in the same hand as that stance leg to help as a counterbalance.
Step 2: Perform the “hip airplane’ motion. The resistance band pulling away from the body should stimulate the glutes and adductors (muscles on the inside of the thigh) to work together to coordinate smooth and balanced movement of the hip joint.
Recommended sets/reps: Start with 2-3 sets of 10 reps.
I hope this article was helpful in providing a blueprint progression for this novel exercise. I recommend using this exercise not only during the rehab process of any hip injury but also during the warm-up process for any lower body barbell training.
Until next time,
- McGill S. 2014. Ultimate back fitness and performance (6th) Warterloo, Canada: Backfitpro Inc.
- Cochrane DJ, Harnett MC, Pinfold SC. Does short-term gluteal activation enhance muscle performance? Research in Sports Medicine. 2017;25(2):156-165
- Liebenson C. Training the hip: a progressive approach. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2013;17(2):266-8
- Cook G, Burton L, Fields K. Reactive neuromuscular training for the anterior cruciate ligament-deficient knee: a case report. J Athl Train. Apr – Jun 1999; 34(2): 194-201