Pilates for Hip Joint Health

blog post mondays Jun 03, 2024
A dog on the floor with splayed hind legs


Nature is full of trade-offs. Take the cheetah, for example. It’s the fastest land animal on Earth, capable of reaching speeds up to 70 miles per hour, and can hit this top speed in just a few seconds! But what does the cheetah trade for this incredible speed? Endurance. Why does this matter?


Cheetahs can only sustain their high-speed chases for short durations, which means if they don’t catch something before their "gas tank" quickly runs out, they miss their lunch. Miss enough lunches and bye bye cheetah. Comparing the cheetah to, say, a wolf, shows how different trade-offs come with different advantages. Wolves are built for endurance, allowing them to track and wear down prey over long distances. The trade-off there? Would you rather work for a long time for your lunch, or risk it all in a short sprint for a tasty meal?


What about humans? What trade-offs do we face?


Perhaps the most well-known trade-off is between brain size and energy consumption. Humans have extraordinarily large brains relative to body size, which affords us the ability to solve complex problems and engage in intricate social interactions. However, our brains consume about 20% of the body’s energy, necessitating that we eat well and often.


Then, after our big brains, the next characteristic that really sets us apart from other animals is our bipedalism. The trade-offs for walking on two legs might make you wish you could go back to walking on your hands and feet. Bipedalism makes childbirth more difficult due to the narrower shape of a pelvis adapted for two-legged walking. What else? Bipedalism is also why so many of us suffer from back pain, as walking upright puts considerable strain on the spine.


But bipedalism doesn’t have to mean back pain if you understand the mechanics of walking, which revolve around our joint of the month—the hip! Keep reading to explore the trade-offs of this powerful ball-and-socket joint and discover how understanding its mechanics can enhance your overall movement health.


Joint Type Matters


The hip joint is what’s called a “ball-and-socket” joint. The “ball” is created by the femoral head (aka: the top of your thigh bone), and the socket is created by the acetabulum of the pelvis (aka: your hip bone). Check it out below.


Understanding joint types is crucial because each has its own pros and cons. We'll explore the hip joint's ball-and-socket structure by examining its movement. Specifically, we'll discuss how Pilates in Common teaches new students to move their hip joints. Remember, in this article, "socket" refers to the pelvis, and "ball" refers to the head of the femur.


We begin by teaching you to move the socket. This is key because your spine is supported by your pelvis, and how you move your pelvis affects your spine's mobility and stability. This is especially important for our clients recovering from back pain. Learning to control pelvic movement helps identify and prevent harmful movements, which is essential for healing and maintaining long-term spinal health. We find that teaching students how to move first helps them understand when they've lost stability, and that's what we teach next.


After moving the socket, we teach you how to stabilize, or not move, it. Understanding how to achieve and maintain pelvic stability is vital not only for spinal health but also for hip health. The hip's ball-and-socket joint offers a wide range of motion but sacrifices some stability. To truly strengthen the hip muscles, learning to stabilize the pelvis is imperative. This ensures that hip movements recruit the correct muscles, preventing compensatory patterns such as overactivating the spinal muscles.


Once you master moving and stabilizing the socket, we then teach you to move the ball—the femoral head. Properly stabilizing the pelvis allows the femur to move precisely and freely, which is important for maintaining proper hip function and preventing injury.


This step-by-step approach helps strengthen and mobilize the muscles around the pelvis and hip, which is vital for your joint's overall function and health.


After mastering these movements, we introduce more complex actions. For example, can you move the ball within the socket, then adjust the socket itself, and keep everything stable while bending your spine? This progressive learning ensures you safely improve your hip flexibility and strength, while integrating your ability to control your hip joints during more complex exercises. 



Now that you have a better understanding of how the hip joint moves, let's take a closer look at the trade-offs of its joint type. Recognizing these trade-offs helps you understand what is required to take care of your hips.


The YAYs of the ball-and-socket:


Range of Motion, baby: This type of joint allows a high degree of freedom in movement. Almost every movement type is available at the hip joint – flexion (forward bending), extension (back bending), abduction (away from the middle), adduction (towards the middle), external and internal rotation (spinning away and towards the middle), and circumduction (circles).


Load Bearing: Refer to the graphic above to see how the femoral head (ball) fits precisely into the acetabulum (socket). This configuration provides a broad contact surface, essential for distributing the dynamic forces during movement. This efficient force distribution is critical as it helps manage the various stresses imposed by activities like walking and running, where the hips play a central role in supporting and moving the body.


Shock Absorption: This joint doesn’t just support, it cushions. The hip’s ball-and-socket design, enhanced by cartilaginous tissues, excels in absorbing and distributing shocks from movements such as walking or jumping. This protection reduces stress on higher joints like the spine and lower ones like the knees, safeguarding the entire kinetic chain from excessive wear and potential injuries. This feature is crucial for maintaining long-term mobility and comfort.


The Trade Offs:


Instability and Susceptibility to Degenerative Diseases: The hip's ball-and-socket joint trades stability for its vast range of motion, allowing for extensive movements but also leading to less joint stability. This wide range of motion can result in less control and make the joint more susceptible to dislocations and other forms of instability, especially under stress or during vigorous activities. Additionally, this same design exposes the joint to a higher risk of degenerative diseases such as osteoarthritis. The frequent and varied use of the joint increases wear and tear on its cartilage, leading to gradual deterioration, chronic pain, and reduced mobility over time.


Complexity of Maintenance: The load-bearing capacity of the hip joint necessitates strong support from surrounding muscles and ligaments. This complexity means maintaining hip health involves consistent effort to ensure muscle strength, joint stability, and proper alignment. Neglect or improper care can lead to imbalances, increased strain, and eventual dysfunction or pain. If you need a reason to use your standing desk – this is it!


We want your hip joints to have all the advantages its anatomy provides. How can we help? By addressing this little gem: “This complexity means maintaining hip health involves consistent effort to ensure muscle strength, joint stability, and proper alignment.” At Pilates in Common, we specialize in breaking down complex movement mechanics into bite-sized, comprehensible lessons. We don’t just teach Pilates exercises, we make sure you understand them. 


Written by: Destinie Slavich