Motocross & The Hip Hinge
Before I get into hinging, I want to mention that it is well worth your time to master the plank. The plank teaches you how to maintain a neutral spine under load, which is essential for proper hinging.
What hinging refers to is the ability to pivot at the hips while maintaining a long spine (as opposed to hyperflexed or hyperextended). Most people have a tendency to round their upper back (think hunchback) or collapse their lumbar (swayback) when trying to move. What this does is place forces on the spine that should be supported by the hips. A large contributing factor to this is living a sedentary lifestyle & adopting poor posture, which leads to the predominance of chronic back pain we see in society today.
The two main reasons hinging is important to the motocross rider are also why it’s important for everyone else: 1) efficient skeletal loading & 2) reduced chance of injury.
The largest muscles of the body are located at the hips. Anatomy knows them as the gluteus maximus; you probably know them more commonly as your butt. Being the largest (and strongest) muscles of the body, the glutes are designed to absorb substantial loads. In order to do so however, the spine must be in proper alignment.
People who have a kyphotic spine usually have their hips tucked under. In this position, the glutes (and their associates, the hamgstrings) are shortened. Thus, they cannot bear much loading because they are already in a near-fully contracted position. Usually, this is indicative of tight hamstrings & weak spinal erectors and results in a lot of stress at the knees.
On the other hand, people who have a lordodic spine have their hips turned out too much. The hips stick out behind the body, while the belly falls to the front. The glutes can’t function properly here because they are excessively lengthened, so the forces get transferred mostly to the lumbar spine. Tight hip flexors and/or weak abdominals are the culprit.
It’s not uncommon to see riders who are either hunched up on the bike, or who complain of their backs fatiguing after a short amount of time. The cure for both of these cases is to master the hinge. A great example of the hinge is a movement called “the founder”.
The position the founder teaches keeps the spine long (so the lumbar vertebrae don’t compress and cause pain) and it keeps the hips flexed, which lengthens the glutes & hamstrings. Some exercises that help strengthen this position are bridging, kettlebell swings, & deadlifting when done properly. As a matter of fact, compare the above image of RC with the following image of an anatomically correct deadlift.
This is why I encourage all motocross athletes to use the deadlift in their routines. Other hip extension exercises (like the ones previously listed) can be used in place of the deadlift if the individual has back or knee problems, however the deadlift is most similar to the position used when on the bike. It’s also the one that can be loaded the easiest and will, therefore, yield the greatest strength gains.
Proficiency at loaded hip extension exercises gives you the best reference for how to position your body on the bike for the best leverage & for the least fatigue, both of which help you go faster with more control.
As far as keeping you from getting hurt, if you have more control over the bike, you’re less likely to crash in the first place. The hinge divides the upper-half of the body from the lower-half, which allows your legs to move with the bike without destabilizing your torso.
If your hips tuck underneath you too much, the jolts caused by a rough track get transferred to your spine instead of your hips, making it much harder to stabilize yourself. It also puts your body in an unnatural loading pattern, which can cause chronic pain off the bike.
Hinging stretches many of the common problem areas for athletic injuries: hamstrings, calves, glutes, & spinal erectors. So, if you happen to take a soil sample, you’ll have a greater chance of walking away from the crash than somebody who is tight in those muscle groups.
The next time you’re watching a race, pay attention to how the fast guys get around the track. One rider in particular to watch now is Ryan Villopoto. He is very good at using hip placement to control the bike, which helps him go fast with less effort when the track is good, and handle the rough stuff with greater ease when it’s not.
Shorter riders will probably have less hip extension than taller ones, but this is not the case for everybody. Taking time to become aware of your hips’ placement helps you to center your gravity to counter-balance the bike for better control, so you can spend more time riding faster and less time on the ground.
Until next time…
Keep it strong, keep it vegan.