Fitness Why you need to STOP ignoring this crucial body part during your workouts

It’s basically the secret weapon you never knew about.

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(Rodale Inc.)

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Say you walk into an IMAX movie about workouts and your body (bear with us for a sec). Which body part would have the leading role? Nope, not your butt. Not your abs. Not your legs either.

We're talking an area most women rarely even consider when exercising: the hips.

"Your hips are three-dimensional machines," says physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist Mike Reinold, founder of Champion Physical Therapy and Performance in Boston. "They may seem like simple ball-and-socket units, but because tons of muscles cross the front, back, and sides, they're a massive networking center of power."

You see, your hips are one of the primary force-producing joints, involved in virtually every lower-body movement from squatting down and jumping to running and lifting.

As the hinging center of your body, they also assist in maintaining your balance throughout anything that happens above them (presses, twists, throws, you name it).

And, of course, they keep you on your feet every time you sidestep or shuffle, whether over a puddle, down a curb, or on the dance floor.

Hence the 3-D responsibility: "Optimal hips generate force when you're moving forward or backward as well as stabilize your body in rotational, lateral, and up-down motions," says Reinold. "The problem is, few of us have optimal hips."

Our sedentary lifestyles are mostly to blame.

Sitting throws your hips into a crunched position, shortening and tightening the muscles there--namely your hip flexors, which run from your lower back to the top of your thighs and are responsible for lifting your legs.

And because your hip and glute muscles are connected, there's a snowball effect.

Your glutes can forget how to fire, setting you up for a lack of stability in your entire pelvic area, which affects your core and lower-body strength too.

Inspecting dozens of hips every week is just part of the job for physical therapists and personal trainers.

Naturally, they have a few tricks—exercises, actually—they want you to know.

Do them yourself and you'll reap all the power-producing, body-stabilizing potential you need to move exceptionally well, in and out of the gym.

1. Respect the little guys.

Your hip flexors are one huge part of the picture, but they're not the only muscles that need TLC. Before your workouts, especially lower-body ones, foam-roll your inner thighs and try an activation warm-up to strengthen your external rotators—you need them for 360-degree movement, says physical therapist David Reavy, CEO of React Physical Therapy in Chicago. He recommends three sets of 20 side-lying clamshells (each side) with a mini band around your knees.

SIDE-LYING CLAMSHELL

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(Rodale Inc.)

Lie down on your left side, your legs stacked, knees bent, and a resistance band just above your knees (a). Tighten your abs and slowly lift your right knee as high as you can, squeezing your glutes at the top (b). Lower your knee to return to start. That's one rep. Switch sides.

2. Go heavy.

"The hips respond really well to challenging loads, because they have a higher amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers—the kind that give you explosive bursts of energy," says Somerset. "Performing three to five reps using heavy resistance can do great things for their strength, mobility, and function."

Twice a week, aim to burn out those muscles with the barbell hip thrust. Start with three to five reps at 60 pounds, then work your way up in weight every couple of weeks.

BARBELL HIP THRUST

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(Rodale Inc.)

Sit on the floor with your shoulders against a bench, your spine neutral, and a barbell directly over your hips (a). Brace your core as you drive through your heels and squeeze your glutes to lift your hips off the ground (b). Keep your core engaged as you lower your hips to return to start. That's one rep.

3. Adopt a new term.

"Reverse posturing" is exactly what it sounds like. "You have to counteract what you do all day to keep your body moving well," says Reinold. Walking rocks, but so does a position that is the polar opposite of sitting: cobra pose. "The posture elongates the hips and legs and wakes up your glutes, all while stretching the front of your torso, which tends to slump throughout the day," he says. Hold the pose up to five minutes each night to keep your hips mobile and remind your glutes that they are there (and have a job to do).

COBRA POSE

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(Rodale Inc.)

Lie on your stomach, your legs extended, tops of your feet on the floor. Place your hands under your shoulders and hug your elbows close into your body. Begin to straighten your arms to lift your chest off the floor, keeping your pelvis and tops of your feet on the floor.

Tried and True

Squats. Lunges. Glute bridges. These classic moves are the holy trinity of hot and healthy hips.

Switch up your squat with these 20 variations that will help you tone your butt:

"When performed together, they're a trifecta that trains the hip muscles to flex as hard as possible (the bridge), contracts the muscles at their full range of motion, stretching them completely (the squat), and develops control of where the hips are going (the lunge)," says Somerset. Aim for 20 to 50 reps of each daily.

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