I CRINGE when I see and hear dancers cracking their hips like it’s normal. Actually, for most dancers it’s pretty common. We’ve all been there, chatting with a friend before class when, mid-sentence, she shifts her weight into one hip and leans slightly off center, until… “Pop!” and she sighs in relief.
News Flash:While this is pretty common, it’s not normal.
It’s actually an indicator that, though you’re flexible, you’re very weak and unstable.
“But I crack them because they’re tight”
More to my point, the more unstable a muscle or muscle group is, the tighter it will feel. Hello! Those little muscles are little holding your leg on to your body.
This is especially true if you sometimes feel tight and other times do not! But let’s back up a little…
First of all, WHAT is making that popping sound?
“My hip, duh!” Okay, well… sort of.
Typically that “click,” “pop,” or “thud” noise comes from your iliopsoas tendon snapping over a bony bump at the top of your femur, if you’re an anatomy nerd, that bony bump is called the “iliopectinial eminence.” Dare you to play me in scrabble.
Okay, but WHY does this happen?
Well, like I mentioned above, usually this is our body’s way of telling us that our flexibility exceeds our stability throughout a particular range of motion. If the muscles that make up your core do not appropriately activate throughout a leg movement, for example a battement en seconde, one overly confident douche-bag muscle will step in and basically mansplain the whole process…
Who could it be? None other than your iliopsoas. So, this hip flexor muscle kicks in to help your core stabilize, which in turn causes that deep “clunk.”
Now you’re thinking, okay buuuut sometimes the “pop” feels good.
WHY does it feel so good?
When you experience the pop, or “cavitation,” as most physical therapists will call it, there is a rapid release of gasses from within the joint.
But wait, there’s more!
So in order to understand where the sound comes from you’ll want a little bit of joint anatomy.
Okay, so our joints are surrounded by an egg-whitey type of fluid called synovial fluid, you’ve probably heard of it. Around this is the joint capsule- which works like a balloon and creates a pressurized system within each joint. When you twist and bend and stretch, seeking that “pop,” this capsule stretches, with you. By stretching the capsule, imagine a water balloon, you increase its volume.
Flashback to 10th grade chem:
When the volume of a container increases the pressure decreases.
As this pressure decreases, the gasses released into the synovial fluid surrounding your joints become less soluble, forming bubbles through a process called… remember? Fancy word from earlier… cavitation. When the joint is stretched far enough, the pressure in the capsule drops so low that these bubbles burst and are redispersed around the joint. Giving you the euphoric “pop!” and “ahhh” moment.
Speaking of, why does it feel so good? So necessary?
When that joint capsule quickly stretches during cavitation, it causes a reflexive relaxation of the muscles in the surrounding area.
So even though it feels good, and has a fancy name, joint popping is still a result of underlying tightness.
‘What is “tightness” then?” you may ask. I know, I know, it feels like a rabbit hole.
However, in most cases, “tightness” is simply your brain saying “stop moving” so much.
But actually, there are a few other reasons.
A big one, believe it or not, is fear, most commonly from instability.
If your joint is unstable in certain positions, most often near end ranges, and you repeatedly go into that position, your body senses the increased risk of injury.
It then increases tone* (*tone meaning how muscles respond to stimulus, not necessarily looking “toned”) in the surrounding muscles to limit that position.
This is a warning sign to gain more control (eg. strength), NOT to stretch it to oblivion.⠀
Your body can also increase tone if you are sore or fatigued.
All work to the body can cause micro-tears in the muscles. This is totally normal and when your body rebuilds (from proper recovery) it builds up stronger. This is a good thing. But sometimes your body feels it more than others and you feel tight as it gives you a bit of warning not to overdo it.⠀
This is the tightness you feel after a hard workout or challenging class or rehearsal.
Another scenario that might result in the “tight” feeling, not necessarily from instability though, is staying in one position for too long.
For example, imagine you’re on a national tour.
If you finish two shows then immediately pack up and sit on your company tour bus, traveling from Detroit to Cleveland, the following morning when you arrive and unload into the new theatre, you might anticipate some tightness.
Typically this tightness can be resolved by warming up. You feel tight but if you gradually start moving again (and don’t push things too quickly), you get your full range back and that tightness disappears.
Of course, there is always the “perfect storm” where it’s a combination with all the above scenarios.
So what can you take from this?
If you feel tight here and there and your range of motion restrictions change often, you likely need less stretching and more time focused on these two things: Either more strength and control work or better recovery. Furthermore, your joints don’t need you to “pop” them.
They need you to love them.
Popping your hips, cracking your neck or back, even snapping your fingers is an unnecessary habit that could lead to irritation and inflammation.
Start breaking that habit. Instead of cracking your hips when you feel the urge, or popping Advil when you feel tight, address the underlying issue as to why you feel the need to pop; maybe add these exercises to your warm-ups and workouts.
Glute bridge x15: lie on your back, feet hip-width apart. Close your rib cage, and squeeze your butt cheeks to lift you off the ground.
Frog pump x15: press the soles of your feet together, making a diamond shape (Trina’s, don’t use your full 180* turnout). Close your rib cage. Squeeze your butt cheeks to lift you off the ground.
Clam/ reverse clam x10/e: working your turn out and your turn IN, for complete hip stability.
Tailbone Tucks x10/e: set up in a 90-90 kneeling position. Ribs down and closed. Push your tailbone back, then use your glutes to pull it forward for a stretch in the hip flexors.
Hip circles x10/e: working your ronde jambe against gravity to create strong, stable hips. Careful not to arch or sway your back. Start small and gradually make larger circles as you get stronger.
Lying hip flexor stretch x10/e: lie on a bench with one butt cheek hanging off, that knee at 90*, foot flat on the floor. The other leg should be bent and pressed into the bench. Close your ribs. Squeeze the butt cheek of the extended leg for 10 seconds, driving the heel into the floor, then relax.
Was this helpful? What else do you need help with and exercises for? Comment below!