These days, it's more and more common for people to feel like it's hard to stand up after long periods of sitting.
You're at the office, working on a report for a few hours, and you go to get something from the printer. When you try to stand, you feel like the Tin Man from Wizard of Oz getting out of your seat.
You've been sitting at the dining table for twenty minutes. You go to stand up, and it's like your legs don't work anymore.
What's going on here? And how do you fix it?
In this article, we're going to look at WHY you have trouble getting up out of a chair and how you can improve your hip strength and mobility gradually and safely.
Is the problem old age?
A lot of times, doctors and other people blame "old age" for this problem. You're getting older. That's why you can't stand up. But this is not a good explanation.
If age alone is the cause of the problem, then why do some people have no problem getting up out of a chair despite being "old"? Also, why do some people in their twenties and thirties have trouble standing up after sitting for a long time?
Age just isn't a good explanation.
And, if age alone were the cause of the problem, there would be NO solution.
To understand the real cause of the problem, you need to understand one basic principle of how your body works.
You get better at what you practice.
Sitting for prolonged periods trains your body to get really good at one thing: sitting.
The longer you train to sit, the easier it gets to sit. The easier it is to sit, the harder it gets to stand up and walk properly.
When you're younger, this doesn't seem to be nearly as big an issue. Your physical activity levels as a kid or teenager are generally much higher (at least in the distant past before iPhones, iPads, and video games). And your body's ability to adapt to physical demands is just plain better. Your body is in growth mode, and it builds and maintains muscle a lot more easily.
As you get older and sit in a chair for 8-18 hours a day, 5 days a week, the muscles that control your hip joints get better and better at sitting. Your body's ability to quickly transition to other positions is not as good - because you have not actively trained your body to do it.
The obvious question is "can you do anything to combat it even as you age?" And the answer is yes.
Is it arthritis in my hips?
Another common theory doctors will often offer is that arthritis of the hips is the cause of your inability to stand up from a chair. They may take X-rays of your hips and see signs of "damage." Bam. Arthritis is your cause. Pay me $300 now please.
What they won't tell you is the diagnosis of hip arthritis is built on shaky scientific foundation. More importantly, lots of people have hip arthritis in X-rays and NO SYMPTOMS AT ALL.
Hip arthritis is a poor explanation for problems getting up from a sitting position. It's a seductively simple explanation, but it's not based on good science.
And, if it were true, there would be no way to fix the situation. You would just be on a never-ending spiral toward worse and worse hip function.
What sitting for long periods does to your body
Before we get to your solutions to this problem, let's make sure you understand the mechanics.
We'll start as simply as possible and then get down into the details.
The sitting position places your hip joints in "flexion." That's a fancy way of saying your knees come closer to your chest.
The standing position requires hip extension. That's a fancy way of saying moving your knees further from your chest. For standing, you need enough hip extension to get your thigh bones to line up under your torso
If you are constantly practicing hip flexion (by sitting), you make it harder for your body to do hip extension (standing). Simple, right?
The muscles you need to focus on when you have trouble standing up
Sitting squashes the life out of muscles that help give you hip extension (standing). These are the muscles on your back side. The glutes, the hamstrings, and the deep hip rotators all get squashed while you sit. This reduces blood flow and your brain's connection to the muscles.
That means the muscles responsible for standing are being choked to death. Every day.
Imagine if you put a tourniquet on your elbow and had your fingers splinted in one position. All day long. Would you expect your fingers and forearm muscles to be strong and healthy?
No. If you cut off the blood supply and stop using muscles, the muscles wither away. That's true for ANY muscle group.
Now, what about the muscles responsible for hip flexion? These muscles are called the hip flexors. These are the muscles on the front of the hip and thigh. When they contract, they bring your knee closer to your chest.
If they are stiff and inflexible, they STOP hip extension.
Why would they be stiff and inflexible? Because you put them in a shortened position all day long. They are not used to lengthening AND being strong in that position.
So you now have hip extensors that have been squashed to death on the back of your hips. On the front of your hips, your hip flexors are locked into shortened positions.
You are literally locked in place.
In order to combat this situation, you need to “lengthen” the flexors and activate the extensors.
How to improve your ability to stand up after sitting
Now that you understand the basic principles, you can start to address the muscles.
First we'll start with some stretches to address the hip flexors. Then we'll look at exercises to build the hip extensor and leg strength so you can stand up!
Over time, your hip muscles will allow you to stand up comfortably, even after long periods of sitting.
Stretches to help you stand up
1) Standing quad stretch (30 sec – 1 min.)
Option 1: Stand on one foot and bend the other leg back and grab the foot or ankle with your hand (use something to help you balance if necessary). Keeping your body upright and the thigh of the bent leg lined up with the straight leg, pull the foot toward your butt. Tuck your tail bone down toward the floor to help avoid over-arching your lower back. You should feel a stretch in the thigh.
Option 2: If you cannot grab your foot to do this or you have to bend so far forward that you lose your balance, you can stand with your back to an elevated surface (like a chair or couch arm rest) and put your foot on top of it. Tuck your tail bone down toward the floor to help avoid over-arching your lower back and to begin getting a stretch in your thigh.
2) Standing groin/hip flexor stretch (30 sec. – 1 min.)
Stand with your feet pointing straight forward and hip width apart. To stretch the front of the right hip, take a big step forward with the left foot, leaving the right leg behind. Straighten the right knee. You should feel a stretch at the top of your right thigh near the groin. To get more of a stretch along the sides of your torso and at the TFL, you can raise your right hand up toward the ceiling and lean to your left.
Hold for 30 seconds to a minute, then repeat on the other side. Depending on your body, you may get more stretch with your right heel off the floor or on the floor. You may also get a better stretch by pointing your back foot at an angle out to the side instead of straight forward.
To avoid slouching in your upper body, you may place your hands behind your head with fingers interlaced and elbows pulled back.
3) Wall quad stretch (1-3 min.)
If you want a REALLY effective stretch for your hips, this one can be a big help. It’s a big step up from the standing quad stretch. If the standing quad stretch doesn’t feel like it’s doing much, this one WILL.
In the video above, you can see how easy it is to get a really good stretch on your quads and hip flexors using a kneeling version and a wall or chair. That’s going to help you really open up some of those wretchedly tight hip muscles.
Those anterior hip muscles pull you into a forward hunch that feels almost impossible to overcome if you don’t get them to loosen up. This is a big factor in not being able to stand up after sitting.
How often should you do these hip stretches to make standing up easier?
This is going to vary a LOT. It depends on how active you are. For example, if you regularly stretch throughout the day and also do a healthy amount of hiking, strolling, and moving your body, you might find your hips feel freer quickly.
But if you've been a sedentary slug for thirty years, expect it to take longer to feel significantly better.
Sometimes it's a week or two to feel significant changes. Sometimes it's months. Consistency is key.
You should also know that doing these two stretches is unlikely to solve EVERYONE'S aches and pains. But doing them consistently throughout the day will help relieve some of inflexibility and stiffness that keeps you from being able to get up out of a chair (without feeling like you're 90 years old).
If you’re already tightened up to the point where getting up out of a chair is a struggle, I’d start doing these at least once in the morning, once at lunch, and once in the evening.
Make sure you feel the stretches in the right places and that you don’t ever push yourself harder into a stretch when your internal alarm bells are going off. LISTEN to your body.
The standing hip flexor stretch is one I like doing throughout the day.
Stretching alone is not the answer to hip problems from sitting.
Now, you might be thinking, maybe all I need to do is stretch! If you're lucky, that may be true.
But it's also a good idea to address the other muscles involved in standing - your hip extensors.
Remember, again, that sitting on your butt literally chokes your butt and hamstring muscles to death.
To bring those muscles back to life, you need to fire them!
Even if you’ve never lifted weights, you probably should be working towards that.
Lifting weights sounds like a silly idea to a lot of people, but it’s often the only thing that will help you build strength in your posterior hip muscles (your butt). Tightness in the front of your hips, tightness in the muscles along your spine, and tightness along the sides of your hips can all be a direct result of not getting enough exercise.
Exercises to build hip extensor and standing strength
The exercises below are extremely effective and may look very simple. But make sure you pay VERY close attention to how you do the exercises.
Make sure you feel them in the correct muscles. Especially when you first start, you may need to go very slowly and with a lot of concentration to make sure you use the right muscles.
The sets and reps given are just a beginner guideline. With anyone we work with in person, we would adjust based on their body's response, so you should too! Don't be afraid to start with a low number and gradually build up as you develop familiarity and competence.
1) Glute bridges - 2-3 sets of 5-20
We generally use these as a glute activation exercise. If you know you have very weak hamstrings and you want to target your hamstrings more, you can move your feet further from your butt. Just be warned: your hamstrings will likely cramp when you start using them! Just breathe and allow them to relax...and keep trying to get them used to firing!
2a) Hip hinge / Romanian deadlift - 2-3 sets of 5-10
The Romanian deadlift sounds like a bizarre initiation ritual for a secret society, but it's actually a spectacular exercise for hamstring and glute function. Take your time learning this motion. Start with no weight, and then gradually start using weight. Individual coaching can be extremely helpful with the nuances of this exercise.
The deadlift and its variations can be nothing short of spectacular in helping restore comfort, strength, and stability to the hips. This exercise wakes up the hamstrings – muscles that are often so atrophied that people get clicking and popping in the back of the hip joint or down the back of the thigh when they try to stand up.
If you find you are too stiff and inflexible in the hamstrings to fold at the hips properly, you'll want to work on your hamstring flexibility. This program from GotROM.com can help you with stubborn hamstrings.
2b) Conventional/Kettlebell Deadlifts - 2-3 sets of 5-10
If your hamstrings are too inflexible to allow the Romanian deadlift - or if you'd just like to change things up for yourself - you can try this variation.
The kettlebell deadlift is incredibly helpful for building strength to stand up. This movement needs to be done with extreme attention to detail. Do not rush this just because you think it looks simple. Take your time. Getting individualized coaching on this can be crucial for some people.
Nailing this motion will literally change your life.
2c) Hamstring curls - 2-3 sets of 10-20
For some people hamstring flexibility is not at all an issue. But hamstring atrophy IS. This was actually a big part of my own problems when sitting too long.
My hamstrings got so weak over years of sitting that I could barely do a hamstring curl on a machine at the gym at the very lowest setting.
"Who needs to do hamstring curls on a machine anyway?" you might be asking. "That's not a functional exercise," some functional fitness nerds may be saying...
That's what I told myself for a long while. I just kept stretching my "tight" hamstrings. But when I finally started doing more hamstring curls to build strength, the hamstrings stopped feeling so "tight," and standing up from sitting got a lot easier!
3) Box squat - 2-3 sets of 5-10
The box squat is a great way to start helping you learn to use your butt and leg muscles with proper coordination. Most people have lost the ability to do a full, healthy squat after years of sitting in school and office chairs. Making progress on this exercise can help you reactivate and retrain those muscles.
Once you're able to do box squats comfortably, you can transition to doing bodyweight squats without assistance.
When doing box squats (or bodyweight squats), you may experience some issues in the hips and knees, so we talk about that possibility in the video below.
Strength and flexibility give you mobility.
If you find it hard to stand up from a chair, remember this: the cause of your problem can be a blend of flexibility and strength issues.
Some people are going to need to do a lot more stretching. Some people are going to need to do a lot more strengthening. The vast majority of us will benefit from blending our approach to maximize function.
Don’t assume that because you’re old, young, man, or woman that you need one thing more than the other. We invite you to test things and constantly monitor your progress to make sure you keep going the right direction!
For many of our clients the road to reducing hip stiffness is a months long or even years long process.
As you begin sorting things out in your body, be patient and be persistent!
Want Stronger, Healthier Hips?
Rest doesn't make you stronger. Ice doesn't make you more mobile.
Stop wasting time and start training your hips - safely, gradually, and effectively.