Hips are the joint where the leg meets the torso. They're easy to find because they’re the widest part of our lower half, beneath the belly, but above the knees. We use them to walk, run, dance, and reach the extreme ranges of the marimba. Our hips make it easy for us to step far to the right to reach a high note or squat low so we can reach the extremes at the same time. Without them, we couldn’t do either: we could play about a 3-octave range in the middle and that would be it! No, thank you!
Holy Ilium, Batman!
Just as there is no bone in the body actually called the “neck bone” or “knee bone,” so the name “hip bone” is a colloquial misnomer. (I know, who knew??) What we refer to as hip bones are actually part of the pelvis: the ilium.
If you’re like me and carried some kind of drum for years and years, chances are you would get bruises on the part of your "hip bones" that gently stick out from your body – that’s actually part of the iliac crest, and it is a beautiful “wing” that provides support for the weight of the torso.
Often, when we think of our hips, we tend to think of - for lack of a better term - the butt. In a way, we view the part of the body where the legs and torso meet as one horizontal rectangle of anatomy, but really, it's much more complex than that. If our hips weren't separate from um...our "seat," we wouldn't be able to move our legs when we sit down. In reality, the hip joint is located closer to the lower curve of our "seat" than the upper curve; when sitting, the place where the body seems to fold is the actual location of the hip joint. If you can follow that imaginary line around to the back of the leg, you will notice that the hip may be lower in the body than you typically imagine. (Speaking from experience.)
So, just as there is no “one bone” dedicated to the neck, there is no “one bone” dedicated to the hip. The hip, for all useful purposes of understanding movement and preventing pain, is not a bone, but a joint.
In the photos above and below, the area where the hip joint is located is called the acetabulum. You’ll notice its concave nature is perfect for the function of a ball-and-socket joint, such as the hip. Here’s a diagram of how the femur [aka thigh bone] meets the pelvis.
The femoral head cartilage covers and protects the femoral head, which is essentially a knob at the end of the femur that can rotate 360 degrees within the ball-and-socket joint.
Also, look at how the hip joint is located close to the midline of the body. Were you to measure the distances, we could confirm that the hip joint is not on the outside of the leg, as we sometimes think, but is actually very close to our center.
I'm one of those people that will sometimes lock one or both hips while standing still, even though I have been trying to unlearn this habit for years. The repercussions of this are felt everywhere in the body, from aching knees to a dull ache in the middle of the back.
Particularly in marimba practice, when I'm learning notes and frustrated, I tend to lock my right hip, which results in what my Alexander Technique teacher called a shelf in the middle of my back. Essentially, my body broke up into three pieces: the shelf-up, the shelf-hip, and the hip-down. I felt disconnected to just about every note I played, even though my mental focus was not fatigued.
I realize now, in hindsight, that what I thought of as my hip -- wasn't! What I thought of as my hip was actually the muscle on the sides of the body that go around the iliac curve. No wonder I felt immobile! The joint isn't there at all, but is rather inches closer to the spine.
Just as the dancers in the photos above move their legs as independent entities, so we can do while we play the marimba. Just as the effect of "getting grounded" is one of ease and continuity, using the hip joint correctly contributes to easy movement in playing, not to mention increased stamina for a long practice session. (Imagine how much more power the arms and back have when there isn't energy wasted on locking the hips!)
Pain in the Back and Legs (aka more Ouchies)
Located near the hip joint is the largest nerve in the body: the sciatic nerve. It extends from the spinal column down the back sides of both legs into the feet.
The pale yellow tube in the diagram represents the pathway of the sciatic nerve. It's HUGE. It also explains why, when we sometimes sit lazily and slouched, like in a car or an old school desk, we get funny pains farther down in the legs. Essentially, we are squashing (technical term) part of the nerve, which causes pain, or at least funny sensations somewhere else along the nerve pathway.
When we sit, we should aim to sit on our "rockers," otherwise known as the pubis bone. They look like small loops of bone near the lower part of the seat in the diagram above. (Man, this is awkward.)
The pubis is made for balance and weight support. When we sit too far back, which is what happens when we slouch, part of the pubis puts pressure on the sciatic nerve. This can happen, too, if we lock our hips forward on a regular basis.
If you're like me, your hips aren't much of a problem until you're tired and the voice in your head tries to convince you it's easier to slouch than stand or sit straight (which is the opposite of the truth, btw). Here are some things that have helped me get to know proper hip joint placement.
1. STRETCH. If you don't stretch now, just start doing it. It makes everything easier, from schlepping crap to playing your instrument. As percussionists, we have to do both. If you don't know where to start, you could start here with stretches designed to relieve sciatica (pain due to sciatic nerve pressure).
2. Do deep squats every once in a while during your practice session. It's important that, as you do them, you allow the back to stay one fluid piece, without horizontal "shelves."
3. If you're a runner, visualize your hip joint working rather than just moving your legs mindlessly. I have noticed that running is easier and more enjoyable for me when I correctly visualize my hip joint. The results are no shin splints, no heel striking, and no longstanding soreness. If you're not a runner, walking works, too!
I have noticed a significant ease in my breathing and playing when I have open, or unlocked, hips. (I don't like the terms locked and unlocked, as there's an implication that locked is normal. In case it isn't obvious, I'm rather obsessed with connotations.)
Flexible hips that can easily fall into a deep squat are part of our normal development. Watch any toddler and you'll see them deep squat to pick up just about anything off the floor - they never bend over. Our bipedal nature + gravity means we have to be a bit more conscientious of the full range of motion available to our hips, not just the 70 degrees or so we use for walking.
Let us recover our childish hips and playful ways.
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