The hip airplane exercise is an effective hip strengthening movement that is common in physical therapy and hip injury rehabilitation.
The exercise can also be used within warm-ups for weightlifting to increase performance, as well as testing your overall stability, balance and control.
We find it’s useful to both strengthen the muscles around the hip, whilst at the same time, providing a benchmark to demonstrate current hip rotation and mobility (which if limited, could be impacting various movement patterns).
If you’ve never heard of hip airplanes before, this exercise guide outlines everything you need to know, including how to do them properly, muscles worked, benefits, progression and alternatives that offer similar outcomes.
What is the Hip Airplane Exercise?
The hip airplane exercise is a single leg movement that helps to strengthen and stabilize the muscles around the hips.
It was introduced by Dr Stuart McGill as an effective way to target the glutes and hip rotators, as well as working on overall stability and balance.
Although it looks like a relatively simple movement, it is deceptively difficult and requires your full attention to ensure you are moving through the hip joint and not just rotating your trunk. For those who are able to master the technique, it’s a great movement to include in all sorts of fitness plans, from elite athletes to over 50’s looking to get stronger.
To get started, you may want to begin with assisted hip airplanes that involve holding onto something to help with balance. This ensures you are focusing on rotating at the hips.
How to Perform Hip Airplanes
To do hip airplanes:
- Stand in an upright position and hinge at the hips to lean forward slightly.
- Shift your weight onto your right leg and lift your left leg backwards.
- Lift your arms out to help you balance (like an airplane) and keep your core braced.
- Rotate your torso towards your stationary leg by performing an internal hip rotation.
- Follow this movement with an external hip rotation to open the hips up and rotate your torso away from your stationary leg.
- Keeping your right leg and upper body stable throughout.
- Repeat for 6-10 repetitions (for 2-3 sets).
- Repeat on the other leg.
Coach’s Tip – The movement starts like a single leg RDL (Romanian Deadlift).
Hip airplanes primarily work the glutes and muscles around the hips.
Hip Airplane Benefits
Hip Injury Rehabilitation
One of the most common uses of hip airplanes is within hip injury rehabilitation. The ability to test and improve stability around the hip means it gives Physical Therapists a good indicator of whether a patient is ready to progress their training.
You’ll probably find in these cases, patients start with supported hip airplanes so they can focus on the rotation at the hips, and not necessarily their balance.
Your Physical Therapist will prescribe relevant hip exercises for your specific needs, so if hip airplanes aren’t included, there may be good reason for that.
Balance and Stability
Balance and stability are fundamental to healthy movement. Not only do hip airplanes test your balance by requiring you to stand on one leg, they also test your stability by including a rotation that means you have to learn to brace your core and trunk whilst allowing your hips to open up.
This improves your overall hip stability and ultimately plays a vital role in how you move.
An underused benefit of hip airplanes is using them within weightlifting warm-ups. They can be a really effective way to test your control and stability around the hips before adding additional load.
The rotational element means it’s a great way to improve overall hip mobility, which will likely help improve performance when lifting weights.
The movement would also transfer very well to any sort of hip hinge movement, like RDLs.
As well as being a popular way to rehabilitate the hip and associated muscles after an injury, it is also often used as a preventative tool.
This is because many hip injuries are caused due to a lack of control during a movement, such as a heavy squat.
By including more exercises that work on hip control and stability, you’ll find you’re less susceptible to injuries that are caused from hip instability.
Doing hip airplanes is a great way to improve the mobility in your hips. This will help improve movement patterns, particularly in the lower body, which is useful for both everyday activities as well as athletic performance.
A deep squat, such as an Asian squat, for example, relies on good hip mobility.
Certain activities and sports can contribute to uneven mobility in the hips. A golfer, for example, may find they have better rotational movement on one side, compared to the other.
Hip airplanes test and challenge your legs separately, which may help you spot potential muscular imbalances and avoid one side overcompensating for the other.
Addressing potential muscular imbalances is particularly important for weightlifting and exercising in the gym to help avoid injury.
Knee and Lower Back Pain
Knee and lower back pain can sometimes be caused to due instability and weakness around the hips. Strengthening the muscles around the hips, the glutes and core, can ensure your movement patterns aren’t limited.
For any sort of MSK pain, we’d always recommend seeing a Physical Therapist first to get expert advice on the root cause of your injury.
There are a few different ways you can progress hip airplanes.
Firstly, you can try and lean further forward. This will require more balance and ultimately make the exercise harder.
Similarly, you could also adopt a slower tempo or increase the number of reps, so your muscles are under tension for longer. This can help improve muscular endurance and help you maintain control and stability, even when your muscles are tiring.
Another innovative way to progress the movement is to do it on a balance pad. This will create instability under your foot, so it will require your stabilizing leg to work much harder. Again, this will demonstrate a really high level of muscular control if you are able to do this successfully.
You could also add resistance… although this movement isn’t designed for progressive overload training, so holding heavy dumbbells is perhaps losing sight on what you’re trying to achieve. Nevertheless, there have been some interesting studies and demonstrations that use a resistance band attached around the knee to further engage the muscles as you perform the exercise.
Hip Airplane Alternatives
Fire Hydrant Exercise
The Fire Hydrant exercise is a quadruped movement that involves lifting your leg out to the side. This requires external hip rotation, without the need to balance on one leg, so it might be preferrable for beginners.
Clamshell is another popular exercise in physical therapy and glute workouts due to the effectiveness at improving hip stability.
This movement is also easier to progress as you can attach a resistance band around your thighs as you perform the hip rotation to increase the difficulty.
Like any hip rotation exercise, to do clamshells properly, you need to avoid rotating your torso and focus all your energy into moving the hip in a very controlled manner.
Reclining Pigeon Pose
The reclining pigeon pose involves an external hip rotation and holding that in a stretch. Unlike the regular pigeon pose, the reclining variation is easier on the knees and easier to adapt to your current flexibility and mobility levels.
Working on your internal and external hip rotation will help improve mobility which is important for healthy movement.
The hip airplane is a proven way to help improve this hip rotation, whilst also being an effective way to strengthen the glutes, test your stability and help you avoid hip-related injuries.
Hip airplanes aren’t easy though, so you may want to start with assisted ones to begin with, so you can focus on the rotation at the hips.
Featured image and video credit – Motion RX