The hip adductors refers to a group of five muscles that make up the bulk of the inner thigh mass. The primary function of this group is, surprise, hip adduction!
The better known of the hip adductors are the adductor brevis, longus and magnus (L. ad, to ; ducere, to lead ; brevis, short ; longus, long ; magnus, great). The lesser known adductor muscles include the gracilis (L. gracilis, slender.) and pectineus (L. pecten, comb.).
These muscles constitute the anatomical classification known as the medial compartment of the thigh.
The anterior boundary of the hip adductors is set by the adductor longus, which is bordered to the front by the vastus medialis and the sartorius. The posterior boundary of the hip adductors is marked by the adductor magnus, which is bordered to the rear by the semimembranosus.
The gracilis, pectineus and adductor longus are the most superficial adductor muscles. All three lie superficial to the adductor brevis, which is the deepest adductor muscle. The gracilis also lies superficial to the the anterior portion of the adductor magnus.
The adductor muscles generally have parallel-oriented fibers, which run either inferiorly or inferolaterally.
However, they don’t all share the same shape. The adductor magnus, longus and brevis all share a radiate muscle architecture. The gracilis is strap-like and the pectineus is a flat muscle.
Pectineal line of the femur and the proximal part of the linea aspera of the femur
Femoral nerve (L2-L4)
Note: The table below includes the exercises that provide the most significant training stimulus to hip adductors. This, of course, includes exercises that isolate the movement of hip adduction. However, it also includes compound movements that don’t feature adduction; that is, exercises that train the adductors more indirectly, but still work them at least as effectively as isolation movements.
Besides the exercises listed below, the adductors are also trained indirectly in hip flexor exercises. This includes sit ups and knee/leg raises, among others.
Short and Overactive Hip Adductors: The hip adductors are short and overactive in individuals with lower crossed syndrome (LCS) or pronation distortion syndrome (PDS). The tight hip flexors and anterior pelvic tilt associated with LCS causes the gluteus medius to become inhibited/lengthened. This, in turn, facilitates the hip adductors (the agonists of the gluteus medius), thereby allowing them to become short and overactive. PDS is a postural syndrome affecting the lower extremities. It involves ankle pronation and external rotation of the feet with knee adduction and knee internal rotation. The hip adductors become short and overactive because the knees are adducted, which positions the thighs in a more adducted position. This contributes to gluteus medius (agonist of the hip adductors) inhibition, which further facilitates the already short/overactive hip adductors. In either case – LCS or PDS – the shortened hip adductors lead to a range of motion loss in hip abduction and (usually) hip extension. All that said, it’s important to note that the hip adductors often become overactive from overuse before a full-blown postural syndrome develops. Overuse may occur for a number of reasons: poor exercise selection (e.g. no hip abductor/gluteus medius work), improper technique (e.g. allowing knees to come inward during squats) and defaulting to bad positions throughout the day (e.g. sitting in general, and especially sitting with legs crossed). As such, hip adductor overuse can be one of the main contributors to the initial development of a postural distortion syndrome. If action is not taken to correct the short and overactive hip adductors, the following injuries become increasingly likely:
Groin strain: A groin strain refers to tear in one of the adductor muscles. All strains range in severity from Grade I (mild, a muscle pull) to Grade 2 (moderate, partial tear) to Grade 3 (severe, rupture). Groin strains occur because the adductors is too short and stiff, so the muscle tears if it contracts too forcefully or stretches too rapidly. They are most likely to happen when quickly pushing off one leg to side-step, which is common in sports such as American football, football (soccer), hockey and basketball. Also, normal sprinting, jumping or explosive lower body exercises can also cause strains.
Ankle and foot pain/injuries: If you have pronation distortion syndrome (PDS), and therefore overpronation of the foot, then short/overactive hip adductors increase the likelihood of injuries including: calluses, bunions, plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinopathy, ankle sprains. The degree to which the adductors increase the risk of foot and ankle injury depends on how much the adductors contribute to PDS.
Knee pain/injuries: Short/overactive adductor muscles are often one of the underlying causes of knee pain or injuries. When tight, these muscles keep the thigh in a more adducted position. The knee tends to want to track inward instead of staying over the feet (think knock-kneed), thereby putting valgus stress on the joint. While not always obvious during static posture, this problem is magnified when doing a lower body exercise like the squat: the tight adductors cause the knees to collapse inward at the bottom of the range of motion. Perhaps a more detrimental effect of short/overactive adductors is that they inhibit the gluteus medius, typically resulting in the tensor fascia lata becoming short and overactive to compensate. This results in IT band shortening, which places greater valgus stress on the knee joint due to its insertion just below the knee on the outer shinbone. If left unchecked, this can lead to chronic knee pain from IT band syndrome or acute yet severe injuries such as knee ligament tears (e.g. ACL, PCL).
Lower back pain/injuries: Short/overactive adductors can play a role in lower back pain or injuries in a couple of different ways. For one, the adductors are also relatively strong hip flexors. So if they become sufficiently short, they can contribute to the development of anterior pelvic tilt and the accompanying lumbar hyperlordosis. Another cause of low back pain is relates to a short/overactive of the posterior head of the adductor magnus. When this part of the adductor magnus is short and inflexible, it will limit hip flexion range of motion. This causes the lower back to round to make up for the lack of hip flexion, making it vulnerable to injury when doing everyday tasks like simply bending down to tie your shoes. However, you’re at greatest risk when doing any exercise requires moving through hip flexion, with the squat being the best example.
Consider the instructions below if you have short and overactive hip adductor muscles.
Do soft tissue release techniques and stretches for the hip adductors and the hip flexors to help inhibit and lengthen these muscles. This should be done on a daily basis as part of a daily mobility routine, as well as before workouts involving lower body exercises. It’s important that you do the soft tissue release before stretching to make it more effective.
If you’re doing any direct hip adductor exercises or direct hip flexor exercises, stop doing so right away. And assuming the posterior head of your adductor magnus is also short and overactive, then avoid sumo deadlifts and sumo squats (or any other sumo/wide stance leg exercises).
Increase your training volume for the gluteus medius exercises, since it is main muscle that is inhibited by the hip adductors. My recommendation is to start with the band clam shell and side lying hip abduction, and eventually progress to side bridge holds and lateral band walks.
While the knee collapse that often occurs on squats and unilateral leg exercises can be largely a result of the inward pull of tight hip adductors, a lot of it also is caused by poor motor control. You can improve your motor control by consciously trying to improve your technique during these types of exercises by actively pushing your knees out over your toes. For this to be effective, you’ll probably have to reduce the weight. Over time, your form will improve, and your hip abductors will become more active while your hip adductors become less active.
Increase training volume on gluteus maximus exercises. Strengthening the glutes counteracts anterior pelvic tilt, which the adductors contribute to, due to their role in hip flexion.
Limit the time you spend in positions that allow the adductors to become tighter. This means to do less sitting in general, and especially with your legs crossed. If you have a job that requires sitting at a desk, make it a habit to at least stand up once every 20-30 minutes, and stretch or walk around whenever possible. Conversely, if you have to stand for long periods of time at a counter, try to avoid leaning your hips to one side such that you’re effectively stretching out the gluteus medius; too much of this can contribute to an imbalance between the gluteus medius and hip adductors/flexors.
If you have lower crossed syndrome or pronation distortion syndrome, then the above bullet points will only get you so far in terms of correcting your imbalances. For full guides on how to treat the root problems of each of these postural distortion syndromes, see how to fix lower crossed syndrome (article coming soon) and how to fix pronation distortion syndrome (article coming soon).
If you strain a muscle, it’s best to get advice from a doctor or physical therapist. The following protocols are commonly prescribed for mild to moderate strains:
R.I.C.E. therapy for the first 1-2 days after injury.
After the first couple of days, training can be resumed on a modified routine that allows you to work around your injury. Avoid any exercises or activities that cause irritation or pain, and reduce the load/intensity if and when necessary.
Using a foam roller on the inner thigh may promote healing, but don’t go overboard with it. If possible, get a qualified therapist to perform soft tissue manipulation (e.g. Active Release Technique).
Severe groin strains will require a more complex and personalized treatment protocol, which may include prescription pain medication and surgery in some cases.
For more information, see how to treat muscle strains (article coming soon).
Below, I’ll share some practical advice and tips for training the hip adductors. This is geared towards you if want stronger and more developed adductors. Most of this won’t apply to you if your adductors are short and overactive (see above bullets for that), though you may find one or two useful tidbits.
Increase total training volume for adductors, or increase training frequency.
In terms of exercise selection for building big and strong adductors, you should know the following:
You don’t need to do isolation adductor exercises to develop your inner thighs. That means you don’t have to straddle one of those infamous thigh machines and sacrifice your dignity in the process. While those machines aren’t totally worthless, there are much more effective and efficient ways to train your hip adductors. The best exercises are going to be compound lower body movements, specifically wide stance exercises (i.e. sumo squat, sumo deadlift) and unilateral leg exercises (i.e. lunge/split squat/step up variations).
The compound exercises mentioned in the bullet point directly above will work adductor magnus a bit more than the other adductors. This makes sense and it’s generally what you want, since the adductor magnus is by far the strongest adductor, and it makes up the majority of the adductor group’s mass. However, if you have a good reason to believe that the other hip adductors are too weak in comparison, then, yes, you can go ahead and try doing some machine/cable isolation adductor exercises. Or you can do add in some hip flexion exercises (e.g. weighted decline sit ups and leg raises) with your abs training.
Don’t forget to work the gluteus medius at least as much as the adductors. It’s very easy to make the adductors dominant over the gluteus medius if you don’t balance your training of each muscle group.
Collectively, the hip adductor group contains an approximately even ratio of slow-twitch to fast-twitch muscle fibers, with a slightly higher percentage of slow-twitch fibers. As such, the adductors will generally respond best to a moderate to high rep range (i.e. 6-15) with moderately heavy weight.
Soft tissue release can be useful even if you don’t have short/overactive hip adductors. There’s still likely to be some trigger points or other soft tissue restrictions that you can treat before workouts to improve performance, or after workouts to improve recovery and maintain mobility. Some static stretching can be helpful, too, before training; I do the “squatting stretch” (see stretches, above) before squats since it not only loosens up the inner hip/thigh musculature, but it also grooves in the proper technique by reinforcing the bottom position of the squat.