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 ability gradually and safely.
Sitting gets easier...and standing up gets harder...
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 is the cause of the problem, there is NO solution. But there definitely is a solution.
To understand this phenomenon for this phenomenon, you need to understand one key principle.
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 and your body's general ability to adapt to physical demands is just plain better.
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.
Why does sitting for long periods make it so hard to stand up?
The sitting position is one that places your hip joints in "flexion" (i.e. knees come closer to your chest).
The standing position requires hip extension (i.e. knees further from chest).
Unfortunately, sitting squashes the life out of muscles that help give you hip extension and functionally "shortens" the muscles that give you hip flexion (they aren't physically shorter but won't be able to give you a full functional range motion -- making them seem "short").
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.
For office workers, this is not an easy task in the middle of the day. You often can’t do a full body workout in your cubicle without someone raising an eyebrow, and you’re pressed for time to get back to work, even if your hips aren’t happy.
How to improve your ability to stand up after sitting
Here is a simple set of exercises you can do at work to help restore/maintain balance in your hip muscles through the work day.
Over time, your hip muscles will allow you 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.
Hip flexors REALLY locked up?
Learn how to unlock your hip flexors with this in-depth 30-day program.
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.
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 the tightness and stiffness that keeps you from being able to get up out of a chair without that feeling of being 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. Basically, if you sit as much as most office workers do, you should be doing these stretches a bunch of times a day.
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, and I sit about 50-75% as much as most people do.
Stretching alone is not the answer to hip problems from sitting.
Many people think that they can stretch away all problems (using the stretches shown above, for instance).
That’s simply not the case.
For many desk jockeys, the answer involves strength training. You spend almost 90% of your week sitting on your butt and thigh muscles, allowing all those muscles to atrophy.
Think about what that does over the course of years. Immobilizing your arm for 3 weeks with a cast can result in a shocking amount of muscle loss. If I remember correctly, the number is something like 70 or 80% of your muscle is lost in that 3 week period.
So sometimes you need to learn to move well so that you can restore balance to the muscles of your hips. This story is one example of someone who just needed to build strength to help her own hip problems.
Even if you’ve never lifted weights, you probably should 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 strength
We’ve talked about this a lot on our YouTube channel in the last couple years. Here are a few videos that you’ll find useful:
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.
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 above.
Finally there’s this motion. The exercise with the worst name in the world: the deadlift.
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 that sounds like you, exercises like the deadlift and Romanian deadlift will be great. Just make sure you learn to do them properly and safely. Doing these exercises improperly are a recipe for back, hip, or shoulder strains.
Josh goes over quite a few technique pointers in the video above, so make sure you give it a good look.
Strength and flexibility give you mobility.
If you find it hard to stand up from a chair, then remember this: the cause of your problem can be a blend of 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. Some may have to constantly blend things over time.
Don’t assume that because you’re old, young, man, or woman that you need one thing more than the other. You've got 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 process. Every individual is unique with unique needs and unique reactions.
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.
Stuck sitting all day?
Here's a simple beginner's workout program to add healthy movement back into your life.