What’s the difference between your abductors and adductors?

Sports scientist Pete Gaffney explains how important strong abductor and adductor muscles are for athletes, and why they shouldn't be forgotten in your strength and conditioning workout routine...

whats the difference between your abductor and adductor muscles

Your abductor and adductor muscles are in your hips and thighs, working in sync to enable you to move your legs sideways. Your abductor muscles are responsible for moving your leg away from your body’s midline, while the adductors are responsible for moving the leg back towards your body’s midline.

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You’ve probably seen the abductor and adductor machines around your gym. Both are similar in design and target areas of the thighs. The abductor machine involves pushing the legs apart against resistance, whereas the adductor machine brings the legs together (you might want to think of this as ‘adding’ to your body as you push the weight in).

What muscles make up your abductor and adductor muscles?

Looking at these in more depth, the hip abductor muscles include the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus and tensor fasciae latae (TFL), while the adductor muscles are largely small muscles on the inside of the thigh aside from the adductor magnus muscle.

Aesthetically, you can spot these muscles easily on well-developed bodybuilders. The adductors fill the ‘thigh gap’ between the hamstrings, whereas the abductors contribute to the roundness of the outer glute.

The abductor and adductor muscles are often overlooked, even by those who are weight training to a high level, whether it be for powerlifting or bodybuilding. Often stereotyped as non-essential muscles to train, many people will favour more heavily loaded movements such as squats or the leg press that, while requiring some abductor/adductor recruitment, will not provide the same value as training them directly.

What do the abductor and adductor muscles do?

It’s not only bodybuilders who need to be aware of these muscles – athletes too can benefit from strengthening them.

The abductors play an important role in stabilising the hips and glutes while reducing and avoiding pain in the knees (both important aspects of running). In one study, increased strength and reduced pain were seen after just three weeks of hip abductor training in runners with patellofemoral syndrome (1). The adductors are needed for several functions including adduction, flexion and medial rotation of the femur.

As for adductors, strengthening them has been linked to reducing groin pain in a variety of athletes. Training doesn’t need to be time consuming or intensive, with a simple eight-week programme using only bands effective for increasing eccentric hip-adduction strength in soccer players (2). In another group of soccer players, the risk of reporting groin problems was 41% lower in the adductor strengthening intervention group, compared to control (3).

How can you strengthen your abductors and adductors?

Triathletes and many other types of athletes often already have a demanding and varied training routine, so how does training the abductors and adductors fit into this?

Thankfully, these muscles don’t require a full training session. You could perhaps spend one day a week in the gym, whether it be for strength or plyometric work. You can do some direct abductor/adductor work as primers, finishers and as part of your stretching and mobility. We’ve even given options that you can do from home or at the track or field!

Pre-training exercises

Open the hips, lubricate the knees and get blood flowing around the lower body with an abductor and adductor machine superset. Perform these in a 12-15 rep range to keep injury risk low, and focus on staying within your active range of motion and controlling the weight. Three sets should be sufficient to get you up. My preference would be more functional movements, however. See the list below…

Key exercises

If you have one lower body strengthening session per week, some exercises you might want to include in your programme include:

  • Sumo (wide stance) squats – these require the feet to be set further apart with toes pointing slightly outward, forcing the knees to open more and more involvements from the abductors.
  • Walking lunges – for most abductor and adductor recruitment, take long wide strides.
  • Cable abductor – attach an ankle cuff to the cable stack on the lowest setting for these and lift the leg up and out. Repeat on both sides.
  • Lateral lunge – start with feet together, step forward and to the side (think 45-degree angle,) then drive the foot back to the starting position.
  • Banded abductors – if you don’t have a pin-loaded machine available, you can perform these anywhere, any time by simply sitting on a bench or chair with feet shoulder-width apart and a band looped just above your knees.
  • Clamshells – along with fire hydrants and banded work, these are a great option for those who can only make time for a quick at-home session.

You don’t have to do all of these in one day, or at all, but try to at least get two into your weekly routine.

Post-training exercises

Stretch the adductors by sitting upright with feet touching in front of you. Place your elbows on your knees and push them down towards the floor, shifting your weight forward for a deeper stretch. There are a number of stretches you can do for the abductors but one, suitable for all levels, involves sitting upright again with one leg outstretched and the other leg crossed over this leg, towards the opposite side of the body. Hug the knee and look in the opposite direction to where you are pulling the knee to increase the stretch.

Now go and get that complete leg workout done and dusted. Good luck!

Pete Gaffney is the founder of PGPT

References

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  • Ferber, R., Kendall, K. and Farr, L., 2011. Changes in Knee Biomechanics After a Hip-Abductor Strengthening Protocol for Runners With Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome. Journal of Athletic Training, 46(2), pp.142-149.
  • Jensen, J., Hölmich, P., Bandholm, T., Zebis, M., Andersen, L. and Thorborg, K., 2012. Eccentric strengthening effect of hip-adductor training with elastic bands in soccer players: a randomised controlled trial. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 48(4), pp.332-338.
  • Harøy, J., Clarsen, B., Wiger, E., Øyen, M., Serner, A., Thorborg, K., Hölmich, P., Andersen, T. and Bahr, R., 2018. The Adductor Strengthening Programme prevents groin problems among male football players: a cluster-randomised controlled trial. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 53(3), pp.150-157.