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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Keep Your Knees Happy By Doing These Simple Things

How do you save your knees while exercising? Your knees are the life line to your fitness, since using your legs is the best way to increase total energy expenditure when working out and is completely necessary to perform full body functional exercises, as well as cardio. So I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at your knee and see how common problems arise and how we can prevent them.

First, let’s take a look at the anatomy of the joint. The knee joint is a hinge joint, it’s where the thigh bone (femur) meets the shin bone (tibia), but unlike a door hinge where the movement occurs in just one plane of motion, your knees have a little rotational component to it at full extension. To make matters more interesting the knee is actually comprised of two joints the tibio-femoral joint where your thigh (femur) meets the shin bone (tibia) and the patello-femoral joint where the knee cap (patella) meets the thigh bone (femur). And the patello-femoral joint, is not a hinge joint, it’s a gliding joint where the knee cap glides along the thigh bone (femur) as you bend and straighten your knee. Two joints for the price of one! (...beat that Walmart!)

But more is not necessarily better, having two joints in one, also means more possible complications. Unlike most other hinge joints that only have one force acting on the joint, the knee has two forces acting on it, a compressive force and a shearing force. So now your knee has to be able to withstand two types of forces as it goes through it’s range of motion. As your knee bends, the compressive force increases, reaching it’s peak at 90 degrees, but as it passes 90, the compressive force on the patello-femoral and the tibio-femoral joint actually lessens. However, the shearing force within the tibio-femoral joint keeps increasing as you bend your knees reaching it’s highest force when the knee is in full flexion.

Load is another factor that affects your knees. The greater the load the more compressive and shearing force that acts on your knees. However, these forces can be offset by applying proper technique when performing such exercises like squats and lunges that requires deep knee flexion. Without getting too deep into what seems like a bottomless pit of complex anatomy and physics of the knee joint, the most important factors affecting the health of your knees are proper technique, strength and flexibility. So without any further ado let’s take a look at what you should be doing to keep your knees healthy.

First and foremost good technique! Technique or form is something that I’ve always been a real stickler about, and it may seem like a real pain in the butt initially, but when you understand the importance of it, I think you’ll agree that dealing with a little nuisance in the beginning will pay off greatly in the long run. One of the reasons why technique and form is overlooked I think is because these exercises are movements that we can easily do and have been doing for a long time. It’s not like we’re learning how to do a 720 McTwist with fries on the side on our snowboard. It’s human nature to overlook things that are easy.

Take a look at squatting for instance… we can all squat right? I mean, we squat up and down all day long. But when I ask people to squat in front of me, 9 out of 10 times they do it incorrectly. That means they’ve been squatting hundreds of times a day… incorrectly! And the worst part is, bad habits get ingrained in your brain. So now, you have to erase all the bad habits first, which by the way isn’t always as easy as it sounds, and then re-learn one of the most basic human movements from scratch!

So let’s take a look at some easy tips to remember that’ll help you improve your form and save your knees.

When your doing squats or lunges, try and keep your knees from traveling too far forward. This helps greatly reduce both compressive and shearing forces on your knees. A good point of reference is you toes, if your find that your knees are easily passing over your toes, your not squatting or lunging correctly. When your squatting try sticking your butt back as if your sitting down on a low chair, this will help reduce the angle of your tibia (shin) and stops your knee from traveling forward as much.

When your lunging, try taking bigger steps and emphasize shifting your body weight down with each lunge instead of forward. A good drill to do is to stand in a split stance position. Take a pretty wide split stance, so that when you go down into a split squat, the angle of your front knee is about 90 degrees. Now take a stick and hold it behind you so that the stick is running up and down along your spine. Make sure that the back of your head, your upper back and lower back are all touching the stick. Slide the stick down so that the bottom of the stick touches the floor. Now descend down into a split squat position, while sliding down the stick, the stick should not move forward or change it’s angle, it should stay straight. Descend all the way down and then come up and repeat. This is a good way to learn how to lunge properly without leaning forward. Try this drill out a few times before you lunge and see if you can tell the difference. If you’ve been lunging wrong, you should immediately feel less pressure on your knees.

Another common mistake I see is the buckling in of your knees when doing squats or even lunges. This is usually an indication of a lack of gluteal strength. This is also known as the valgus knee, where the knee tends to bow in during flexion from doing exercises like squats and lunges. This causes excessive strain on your knees (especially the ACL), and compromises the patello-femoral joint by not allowing the knee cap to track properly. Strengthening your glutes, especially the gluteus medius (side of your butt) have shown to help your knees stay in a more neutral position when squatting and lunging.

A common phenomenon that occurs from sitting too long and too often is the “butt amneisa”... yes that’s right your “behind” has lost all it’s memory and can’t remember what it is or what to do. But there’s a simple solution to waking your butt up… literally. Bridges. It’s simple and effective and can be done pretty much anywhere you can lie down on the floor. Start by lying down on your back, with your knees bent around 90 degrees and place your feet on the floor about shoulder width apart in a slight pigeon toed position. Raise your hips up off the floor until your hips and torso are in straight alignment. Squeeze your glutes at the top and bring your hips down and repeat.

For added difficultly and benefit, you can do one legged bridges. Just bring one knee up towards you chest and perform the bridge with the other leg. These are simple but very effective exercises that you can do just prior to doing the squats or lunges to wake your “butt” up.

Another great exercise to activate your gluteus medius is the crab walk. You need a rubber band for this exercise. Wrap the rubber band around both knees or ankles depending in how strong you are, stand in a semi-squat position with your knees bent about 20 degrees, with your low back straight, butt back and chest up. Take small steps to the side, much like a crab walking… and no you don’t have to do the claw thing with your hands, unless your exercising and entertaining kids at the same time. Go about 10 yards and return until you feel your gluteus medius firing! If you’ve never done this before, trust me it doesn’t take very long until you feel like your butts on fire. Do this before your squats and lunges and you’ll have your gluteus medius primed for action!

Last but certainly not least… flexiwww.maxworkouts.combility. Flexibility of your ankles and hips are especially important in saving your knees. Having the proper flexibility in those joints greatly enhances the ability of all the right muscles to be activated when doing exercises that heavily involve you knees, and also enables you to perform the exercises correctly.

That’s sort of the quick and dirty version on how to save your knees. Of course there may be many other factors involved that may be causing your knee issues… but proper form, proper strength of your glutes and proper flexibility of your hips and ankles will take you a long way in helping minimize unnecessary strain put on your knees. Whether you have knee issues or not make sure to incorporate some of the things I pointed out and give your knees a healthy break.


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