If you’ve been hitting the gym for years, whether it’s to do squats, play basketball, jump on boxes, or just run, there’s a good chance that, at some point, you’ve experienced knee pain.
And yes, it’s completely normal. The knee is one of the most frequently used joints in the body, in use whenever you get up out of a chair, squat down to pick up something from the floor, run, jump, or even take a mere step. And that means it can take a beating, especially as you get older.
When you’re in your 20s, perhaps, you can get away with shaky movement mechanics, because your knees (and your whole body, really) recovery quickly, thanks to excellent blood supply to joints and a variety of other factors. But by the time you’re 40, tendon and ligament blood supply are on the decline, and those knees just can’t take the same pounding they once could.
Regardless of age, knee soreness and pain can (and very often does) pop up here and there. Sometimes, it’s a chronic issue, other times it’s sporadic. Either way, it can majorly limit your ability to get a good workout in. And if you try to train through knee issues, the results can be even worse, affecting other joints, too.
Your fix: Learn how to take care of the long-term health of your knees. Joint injuries in general are major deterrents to any kind of training. So beat your knee pain; don’t let it beat you.
A Science Lesson
To understand how delicate the knee is, you need to understand how it works. It seems like an incredibly simple joint, since, in theory, you can only bend your knee in one direction. But it actually contains multiple support systems that allow it to move. It’s a synovial joint, meaning it contains a capsule, cartilage, and fluid, which all allow your femur (the long bone in your thigh) and your tibia (the long bone in your lower leg) to move smoothly. Media and lateral meniscus also provide padding between the two bones for movement.
The patella sits in the front of the knee; most people know this as the kneecap. This aids in the mechanics of the knee, allowing easier extension of the muscles and protecting the joint in the front. Articular cartilage covers all your bones, allowing for smooth movements. Four major ligaments keep the joint stable: your anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments and the medial collateral and lateral collateral ligaments.
Every joint has their functions and limitations. The knee can primarily only hinge forward and back. While there is some side to side motion, that comes from obvious joint vulnerability, not ability. What we ask our body to do on a daily basis will never change. Due to this alternating chain of joints, if one isn’t properly owning its responsibilities, it compromises the neighboring joints. This means you need mobility in your hips and ankles. If you don’t have that, your knees are forced to do extra work.
The Best Ways To Do Leg Exercises
A lot that can go wrong with this joint. It's just a hinge, but it can shift different ways based on how we put pressure on it, affecting the stabilizing muscles that help make it a strong hinge. The way we jump, land, squat, and sit affects the long-term health of our knees. So too do other joints, such as our ankles and hips.
In general, in everything you do, think about keeping your knee stacked directly over your ankle. Land there, and aim to think about that when you squat and lunge too. It won't happen all the time (yes, it's OK for the knees to shift a bit forward when you do squats), but it will, over the long haul, benefit the health of your knees. These other tips will too.
Your Squat Tip: Sit back!
Front, back, goblet, or bodyweight, all squats adjust the way we maintain balance while descending down and driving up. Leg day royalty! Growing up we learn to adjust our balance to mid foot to avoid leaning too far forward or too far back. When it comes to squats, sitting back through the heels allows the stress to be placed on the muscles vs the knee.
The squat is a collaborative effort between the knee joint and a series of muscles (your hamstrings, quads, calves, and other stuff). If your knee winds up too far forward, it takes the brunt of the motion, and your leg muscles can’t be properly involved. So focus on sitting back when you squat. Need an assist in timing this? Use a box, and sit back onto the box.
Your Lunge Tip: Step over the puddle!
Lunges are great for forcing each leg to develop its own level of strength and neuromuscular control. But there’s a catch: Each lunge variation is very different from the others. The direction in which you step and how you finish the step (whether it’s a walking lunge or a stationary lunge) heavily influences the muscles you involve in the movement.
It’s also trickier than most people think to find just the right alignment for the move overall. How far and how high do you step?
The way I teach it: Tell clients to step over an imaginary puddle on the ground. This will force you to stride out far enough to get down to the ground properly. Doing that plays a key role in helping you land in the right position: With your front thigh parallel to the ground, your front shin perpendicular to the ground, and all your joints at near-90-degree angles.
Your Jumping Tip: Land soft and jump smart!
Most people don’t hurt themselves jumping. They hurt themselves landing. Some of the most common knee injuries come from poor landing mechanics and leg strength. That’s why, in truth, you should be able to squat 1.5 times your bodyweight before you start doing box jumps.
One other key to the box jump: Do it responsibly. Jumping to max heights isn’t going to be the route to success you think it’ll be when you start out. Skip it and work with lower boxes. And no matter what, focus on landing with a generous bend at your knees. Your muscles are meant to absorb stress so your joints don’t have to bear that pressure. That can’t happen without a soft landing.
The Leg Day Moves You Must Do
The key to avoiding leg and knee issues is hammering home perfect mechanics. This may take an ego check, and it may have you doing moves you don’t always want to do (like doing goblet squats instead of heavy barbell squats). Do these moves anyway, because, especially if you have knee pain, they’re likely what your body needs most.
This classic squat may be an even better starting point for all squatters than standard back squats. The front-loaded weight insures that you have to sit back, forcing you to own an upright posture and keep the weight in your heels.
How to: Hold the weight in both hands tucked against the body with the weight at the top center of your chest. Sit back through the heels and descend into the squat while maintaining a tall posture. From the bottom position, drive through the heels, extending the legs until back at starting position. That is one rep. Complete 4 sets of 12 reps.
The subtle difference between lunges and step ups - the eccentric phase. It doesn’t seem like much but the eccentric motion in the lunge descends into the hardest part of the movement while the eccentric portion of the step up returns you to the standing position. The safety net of positioning makes the step up a naturally less risky move.
How to: With one foot elevated on a box in front of you, lean your weight forward into the elevated leg. Drive you foot down into the box, emphasizing pressure through the heel, extending the knee and hip simultaneously. From the top position, descend in a slow and controlled manner until the nonworking leg touches back to the ground. That is one rep.
Bulgarian Split Squat
This is a rare lunge, one that lets you truly sit back, thanks to the way your back leg gets repositioned. That means you focus that much more on creating a 90-degree angle at the front knee, a nice, knee-safe position. Make sure to really turn your glutes on to rotate that knee outward into a safe spot.
How to: Standing in front of a box or bench, rest your back leg on the elevated piece with the top of your foot in contact with the box or bench. Bend your front knee (your back knee will bend too), lowering your torso until your front thigh is parallel with the ground. Press back up to standing. That’s 1 rep.
Bridges and hip thrusts hammer home the point of driving your heels through the ground. Building glute strength becomes paramount when you are looking to use power, strength, and coordination to establish control in the lower body.
How to: Lying flat on your back, pull your feet back so your legs are at a 90 degree angle. From this bottom position, drive your heels into the ground extending the hips towards the sky. While pulling the hips through, you should keep a rigid posture so the focus of movement is at the hips. Fully extend the hips at the top and hold for a count of 2 seconds. Slowly return back to the bottom position. That is one rep.
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