Get to Know Your Knee
While the most common fitness issue is that of weight loss, dealing with joint pain is probably a close second. And no joint on the body gets discussed more than the knee. Shockingly, there’s a lot of misconceptions about what makes a strong knee. Let’s clear those issues up and see if we can’t help you build some healthy knees.
Your knee is what’s called a hinge joint, because it literally acts like a door hinge. The knee flexes and extends – which is just fancy talk to describe the way your knee bends. There’s other, minor things going on there too, but for our sake, your knees ability to bend and absorb force is what we’ll focus on.
The muscles in the front of your knee help straighten the leg – these are referred to as the quadriceps. In order to help bend the knee, the muscles on the back of your thigh- called the hamstrings- get called into action. These sames muscles are always involved in standing, climbing, walking, and running. Your personal daily stressors are nothing compared to what the knee has to deal with. While just walking forces your knee to deal with an impact equal to your bodyweight, running and jumping dishes out forces 4 times your bodyweight each time you land. Yikes.
The knee though itself is really just a meeting point for your femur and tibia (think your leg and shin). Everything is held together by your meniscus and 4 ligaments – the ACL, MCL, PCL, and LCL. These ligaments work together to make sure the knee doesn’t move too far in any one direction. You’re most likely to injure your MCL, while highly competitive athletes are at a high risk for ACL injuries. Think of your ligaments as little bands that hold everything together.
The meniscus is made up of cartilage and is like your body’s shock absorber. Both the ligaments and meniscus are not built to last should you mistreat your body.
With that understanding, here’s your reality bomb: a lot of knee issues are preventable. Unless you play in the NFL, there’s a low chance than any knee injuries are from direct trauma (yes, it still does happen). Instead, joint pain arrives from the day to day grind of bad habits. Remember, the meniscus is a cartilage disk that can simply wear down over time.
Ignoring direct trauma, the knee has to deal with two issues: being overweight and/or simply not getting enough activity.
Being overweight doesn’t do your knees any favors. Having a BMI over 30 makes you 4 times as likely to develop arthritis. Extra bodyfat also alters your gait – making you shorten your stride and affecting the dynamic between how much work your hamstrings do. Once one muscle starts to do too much work, you begin to affect the surrounding area. As a result, you can deal with some muscles getting too tight, others getting too weak, inflamed tendons, and the actual bone structure itself being affected.
There’s also the problem of not doing enough. Yes, muscles get stronger with regular exercise but an often overlooked component of this is the strengthening of your tendons and ligaments. Consistent movement – done correctly- also enhances proprioception. You have these tiny sensors in your muscles that communicate with your brain and create a sense of body awareness. The result is that your body moves in a much safer manner and you’re less likely to do something kind of crazy – like hopping a fence, sprinting away from a stray dog, or jumping out of the way of a runaway grocery cart- with bad mechanics. Physical activity pays off in more ways than one.
In terms of strengthening your knee, you certainly can’t go wrong with squats and lunges. However, a lesser known exercise is that of the side step up. It’s certainly not as glamorous as a high rep back squat, but it does wonders for knee health. That’s because it targets your VMO- which is one of the muscles that makes up the quadriceps. It’s responsible for keeping the knee in line with the toes – when you do something like landing from a jump, the last thing you want is for your knees to cave in towards each other. Where the toes go, the knees and a strong VMO helps to make sure that happens.
Here’s how to do it:
-You need a box (something very sturdy) that is around the height of your knee. If you’re not as strong as you like, it might have to be lower.
-Start with your non-dominant leg on the box.
-The foot on the floor should be relaxed – you want to curl your toes up against your shoe
-Pushing into the box- and not off the floor- stand up straight
-Again, DO NOT PUSH OFF THE FLOOR WITH THE OTHER LEG (Sorry for yelling…it’s a pet peeve
-Slowly lower yourself under control and push off again. The muscles in the working leg should never relax. So think of the other leg as a kickstand as the foot on the box is constantly pushing.
You only get two knees, so it’s wise to keep them healthy. This isn’t too difficult. Keeping your eye on the scale and just training your lower body 1-2 times a week can do wonders for your longevity. Give side step-ups a try and you’ll be on your way to building bulletproof knees in no time!