Hope you are crushing it this week! Today we’re talking about a body part that is the bane of many people’s existence: knees. It isn’t uncommon for people to wake up with achy joints, especially when people are trying to exercise and add some health to their life. With that said, I’m going to take you into storyland.
I played soccer for a long period of time, and eventually ended up playing collegiately (Go HVCC Vikings!). But, I never really trained in the right way to protect myself from injuries and relied heavily on my gumby like frame. I was really mobile, fast, but not very strong. Just not what my DNA gave me.
As fate would have it, in my first year of college soccer I ended up roasting my butternut squash of a knee into pieces. As awful as it was for the recovery period, it was kind of a blessing in disguise. It fueled a passion to learn about why injuries happen and how to safely strength train to prevent them. This was the start of my career, and I didn’t even know it.
The point of all this is to tell you that, I get it. Cranky knees are a drag. But you don’t have to live in fear. You aren’t made of glass. You just have to train smart in order to get them feeling better. Use these tricks and you’re on your way:
Emphasize compound movements.
I know, “Hold up, Bill Nye, slow down. What are you even talking about?”
The term compound simply means that the exercise works muscles over multiple joints. So, this is a movement like a squat or bench press. Contrary to this, there are single joint exercises called “isolated” movements. This is like doing sets upon sets of bicep curls when beach season rolls around. What we want to focus the majority (not all) of our strength training on are those compound ones.
The reason being, is that by crossing multiple joints, we are effectively creating a better neurological connection through the body. This helps to enhance movement efficiency, and translates much better to things that require you to be athletic. Not only that, it gets many more things going on in the body, so you’ll be burning more calories and turning on that core.
Get Into Full ROM, often.
Notice I’m not throwing out a quilt blanket statement, just saying that you should stretch. It goes beyond that. It’s important that the knee is able to flex and extend with full range. Athletically, this helps recruit other muscle groups to help out with with running, jumping, and just being a human. Not only is this a huge point, but challenging yourself in end ranges of motion is what helps remodel connective tissue, promote blood flow to the area, maintain joint health. But, many times, people that strength train are hesitant to do so. Enter the people that do squats where they move two inches down and then come up (assuming they have no injury limitations, of course). Come on now, move your body!
If you don’t do something for a long time, your body kind of forgets about how to do it. It forgets how to relax a muscle - how to sync up body parts together - and how to reflexively stabilize a joint. When we’re talking about how to get the knee to function properly, this is huge for keeping it feeling great at all points in time.
Focused Action: Find a three exercise mobility sequence that you can do before bed, and do it every day.
Know what your pain triggers are.
I’m pretty sure I’ve used this quote before, but I love Dan John because he just uses common sense in his approach.
“If it hurts, don’t do it.” - Dan John
Seriously. You’d be surprised what people are capable of pushing through, but that doesn’t really get you anywhere in the long run. For example, many runners experience Patellar Femoral Syndrome (Runner’s Knee) because they may be running too many miles early on in training. Or, it could be those box jumps in their strength program. Or, they neglect their hip mobility exercises that their PT gave them to do.
This isn’t meant to be confusing, but the point is, that there is a lot factors at play, and you need to pay attention to your body’s signals. Closely. For some of you it may be one thing that bothers you and for others- something completely different. We’re just built differently in that regard.
Use the Whole Foot.
If there is one technical cue to use when doing lower body strength training, this is it. The body’s contact with the ground is so, so, SO important in engaging all muscles through the leg. Picture a triangle from the heel, to the pinky, and then the big toe. Without all of those points of contact, we are effectively toning down the proprioceptive effect we get from the ground.
Nowadays, I see this a lot with people who need strength training (...everyone) - desk workers, older adults, and even kids who are learning how to squat for the first time. It’s all about learning to engage the correct muscles to get them to do what you want. Keeping your entire foot on the ground is huge for building up those quads, glutes, and hamstrings for total knee support.
Use Soft Tissue Modalities
Essentially, this means using things like foam rollers, massage sticks, or trigger point tools to help get your muscles to relax. Frequency is important with this stuff. You don’t have to spend a ton of time on it, but making sure you do it regularly is key. It should really only take 3-5 minutes before your lifts to hit the major muscle groups (Lower Leg and Upper Leg/Hip), which will help create a better moving joint prior to workouts. When combined with a solid warm up, you'll see a huge difference in the way you feel.
Many people who already use these tools might not be rolling correctly. The key is not speed. It’s slowing down and breathing the tension away. What we are going for is actually a nervous system response, where the brain says, “Chill bro, chillllll.” Make sure you are going slowly and focusing the implement on a specific section of a muscle.
I hope these tips help get you feeling like a ninja again. It will take some patience, but I'm sure if you get back out there you'll start to realize you can still do almost anything. We all get achy from time to time, but MOVEMENT is the best way to keep yourself feeling great.