Having “bad knees” has got to be one of the most typical and common ailments when examining the world of fitness and people who are health nuts.
Many who used to compete in a sport have paid the ultimate price by way of chronic pain, or even worse, obtaining an acute injury that left them sidelined for quite some time.
Most people chalk it up to the luck of the draw, but truthfully, there are many measures you can take to prevent this from happening.
In all honesty, if your knee pain comes from a sport, it’s fairly understandable. If it comes from lifting alone, you have no excuse.
You’re training improperly and need to have a form check, and determine what exercises work for you and your leverages so as not to aggravate anything unnecessarily.
In fact, that in itself ties into my first subheading:
Prevention Tip 1: Use a Knee-Friendly Checklist
Generally speaking, you’ll protect your knees by looking at the exercises you choose and the way you decide to perform your repetitions. Answering these questions “yes” will put you in the right place for healthy knees while enabling you to continue to train hard:
- Does the lift allow me to keep my shin vertical?
- Am I using a controlled, slow tempo – especially on the negative (eccentric) phase?
- Am I training with mostly closed chain movements that allow all muscles surrounding the knee to be simultaneously involved in each rep?
All of these tips apply directly to people looking to salvage a pair of bad knees, and also to people who have healthy knees and intend to keep it that way.
To zero in on the first point, movements like deadlifts or landmine reverse lunges, service the knees much more healthily than movements like heels elevated squats, forward stationary lunges or seated leg extensions, especially if they’re done with no attention to the lowering phase – which oftentimes proves to be the most important phase.
Prevention Tip 2: Get Good at the Underrated Skills
On the same wavelength as eccentric training goes, any athletic form of training will always be exposed in the form of danger to bad knees if you’re not good at the little things that are required.
For example, you’re only as good a jumper as you are at landing, you’re only as good a sprinter as you are at braking, and you’re only as agile and good at multidirectional patterns as you are at planting and cutting.
There’s a safe and effective way to do all these things, and there’s an unsafe way that doesn’t treat your body properly. If you’re having trouble making a mute landing off the box you’re doing your sets of box jumps on, or slowing from a sprint without a very heavy foot strike, you’re doing yourself a disservice in the long term, and your knees (and other joints too!) will eventually pay the price.
Take things back a notch.
Prevention Tip 3: “Break the Rules” under Controlled Settings
It’s asinine to think that we’re going to respect the “laws” we create in the weight room, on the court, field or in everyday life, 100% of the time – or even 50% of the time.
Many strength coaches mistakenly think that the “best case scenario” they create in the gym with their clientele will be replicated to no end outside of the gym.
Instead of avoiding the inevitable, there should be special attention given, on the side, to exercises that allow the knee to pass far forward over the toe, or movements that allow the lifter to bear load without much heel contact, and so on.
It’s the same premise that makes many powerlifters train a rounded back deadlift pattern. Exercises like duck footed, heels elevated squats on the smith machine, or the same stance on a leg press or hack squat are great ways to target the quads, and exposing the knees to added stresses for the exercise (once again, under control).
When we have the final say on what tempo we use, what weight we load, and how much time under tension we make our set last, we can put ourselves a step ahead of impending danger, compared to having no exposure to this and letting time pass.
Similarly, in knee rehab scenarios, we can still employ this tactic on a lower level, once our body is strong enough to withstand the forces. Simple moves like the front foot elevated split squat can go a long way in targeting the quads (especially the VMO), and bringing the knee into a deeper flexion without as much stress as a standard squat or lunge would.
In the following videos, you’ll see a standard version and an advanced version of the same lift.
One More Thing: Respect Your Age
Simply put, the resiliency of our tendons and ligaments, and our rates of recovery once we’ve pushed them hard, will both depend on our age – both our “real” age and our “training” age, to be specific.
There’s no overcoming the truth that a 35 year old has more figurative “mileage” on his joints than a 22 year old will, whether he’s a lifter or not. That should dictate just how much he should expect to be able to push himself.
You still may be able to be explosive and have a strong performance, but know that you won’t recover the same, and probably have to be more cognizant of your threshold during that workout. In the example I gave above, the 35 year old may be an experienced lifter, but he’s still got 13 more years worth of joint stress, wear and tear, and possible minor injuries accrued over that time compared to the younger, fresher lifter.
That’s the same reason you don’t see NBA stars jumping out of the gym in their mid 30’s compared to the 23 year old high flyers who enter the dunk contest.
So sure – go to town on the box jumps, the plyo squats, the sprint drills, and so on. But chances are, the older you get, the less often you’re doing those things. And the combination of that plus your age’s mileage and wear and tear can lead to havoc if you’re not careful.
You can still train hard and stay healthy if you’ve never been victim to a knee injury.
If you have been, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a successful rehab – as long as you stay true to the rules of the game.
Put your grownup pants on, and train smart; you’ll start seeing more results, and much less pain.