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Stronger Knees for a Stronger You

Believe it or not, the knee is one of the most complex joints in the human body. A lot of soft tissues function together just to attain a normal range of motion within this joint, and we depend on it more than we are aware of.

Thus, a dysfunction of the knee joint can trigger the alteration of its normal movement and hinder an individual from doing his daily activities. Preventive measures can be done to ensure that this scenario never happens, such as exercising to strengthen the muscles around the joint.

A little review of the basic anatomy of the knee is a must to understand the different basic structures within the joint. There are 4 bones that are fastened together to form the knee joint: the femur, a long bone in our thigh; the tibia and the fibula that lies parallel to each other in our leg; and the patella, which is found on the front surface of the joint. All these bones are merged and held together by the ligaments. The anterior cruciate ligaments the femur from sliding forward from the tibia. There are also two ligaments found on the side of the knee, which assist in averting side forces to the joint. These are the medial collateral ligaments, which prevent the lateral (valgus) stress in the joint; and the lateral collateral ligaments, which prevent the medial (varus) stress.

Movement in the joint is not possible without major muscles such as the quadriceps, which comprise of four different muscular strands that cover the front part of the thigh. The quadriceps is responsible for any extending movement involving the knee (stretching, kicking, etc.). On the other hand, the hamstring overlay the back part of the thigh. It is composed of two muscular strands and its task is to flex the knee. A structure worth naming is the meniscus, which lies in between the joint to equalize the incongruent structures inside, thus providing smooth mobility within, and a little sac called the bursa, which allows the muscles to move freely.

To recap, the bones provide the rigid structure of the joint, the muscles move the joint, the ligaments stabilize the joint, and the meniscus ensures a proper load distribution in the joint.

Strengthening your knees
There is a saying that goes, “Do not play sports if you’re not fit,” and most of us will associate this to the heart (i.e. if it is strong enough to endure a rigid activity for a particular sport). We rarely think about the status of our major muscles.

To have a sturdy knee you have to have strong muscles. With strong muscles you have to have sufficient strength to reinforce all the structures that are found on the knee, such as tendon, ligaments, and the meniscus. The power of these soft tissues relies on the muscle strength. Let’s use a badminton game as an example. During the game your knee does a lot of twisting, abrupt stopping, quick starts and turns in various directions. These tough external forces may cause torn ligaments, tendons or possible meniscus tear too. With weak knee muscles, anterior cruciate ligament tear or sprain is likely to happen. This occurs if there is an impulsive posterior blow on the leg, or an abrupt twisting of the knee while your foot is still fixed flat on the ground. There is also a big possibility for the other ligaments to be injured too. Pain is not usually a symptom for cruciate ligaments injury, but normally an audible popping sound occurs during the incident.

But with strong quadriceps and hamstring, counteracting the unwanted push with enough muscular strength can prevent any soft tissue damage from taking place. Strengthening the joint muscles is therefore highly recommended before engaging in any sport, and a well-planned strengthening program can do just this. Here are some of the basic strengthening exercises to achieve a robust knee joint.

Wall slides squats:
Stand with your feet away from the wall. The distance between your feet should be a shoulder distance apart, and your knees should be aligned to your toes. Slowly lean your back against the wall, without moving your legs.

With the whole back pressed against the wall, start sliding down as you slowly bend your knees as tolerated. Visualize that you are sitting on an imaginary chair. Hold for about 10 seconds and bring yourself up again with the whole back still against the wall. You can actually exercise your core as you slide up, by engaging it and pulling your navel to your spine. Do at least 10 repetitions of this. A precautionary note when doing this squat is that you should never let your knee go past beyond your toes at all times.

Progression: Doing it far from the wall then eventually using a dumbbell or weight bars on both hands as resistance.

Step ups:
Put a sturdy box or stool at least two-feet tall in front of you. Step up with the right leg first until both feet are on top of the object, go down with the right leg again and repeat it 10 times then do it with the left leg first after. It is highly recommended to keep your spine in an erect position while doing these exercises. This can be done by pulling your navel to your spine.

Progression: Increase the height of the object and eventually hold weights as an additional resistance.

Backward lunges:
From a standing position bring the right leg as far back as you can with the right heel slightly lifted and your toes on the ground. Keeping your spine straight, bring the leg as low as you can towards the ground, making sure that the right knee is more or less aligned with the spine as you go down. Hold it for about 5 seconds then push up using the left leg. The spine should always be in an erect position. Repeat 10 times for each leg.

Progression: Dumbbells and weighted bars for resistance.

Knee extensions (quadriceps isolation exercise):
Sit on a chair and make sure that the back part of your knee is on the edge of the chair. Actively stabilize your right thigh by lifting your right leg up and keeping the right knee as straight as you can. Hold that extension for about 10 seconds then slowly bring the right leg down. Repeat 10 times, and do exactly same thing with the left leg.

Progression: Place some ankle weight on the exercising leg as resistance.

Leg curls (hamstring isolation exercise):
Lie on your stomach on the floor, resting your head on your interlocked hands. Bring the right leg up, letting your right heel touch the right buttocks. Hold this position for about 10 seconds. Do at least 10 repetitions then do it for the left leg after.

Progression: Ankle weights as resistance.

Keeping your knee in tip top shape can make you injury-free in all your weight bearing activities, especially when you play sports. Not only that, the muscles on your knees are among the biggest in our muscular system, so when you exercise them, they could recruit more muscle fibers leading to more calorie expenditure. Having sexy-toned legs is just a bonus.

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