Everyone knows someone who throws up their hands and cries, “Sorry, bad knees” at the mere suggestion of a high-impact activity.
If you know that person — or if you are that person — the key to overcoming knee pain may just be a few simple exercises away, says Robert LaPrade, a complex orthopaedic knee and sports medicine surgeon. He talked to Men’s Health about what exactly makes your knee “bad,” why certain activities cause us knee pain, and what can be done about it.
Where Knee Pain Comes From
“There can be many causes of generalised knee pain,” LaPrade said. “A lot of times this can be due to specific activities, such as overuse causing pain on the muscle attachments around the knee, which we commonly call bursitis. Deeper pain can be due to underlying cartilage wear.”
Bursitis and cartilage wear happen when a joint is constantly overloaded — in other words, when there’s more load placed on the joint than the joint can handle. This can be particularly painful when the muscles surrounding the knee joint aren’t strong enough to absorb the impact, which places extra stress on the joint tissues and cartilages.
High-impact activities — think running, basketball, downhill hiking, or anything that involves a lot of jumping and landing — tend to overload the knee joint.
How to Prevent It
“One of the most effective ways to decrease knee pain caused during [high impact] activities is to ensure that one has good lower extremity strength,” LaPrade said.
Well-trained quadriceps muscles, in particular, can absorb the force placed on the knee joint during high-impact activities. This results in much less pain with activity.
A well-trained quad isn’t necessarily the one that can put up the most weight on the leg press machine. “We generally ask our patients to work on the more ‘boring’ exercises to strengthen their quadriceps,” LaPrade said. “These include use of a stationary bike, an elliptical machine or swimming, which are low-impact ways to build up their overall quadriceps mechanism and improve their lower extremity absorption strength.”
Other Exercises to Prevent Knee Pain
A stationary bike isn’t your only path to knee pain relief. Luke O’Brien, vice president of clinical physical therapy at Howard Head Sports Medicine in Vail and the physical therapist who works directly with LaPrade on rehabilitation for his patients, has given Men’s Health a list of exercises to help strengthen the muscles needed to better absorb impact. He recommends doing the following exercises 2-3 times a week — either as a dynamic warm-up before a tough lower body training day, or as a lower body workout in and of itself.
You should expect to see improvements in their knee strength and a decrease in pain with activity after 6-8 weeks of sticking to these exercises, O’Brien says.
He’s broken it into four different sections: gluteal strength, lumbar spine strength, quadriceps strength, and a couple of exercises that bring all the components together. He recommends doing all eight exercises in order to maximise benefits.
Part 1: Gluteal strength
Lateral band walks — 3×15 per side
Place a resistance band around your ankles. Come into a half-squat position, with core tight and glutes engaged. Without letting your knees cave in, and keeping your weight in your heels, step out sideways with one foot, and slowly follow with the other foot. (You can add a second resistance band above your knee for additional challenge.)
Forward/backward band walks — 3×15 each way
Place a resistance band around your ankles. Come into a half-squat position, with core tight and glutes engaged. Step forward at a 45-degree angle with one foot, and follow with other foot. Repeat on the other side.
For backward, take a step backwards at a 45-degree angle.
Part 2: Lumbar spine strength
Supermans (arm and leg) — 3×10 each side
Start by lying on your belly. Raise your left arm and right leg simultaneously, engaging your glutes and low back. Pause at the top, then repeat on the other side, raising your right arm and left leg.
Windscreen wipers — 3×10 total
Start by lying on your back. Squeeze a Swiss ball between your legs, squeeze your lower back into the ground, and bring both legs up so they’re at a 90-degree angle to the ground. Keeping your low back squeezed into the ground, slowly lower your legs to the left side as far as you can without your lower back leaving the ground. Repeat on the other side.
Part 3: Quad strength
Elevated split squats — 3×12
Place one foot up on a bench and step forward with the other foot. Keep your weight in the heel of your your front foot. Lower down into a squat with your front leg, making sure your knee is not coming over the top of your big toe. After 12 reps, repeat on the other side.
Tuck squats — 3×45-60 seconds
Start with a bench directly behind you. Reach for the bench with your behind until your rear touches the bench, then press through your heels to stand back up. Repeat for 45-60 seconds. Do not fully sit on the bench.
Part 4: Bringing it all together
Lateral agility — 3×15
Start with your legs in a slight knee bend, weight in your heels. Hop out to one side with one foot, landing softly on the other foot. Bend your knee to fully absorb the hop. Control the landing, then hop to the other side. (If you have access to a cable belt, you can use it for additional resistance. Otherwise, it can be done without.)
Walking lunge with medicine ball press — 3×10
Holding a weighted medicine ball, lunge forward with one foot, raising the medicine ball overhead at the same time. Step through with the other foot, lower the medicine ball, and drive your back knee up to meet your chest. Repeat on the other side, maintaining forward progression.
This article originally appeared on Men’s Health
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