5 Factors in Protecting Your Knees
I think just about every person knows someone who has had a knee injury, if they haven’t had one themselves. Knee problems are very common; this is not surprising considering the complexity of the joint, its possible range of motion and the load it bears. Approximately 3-5 times one’s body weight in force goes through the knees during normal walking. This is much greater, of course, in running or jumping. But our bodies are pretty amazing machines and with attention to how we use them and the muscular support around the joint and throughout the body, we can keep them healthy and pain-free for a long and active dance career and life.
Alignment Is Key
Using proper alignment in bending and squatting is the most important factor in keeping knees healthy. When you bend your knee, the center of the kneecap should move forward along an imaginary line over your middle toes. This prevents twisting or torsion which stresses the ligaments that hold the femur (thigh bone) and tibia (larger of the two lower leg bones) together.
In squatting or bending, the safest range is where the kneecap stays behind the toes and doesn’t move beyond them. When we do a deep squat or level change to the floor, we do take our kneecap past our toes, but our heels also come off the floor changing the dynamics of the joint a bit. Still, if you have knee issues, this deep position is not recommended. I also have a DBQ video explaining this alignment and another video on how to use a resistance band to help strengthen the muscles that keep you aligned.
Call In the Quads
The quadriceps group is a large muscle group that crosses the knee joint and is a major factor in its stability. The four muscles that make up your quads come together in one common tendon which attaches to the tibia below the kneecap. The kneecap (patella) itself is attached to this tendon and three of the four quadriceps muscles are attached to the top and sides of the kneecap.
Strong quads help to absorb the force of stepping, running or jumping. When all the muscles in the quad group are balanced in strength, they work to keep the knee in alignment. Weak quads – either all or just some of the four muscles – cannot effectively maintain stability at the joint, or may pull unequally causing the kneecap to track in an abnormal way. When the kneecap moves past the toes, the attachment of the patellar tendon at the tibia is strained, and this is where people will likely feel discomfort in that position. Squatting, lunging and leg press exercises in a variety of angles, with excellent form, are all good ways to strengthen the quadriceps in a balanced way.
Get Great Glutes
Moving further up the kinetic chain, your gluteal group also has a job to do in protecting your knees. Your glutes are real powerhouses. They assist in stepping up and down, taking some load off the quads and reducing stress at the patellar tendon. They also stabilize your stance when on one leg which is incredibly important in dance! The gluteal group helps prevent the femur from angling inward excessively which can put stress on the ligaments of the knee.
Exercises such as squats, lunges and step-ups will strengthen the glutes as well as the quads. Doing your squats in a wide stance, with emphasis on squeezing the glutes in rising will help target this group. Another super simple do-anywhere glute exercise is a simple sustained squeeze. Stand at hip width or a bit wider and angle your toes out slightly, rotating from the hip rather than the knee – check this. In this position, squeeze your glutes as hard as you can and hold it for 30 seconds, then relax. Do this a few times a day and your knees (and bum) will thank you.
Don’t Neglect The Little Ones
The quads and glutes are major players, but there are a few smaller muscles that do important jobs. The tensor fasciae latae (no it’s not a Starbucks drink!) attaches to the IT (iliotibial band) which helps support and stabilize the femur, tibia and thigh muscles. The popliteus, which is at the back of the knee, allows the tibia to do the slight rotation that needs to happen when the knee bends. The articularis genus has the tiny job of moving the patellar bursa and joint capsule out the the way so they don’t get pinched when the knee straightens. All of these muscles get used in larger exercises, but if you would like a simple way to target them more directly, here is one you can while watching TV.
Strong To The Core
Did you really think I would wrap this up without mentioning the importance of the core muscles? Your core muscles keep your upper body balanced and stable. Any instability while you are turning, spinning or otherwise moving increases your risk of falling. This is how so many knee injuries happen, by losing balance or control and coming down, often twisting the knee in one direction or another causing damage to the small muscles and ligaments. Do your planks or other core work of choice. You may not love them but they love you – and your knees.
In truth, a well-balanced and varied strengthening plan will address all of these areas and give you many more benefits beyond knee stability. It is a wise investment in your belly dance and in your quality of life. Knee injuries can be debilitating and often have lingering effects even after they have healed. With good attention to body mechanics and cross training, your knees will be ready to keep you shimmying happily for a lifetime.