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Technique and Training

Fully Functioning Knees

Fix those cranky knees by exercising your hips and ankles

Chris Ritter | September 7, 2015

Knees can be a troublesome point of pain or irritation. Anatomically, the knee could be considered a “dumb joint” because, as a hinge joint, it can only flex and extend with minor rotation. Because the knee doesn’t have a great deal of movement, if other joints above and below it in the kinetic chain are compromised, the knee will try to compensate.

This compensation—when the knee is required to move into ranges and motions it wasn’t designed to in order to take up slack for other joints—is likely to result in pain. So if your knees are bugging you, the answer might be to look up and down the chain to fix the issue.

This investigation usually leads to the need for more mobility in the hip and ankle and more strength in the hip, particularly in controlling the femur to prevent it from collapsing towards your middle when you squat or hinge.

Although some of these exercises don’t appear to directly target the knee, remember that strengthening and increasing flexibility in the ankle and hip will help the knee to the job it was intended to do.

Watch videos of all the exercises and progressions online to be sure you understand all the movements and variations before beginning this dryland training sequence.

Important: If you’re experiencing acute or chronic pain in any joint, be sure you’ve sought appropriate medical attention to rule out more serious problems before beginning a dryland regimen.

Stretching

Remember to move gently through the range of motion whenever you stretch and always be able to both breathe and smile while stretching. If you can’t follow those two rules, the stretch is too intense for the body to accept the change you’re trying to make.

These stretches will help to increase the stability of the knee joint so it can move through an optimal range of motion safely.

  • Quads + Foam Roller. Place a foam roller underneath one of your quads while lying in the prone or push-up position. Roll back and forth from your knee to your hip and focus on the areas that have the most discomfort. Be sure to slightly rotate while on the roller to change the angle and cover all of the quad muscle.
  • Adductors + Foam Roller. Place a foam roller between the ground and the inside of your thigh while in a side bridge position. Roll back and forth from your knee to your hip and focus on the areas that have the most discomfort. Be sure to slightly rotate while on the roller to change the angle and cover all of the inner thigh muscle.
  • Calf + Foam Roller. Place a foam roller between the ground and your calf while in a seated position. Roll back and forth between your ankle and your knee and focus on the areas that have the most discomfort. Be sure to slightly rotate while on the roller to change the angle and cover all of the calf muscle.
  • Ankle Mobs 3D. Stand close to a wall with feet shoulder-width apart. Move one foot forward until it’s about 4 inches away from the wall and place both hands on the wall. The other foot should remain back, behind your hip. Slowly move the forward knee to touch the wall in three directions: straight forward, to the inside, and to the outside. Throughout the whole movement, keep the heel of the forward foot on the ground. This is best done without shoes so you can feel whether or not your heel is really coming off the ground, since most shoes have a slight heel elevation.

Strengthening

These exercises will help to increase the stability of the knee joint so it can produce and correctly absorb force.

  • Hip Circuits. Get on all fours and lift one leg up to the side like a dog on a fire hydrant and rotate it back underneath you. After you’ve completed a few repetitions, reverse the motion. Next, straighten that leg directly out to your side and lift it up and down a few times, keeping it off the ground for as long as possible during the movement. Lastly, move your leg in small circles both forward and backward in the same side position that you did while lifting it up and down. Perform 4 to 6 reps in each direction.
  • Hip Hinge Greasing. With your hands folded across your chest, push your hips backward and lean forward as far as you can while maintaining an engaged back, with your knees slightly bent but staying at the same angle throughout the movement. At the end range you should feel a slight stretch in your hamstrings. Move back and forth in this range as you feel comfortable, slowly trying to increase your range over time. Perform at least 8 reps slowly. Adding weight is optional and can increase the stretch—if you do this, hold the weight to your chest.
  • Squat Facing Wall. While standing as close to the wall as you can, perform a squat, keeping the back straight and pushing the hips back. Be able to wiggle your toes the whole time and don’t touch the wall with any part of your body. Straighten up and repeat for at least 8 reps.
  • Split Squat. Stand in a lunge position with one knee on the ground and the other foot behind you, also flat on the ground. Drive through the heel of the front foot to come up to standing. This will raise the back foot until you just have the toe on the ground. Go slowly up and down for at least 6 reps before switching legs.

Remember to watch the videos of all of these exercises before you begin to ensure that you’re performing them correctly.

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About the Author—Chris Ritter

Chris Ritter is the founder of RITTER Sports Performance online training programs and the author of the e-book, SURGE STRENGTH, which details how to strength train specifically for swimming performance. Ritter, a swimmer himself, has a degree in kinesiology and exercise science and he specializes in training athletes of diverse abilities, ranging from beginners to Olympians. Follow him on Twitter @RITTERSP or like his Facebook page for updates and training tips.

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