Tips for Preventing Knee Pain While Exercising

Over the course of my personal training career, I’ve heard my fair share of cracking and grinding knees.  These sounds and damage caused by trauma or years of poor exercise technique has led to squats, lunges, and the like to be added to the banned exercise list.  Of course it’s easier to simply not do the offending exercises rather than put in the work to improve technique and prevent knee pain while exercising in the first place!

Now, don’t get me wrong…sometimes the best course of action is to remove an exercise from your program.  But, you do a squat every time you sit down into a chair or onto the toilet.  So, guess what?  You do lots of squats every single day.  Let’s, then, get into some tips to help your knees start feeling better.

The Knee is a Dumb Joint

I borrowed this statement from experts in the corrective exercise business.  It’s the joint that happens to fall between two smart joints.  Your knee is heavily influenced by the muscles in your hips and the range of motion in your ankle.  Therefore, the knee is “dumb” because it follows what the hips and ankles/feet are doing.  Many times, knee pain is not because there is a problem with the knee itself.  The problem could lie within the posture of your hips or your ability to dorsiflex your ankle and it’s just showing up at the knee.

Let’s look at the hips first.  Your IT band (side of your thigh) and quadriceps (front of your thigh) originate on the pelvis and attach around the knee.  If those muscles are tight and not moving efficiently, they could be pulling the pelvis into anterior pelvic tilt.  Watch this video for an easy, at home test to see if you have a forward tilted pelvis.

The foam roller should become your best friend to work on improving the tissue quality of your IT band, quads and calves.

Vertical Shin While Exercising

The ability to keep your shins vertical while doing any leg exercises will remove a lot of unnecessary pressure and compressive forces on your knees and will dramatically reduce pain.  Watch the angle of the shin in this split squat.

You can see the shin does not stay vertical by how much the knee drifts forward over the toes.  Do your knees do this?  (We’re working on improving it, by the way.)

This is what vertical shin should look like.  Same client, different exercise.

Learning vertical shin technique may take some retraining of the brain if you haven’t been doing your exercises this way.  Watch yourself from the side view in the mirror.  Find a partner who can put their hand in front of your knee while doing your lunges, squats, deadlifts, etc.  Don’t let your knee touch their hand!  You’ll find that you have to shift your weight back and down.  If you don’t master this the first time, keep practicing.

Squeeze That Butt

No matter how big you think your butt is, it’s likely a weak link in the hips.  If you are in anterior tilt position, your glutes are almost certainly in need of strengthening.  In the video above, I discuss bridges for improving gluteal strength.  It will also be key to keep contracting your butt muscles when you’re performing any exercise.  You’ve heard that your abs should always be “engaged” or “braced” or “drawn in,” right?  Now add your glutes to that exercise set up cue as well.  Always feeling your leg exercises in your quads likely means you are too quad-dominant.  Let your butt help you drive your next set of split squats.

In summary, your knee-friendly to do list should include foam rolling daily, practicing vertical shin for every single leg exercise you do, and bringing up the activity of your glutes.  Give it a few months and let me know how much better your knees feel!

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