What’s Going on With My Sh*tty Knees?
Written by: Coach Slater
Recently, I saw this lunge happening in the background of a CrossFit pic in my Instagram feed. I immediately cringed. If this pic is you, I mean no offense. Let’s assume that it was just a fluke that you were snapped in this compromised position; but, for everyone else… if you’re lunging like this on a regular basis, then no knee sleeve is going to save you. And, if you’re one of the many CrossFitters who HAS to wear knee sleeves for every training session to avoid nagging pain, this article is for you.
Here’s the plan for fixing your shitty knees:
1. Improve your hip mobility
2. Improve your ankle mobility
3. Strengthen your ass
The knee is meant to bend up and down, not rotate. So, when there isn’t enough flexibility at the hip, your knee takes it upon itself to rotate for you, even if it doesn’t want to. The problem here is that assessing hip mobility involves some weird assessments including something called the Thomas Test and another thing called a Hip Internal Rotation Test. Basically, we’re looking for tightness in the musculature supporting the front-side (psoas/quads) and the backside (piriformis) of your hip. If you sit for a living, it’s likely that your tissues are less than ideal, and would benefit from some drills.
You can improve your hip mobility by knocking out any or all of these drills pre-workout:
Next, do your feet point outwards when you walk, run, squat? If your feet are rotating outward more than 10-15 degrees, it’s very unlikely that your knee is loading weight improperly. Or, do you suffer from so-called “flat feet”? This is another common ankle issue causing knee pain due to its affect in internally rotating your knees. People with flat feet suffer from a long list of related injuries including plantar fasciitis, shin splints, patellar tendonitis, and lower back pain. What’s likely is that you have poor ankle mobility and your body is compensating with everted feet (rotated outward) or flat feet to still allow you to move/workout.
Here’s another test. With your shoeless foot 4″ away from a wall, can you drive your knee beyond your toes to touch the wall, without rotating at the hip or lifting your heel off the ground? If you failed this or suffer from the other ankle issues above, you can begin fixing yourself by performing the drills in this video:
Strengthen Your Ass
This is an easy one because it’s so simple to toss a mini-band around your ankles/knees and perform some glute activation before class begins. And, doing these long-term can lead to big improvements in your hip stability. But, one thing to note… you probably don’t have a problem with your knees caving while standing, only while at the bottom of a lunge or squat. So, perform the following drills while in a slight crouch, quarter squat, full squat, or even seated. Personally, I love lateral steps, backwards march, seated abduction, and kickbacks performed with a mini-band. You’re also probably familiar with clamshells, which are fine, too.
With mini-band lateral steps, you want to make sure you’re not wobbling with your torso. Stand tall, stay tight, keep your knees turned out, and use those glutes to drive your heels outward. With the mini-band backwards march, focus on using your glutes to drive your heel away. Don’t lean and recruit the muscles of your outer leg or lower back. With seated abductions, keep your toes pointed at 11 & 1, so don’t allow your toes to flair out. With kickbacks, pull your toes up toward your shin and focus on pulling your heel back using your glute, not your hamstring. Perform three or four sets of these movements pre-workout and you should feel your glutes really burning.
So, all of these strategies are meant to improve what’s known as a “valgus knee”, but there may be times when a “valgus twitch” isn’t a bad thing. There are plenty of high-end Olympic lifters and powerlifters whose knees migrate inward during the sticky point of their squat, before being driven outward. You gonna tell them their squats are shit, bro?
Didn’t think so.
For people as strong as this, it’s acceptable to have a little knee twitch when testing their max, because I’m sure their knees are tracking perfectly when working in a more comfortable range of 70-90%. And, there’s some research showing that a slight valgus knee actually makes it *easier* to extend the hips, but these lifters have used fantastic form over hundreds and thousands of workouts, so they’ve earned the right to have some knee twitch while testing out. Most of us, on the other hand, need to do our level best to never let this happen. Know your limits. You must learn the rules before you can break them.
Contreras, Bret, “Why Do People’s Knees Cave Inward When They Squat?”
Heatrick, Don, “Valgus Knees: Corrective Strength and Conditioning Exercises”
Heyne, Alexander, “What Your Doctor Isn’t Telling You About Runners Knee And Chronic Knee Pain”
Pribut, Stephen, “Runner’s Knee, The Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome”
Robertson, Mike, “18 Tips for Bulletproof Knees“