“The ankle bone’s connected to the shin bone
The shin bone’s connected to the knee bone
The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone…”
The knee, the knee –the poor thing gets abuse from above and below. Dysfunction at the hip or in the foot/ankle can wreak havoc to this dear joint – the largest joint in the human body. The integral relationship of all these joints as they fall in line with gravity means that at any one point, your posture can be dramatically affected, even with what might be perceived as a slight misalignment.
As an instructor I was taught never to use the cue “lock your knees” – for a couple of reasons – some people have a natural tendency or capability to hyperextend at this joint (as with dancers or those who may have some hereditary factor), and we do not want to encourage that habit. The word “lock” also implies making something fixed. Movement is dynamic, and while we need to be stable, we are not looking to overly grip on any joints, but for a balanced muscle activation. So we do look for in many Pilates exercises, is a full extension the knees – an active drawing upward of the kneecap toward the hip bone.
Working or standing with locked or hyperextended knees brings that joint aligned slightly behind the ideal line with gravity, putting compressive stress and wearing down of the joint. Long term, a major ligament, commonly referred to as the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), responsible for nearly 100% of your knee stability is weakened. In general, every time you hyperextend the knee, you are compromising yourself to injury.
Everything is integrated, so let’s go beyond the knee and take a look at the overall picture. The image below shows the lower body balanced posture on the far right. Compared to the posture just to the left of that (labeled Swayback), you can see the hyperextended knee positions the joint further back. The body needs to ‘balance’ itself out by pushing the pelvis forward. Consequently, and in the ‘cascade’ the upper trunk shifts back as well, putting compressive force on the lower back.
Image from http://fixtheneck.com/posture.html
Now it is true that the posture may have started from the top, and that the knee hyperextension is actually being utilized (knowingly or not) as a strategy for standing. Either way, it doesn’t make for a happy knee or happy body!
What can you do to keep from hyperextending the knee?
- Take the weight out of your heels. Often hyperextenders stand, bearing weight down the back of the foot, with a slight plantar flexion at the ankle. Shift some of the weight to the forefoot and notice if you can feel your knees unlock.
- Increase your proprioception in that joint. As an example, use a mirror as you go from go from a squatting to standing, and watch for the point at which you start to bring your kneecaps backward rather than upwards. Use the visual cue to help you clue in to how it feels. It may feel very foreign at first, but it’s important to get the information into your body.
Another way to get some proprioceptive feedback is to use a stretchy sport tape when doing exercises. Have an instructor or trainer help you with placement on the back of your knee, taping to the point which is supposed to be neutral. When you start to go past neutral, you’ll know where to stop, because you’ll feel the pull cueing you.
- Practice strengthening exercises with “hyper-attention” to your knee extension! Typically, the hamstrings are deemed weak in those who hyperextend. However, it’s a good idea to target the entire lower chain – so doing squats, lunges, or Mat Pilates work, like Bridging, or Prone leg extension are great. Also, don’t overlook ankle/calf integration, with heel lifts.
Here’s another exercise by Theresa Ruth Howard (5:34) that you might consider adding to increase your feedback on feeling where your neutral knee extension.
Hope you find balance in this super important joint – and you can say you’ve got the “bee’s knees” ☺
See you in the studio!
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