I come across quite a bit of injured athletes who have a few tweaks here and there. The most common being their knees. I know many athletes, ex-athletes who are friends, and especially my brother who feel like their knees have been hit with a bat a few times too many. I’ve heard things such as – I don’t need to train my legs anymore, I no longer play sports or Squats are what messed up my knees in the first place or I don’t know how to train around my knee pain.
Just because you have an injury, it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world for training. When you do suffer an injury or have had a history of injuries that still effect you today, it’ll take some time to get back to full force but it’s a journey well worth it.
So let’s get working towards strengthening those legs and move you past your knee issues. Hopefully the following tips will help you on your path towards achieving fitness and strength goals you thought were not possible.
1. Make SMR Part of Your Daily Routine
If you’ve suffered a knee injury there is a good chance you have a lot of built up scar tissue and tightness in your leg muscles due to overcompensation. SMR stands for – self myofascial release. You know those foam rollers you see everyone laying and rolling on, that’s what they are doing or well I hope that’s what they are doing. Think of it as kneading the muscles as if they were dough.
That’s basically what you are doing. Your muscles are so tight and knotted up, like stiff dough, and the more you knead it the softer and more elastic it gets. That’s what you are trying to accomplish with the foam roller – getting your muscles back to their resting space instead of all bunched up.
2. No Pain, No Gain – Not So Much in This Case
Now I know you want to rush into it, but you really have to take your time with the process. If there is pain during a certain movement or your range of motion (ROM) is limited, then stay out of the discomfort area and slowly work your way towards a full ROM. The best thing you can do is listen to your body. Don’t be a stubborn ass and think you have to push through the pain. No, pump the brakes a little and don’t rush it. You are looking at a more long-term goal. It’s not going to happen over night.
There are many exercises out there for individuals with knee issues. Not every exercise is going to work for every individual. If there is an exercise that doesn’t agree with you, then do a different one. Be smart when you are making a comeback from a long lay off of leg training or an injury.
3. Strengthen Your Posterior Chain
What’s your posterior chain you may be asking? It’s your whole backside and in this case we want to pay extra attention to your glutes and hamstrings. Many gym goers are quad dominant because of their unbalanced training program or lack of proper technique during. And no, squatting doesn’t cause bad knees, incorrect squatting causes bad knees – that’s a whole different article by itself.
When training your legs, especially for you – those who have suffered knee injuries or have knee pain while training legs – it would be wise to do more hip dominant movements such as; deadlifts, RDLs, and good mornings – just to name the basics.
These following exercises, are something that I’ve been using in my training. For me, I’ve noticed although I have a big ass, I have a hard time recruiting them during movements such as squats and deadlifts. I came across these exercises by Bret Contreras, and he has people loading them up with over 300 lbs. Now thats some booty. But before you start loading it up, start of with only your body weight and make sure to squeeze your glutes together. Just think someone is going to slap you in the ass. Clench those butt cheeks together.
4. Knee Friendly Exercises
There are many ideas out there on exercises to help people who have knee issues. The main focus of these knee-friendly exercises are to allow your glutes, hamstrings, and hips to share the load more. While performing these exercises it is very important to watch your shin angle and keep it vertical. Ben Bruno, another strength coach, has a huge arsenal of exercises because he himself has gone through knee injuries and has fought the long journey of regaining his strength. Braddah is a Beast:
This idea also comes from powerlifters who box squat. In powerlifting, especially geared, if you watch their shin angles during a squat their shins are really close to vertical. Sometimes while training on the box, they sit so far back that their shins are past perpendicular which forces them to incorporate more of the posterior chain to initiate the ascent.
I’ve been incorporating a few of these exercises with the college athletes I train because many are very quad dominant, and some have suffered knee injuries during their high school years that still effect them today.
The following exercises are a progression of what you can do. Make sure to listen to your body and work in the range of motion that you feel comfortable. As time goes on, the exercise gets easier, and the ROM is better then you can progress to the next one.
Goblet Split Squat
Walk right up to the bench so your legs are against it. This will give you a sturdy guide to make sure that you sit back in your hips. As you come up, focus on driving through the back of your foot on the front leg. You will feel your hamstrings and glutes contract from the bottom. If you don’t, then you are pushing at the front of your foot.
Goblet Reverse Lunge
When the ROM of this movement gets better and you can progress up in weight, give this exercise a go. This will add a slight instability because of the stepping behind and back up. During those moments, the working leg has to stabilize the knee.
Towel Goblet Reverse Lunge
Same movements as the Reverse Lunge above, but now the front leg will have to stabilize itself throughout the whole movement. The key to all of these exercises especially this one is to keep your knee in line with your toes.
Banded Reverse Lunge
If you have access to a strong resistance band, this would be a great exercise to do because now we are taking away the bench as a guide and adding a forward pull. With the band around your leg, make sure you have tension pulling your knee forward that you have to resist. When you step back, the band will begin to pull your leg forward which will force you to sit back on your heels to keep a vertical shin angle. This will also create a higher degree of stability. Try it with the towel slide once you start crushing this exercise.
So How Many Reps? Not to sound like a broken record but listen to your body. Start with anywhere of up to 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps. Depending on how fragile those knees are, you may just want to start of with your body weight to get the movement and proper technique.
SAMPLE LEG DAY
1. Bench Hip Thrust; 3 x 12
2. Deadlifts: 3 x 5
3. Split Squats 3 x 10 ea. leg
4. DB RDL 3 x 10
5. Embrace Cardio
Many who have knee issues have a hard time when it comes to performing cardio. Running stadiums, sprinting up hills, and going in circles on the track seem to bring too much impact on the knees. It all depends on the sort of issue you actually have. Some of the guys I know are ex-college football lineman. That’s a lot of weight to be going around.
There are other conditioning tools such as sleds pulls and battle ropes, but many people don’t have access to these things. The upright bike and recumbent can be found in any gym you go to. When you use the bike, make sure you adjust it to your size. It is important to move the seat so that you can almost fully extend your leg.
The elliptical is also a great tool because on some of the machines you can use your arms as well. And if you haven’t read my past blogs about fat loss, the more muscle you use the more calories you burn.
Now if the use of a bike or elliptical makes your knees uncomfortable, then call up the nearest YMCA and join the Senior Citizen water aerobic class.
So When Can You do Cardio? It all depends on how much time you have. If you find yourself making into the gym only a couple times during the week, make sure you do about 20-30 minutes after your weight training. Here’s a quick cardio plan;
5 minutes: warm-up
10 minutes: Intervals (15 seconds as fast as you can, 45 seconds at a slow pace)
5-15 minutes: Low intensity cardio at a good pace where you can still hold a conversation but can’t pat your belly and rub your head at the same time.
On your off-days, go out for a walk or to a park. Just make sure you are moving, there’s always the aquatic aerobic class you can participate in.
Hopefully this gives you a blueprint of how to go about your leg training if you are dealing with knee issues. I’m lucky to say (knock on wood) that I haven’t suffered any knee injuries during my time playing sports and weight training but I do come across athletes who have a history of them on a daily basis. I’m always trying to learn how to improve their leg strength and to get them healthier so they can play the sport they love.