The knee joint is crucial for general health and for the squat. Whatever your reason to improve your knee mobility, these 6 exercises will move you towards your goal.
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The knee joint is a hinge joint that connects the thigh and the lower leg, it is the largest joint in the body and also contains muscles, tendons, ligaments and cartilage. It is made up of three bones, the Femur, Patella and Tibia. The knee joint is the joint the allows you to bend you knee and any movement of the leg will usually involve the use of the knee joint. It is also a key part of walking, running and in terms of strength and conditioning the squat movement pattern. For a more detailed descriptions of the knee joint anatomy refer to Cleveland Clinic thorough description, here we aim to provide practical advice around the mobility and health of the knee and will not delve further into the anatomy of the knee joint.
Complete 3 rounds
Lack of movement through a joint is one of the biggest risk factors for creating tightness in the joint. Joints and muscles adapt to the demands that are placed upon them, if you are very sedentary and rarely move your knee through the range of motion it can before it is very likely you will lose some of the joints movement capacity.
Knee’s are particularly susceptible to injuries, they have tendons and ligaments which suffer greatly in contact sports and extreme sports while also are very susceptible to repetitive strain. This makes them a very common joint to sustain injuries whilst performing physical activity, be it skiing or running, most sports involve some sort of risk for the knee joint. Skiing and soccer being the most common culprits (1) for knee injuries.
Unfortunately these injuries can be rather serious for health related quality of life, especially in athletes who are very invested in their sport. Knee injury was shown to decrease health-related quality of life in young female athletes for up to a year after serious knee injuries (2).
When we gain range of motion in a joint, we can see improved performance in sport and in the gym. The squatting movement pattern is a great indicator of how mobile the hip joint is (unless movement is restricted from the hips) and gains in squatting mobility can often be seen through improving the knee mobility. Knee flexion is a crucial part of both squatting and lunging, and therefore these are very effective exercises at improving knee mobility, when performed progressively with manageable weights. (3)
When we have restricted movement capacity, it can increase the chances of incurring an injury when playing sports that might force the joint beyond its current range of motion. Although injuries can still occur when you have perfectly mobile knees, they can be mitigated through creating a joint that is capable of moving through its full range of motion without any problems.
“Mobilisation is essential for health-related quality of life and independence” (4). Being mobile and able to move independently is something we often take for granted, but among the elderly it can be very common. Having healthy and strong knees can be the difference between moving independently and needing assistance at a certain age.
For those of us where independence isn’t yet an issue, lacking knee mobility and strength can still be an issue to our health through preventing us from doing activities we find enjoyable like hiking or playing sports or just generally leading an active lifestyle.
Personally and for my clients, I use a variety of different squatting and lunge variations for knee health. Once you have achieved a prerequisite mobility to perform squat and lunges, performing slightly different variations of these traditional exercises is an excellent way to improve and strengthen a knee joint that is already mobile and strong. You can see the offset squat as an example of this, the offset squat can be performed in a variety of positions, the video is just an example of an offset squat.
Poor squat technique can be the enemy of healthy knees. The key to a good squat is too not put any unwanted strain on the knee joint, this is done through either valgus (when the knee bends inwards) or varus (when the knee bends outwards) knee positioning. These positions both involve the knee joint taking unwanted load and if performed regularly with this technique, you may end up with knee pain or knee injury . (5)
Knee pain is one of the most common injuries (6) runners suffer fro, this can be due to technique, but the most likely cause is the amount of volume (kilometres) your performing in a day, week and month. If the volume you’re performing above your maximum recoverable volume, then you are putting yourself at risk of picking up a tendinitis or worse. Be aware that mobility exercises are ineffective at preventing this issue, as is having strong knees, you need to progress your intensity and volume over time otherwise you’re bound to pick up repetitive strain injuries.
If you are making improving your lower body mobility one of your primary physical activity goals, you may want to add in specific mobility sessions where you are working on improving your mobility. I would recommend working on multiple joints at a time, as spending more than 15 minutes on a single joint will likely become a little redundant. Although this is a good option for those of us with a great deal of time to exercises (athletes) for others with may not be a good use of our training economy, so integrating improving mobility into training sessions or warm ups is usually the best option for most of the general public, especially considering how effective strength training is at improving mobility.
Warm ups are my favourite way to sneak in more boring elements of mobility training that need to be done. An example might be using one of the exercises below too warm the knee joint up for a squat session. This mixture of taking your knee through its full range of motion and the loading it will be very effective at improving your mobility over time.
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This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.