Stiffness in the knee and associated knee pain can limit your ability to maintain a regular exercise regime. Knee stiffness is something many of us will experience, especially those with an active lifestyle. Athletes and fitness enthusiasts often have to contend with knee discomfort as part and parcel of their chosen sport/pastime. Because of this, it becomes essential to learn some standard knee strengthening exercises that can assist with recovery from pain and stiffness and, more importantly, injury prevention.
A personal trainer will often recommend working on alignment and developing supporting muscles that will help protect the knee and for most of us, this is the key to avoiding knee stiffness and pain especially after exercise. Of course, if you are experiencing pain and stiffness in your knees you should consult a doctor before undertaking exercises to help strengthen the knee, in the event you have a knee injury exercise may exacerbate things further.
The basic anatomy of a knee joint
A knee joint consists of three bones – the femur, tibia and patella. Understanding the make-up of the knee and the functions it performs, including bending, straightening, twisting and rotating, may give you a new appreciation for what we typically ask of our knees.
The two primary bones, femur (thigh bone), and the tibia (shin bone) from the knee’s hinge joint. The patella (kneecap) provides protection for the front of the joint. Other knee components include ligaments, tendons and bursae. Components work with leg muscles to manage the pressure your knee receives as you walk, run and jump. Understanding the makeup of the knee may give you a new appreciation for what we typically ask of our knees.
Four ligaments work together to connect the femur to the tibia. Ligaments surround the knee joint and consist of fibrous band-like tissue. Ligaments help the knee move in most directions and provide stability. Two collateral ligaments, in the centre of the knee joint, restrict sideways motion.
The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), located in the centre of the knee, connects the tibia to the femur. It also limits the tibia’s forward and rotation movement. The posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) behind the ACL restricts the tibia’s backward motion.
Tendons connect muscles and consist of the same material as ligaments. Quadriceps tendons attach the quadriceps muscle, — in the front of the thigh–to the patella. The patellar tendon connects the patella to the tibia. The quadriceps and patellar tendons, along with the quadriceps muscle, straighten the leg – key when performing knee strengthening exercises, such as knee presses or straight leg raises.
The articular cartilage covers the ends of the tibia and femur and the underside of the patella. Two additional pads of cartilage—the lateral meniscus and medial meniscus—provides extra cushioning for the knee joint. These pads absorb shock to the knees.
Bursae refer to fluid-filled sacs that surround the knee and cushion the joint. Prepatellar bursae sit in the front of the kneecap, and anserine bursae fall about two inches below the knee joint, on the inside knee. The Infrapatellar bursae are located just below the patella.
Below are a few exercises you can carry out to help strengthen your knees that will, in turn, help reduce knee stiffness and pain as the muscles supporting the knee play a larger role. Remember you should always seek out the advice of your personal trainer or medical professional before undertaking any particular exercises for strengthening your knees if you are already experiencing some pain.
While the direct benefit of wall squatting is leg muscle development, this exercise will also train your abdominal region and improve your core strength.
- You should stand relaxed with your back faced directly against a wall or if you prefer, use a large inflatable exercise ball balanced against a wall.
- Next, bend both legs making sure that they make a 30-degree angle at the very least. As you progress with this exercise you should be aiming to hold a deeper squat which in turn will help develop the stabilizing muscles surrounding and protecting the knees.
- Hold it in the same position for thirty seconds. As you become more advanced try to hold the squat for up to 1 minute or longer.
The calf stretch
As the name suggest, this is more a stretch than a strengthening exercise, but it is an important movement to help prevent injury. Generally speaking, stretching is not ideal before a workout and can increase your chances of injury. As a result, we recommend performing this stretch post workout.
- Stand up pointing your feet towards a wall and then extending the right leg in a rearward position making sure that the heel is down.
- Gradually, bend the left knee and at the same time, stretch the other leg.
- As you progress try to extend the stretch deeper and hold it for a longer period.
This exercise is very useful in developing quadriceps, gluteal muscles, and the hamstring muscles.
- Start with your legs together about a shoulder width apart.
- Step forward using the right foot.
- Elevate the knees to a 90-degree angle above the toes.
- Keeping the position for 20 seconds, resume the position then do the same lunging with the other leg next.
Typical knee complaints
Runners make up the greatest portion of knee related injuries. Their knees are under constant and prolonged strain from training and performing in races. Here are some of the possible knee injuries that runners face that often end up requiring treatment to get back on track or simply just avoid injuring the knee again.
This painful and inconvenient condition is the most common injury among runners. The correct medical term is Iliotibial Band Syndrome. This condition is a result of tracking and alignment issues with your knee arising out of tight calf and hamstring muscles. Another primary reason is weak quadriceps. Strengthening exercises such as wall squats will help strengthen the quadriceps. It is also advisable to spend some time before and after each run stretching both the calves and hamstring muscles.
The meniscus is the name for that small cartilage cushion in your knee joint that keeps your thigh bone (femur) and calf bone (tibia) from rubbing together. Obviously, this is a critical piece of tissue. Unfortunately, overuse can cause it to tear and cause pain and a clicking feeling when it moves. Tears in the meniscus don’t heal quickly. Their centers are devoid of blood vessels. Because blood is, in turn, restricted to the affected area, there is no way for the body to transfer nutrients for rebuilding.
Managing stiffness in your knees
In many cases knee strengthening won’t be enough, you will also need to assess your approach to exercise and your training equipment. There are few proven methods you can try which are listed below to prevent knee pain and stiffness.
Buy quality running shoes
Before you start exercising at all, you should invest in a pair of decent running shoes. Do not just visit a local shoe store and buy the pair that you like because they may not be appropriate for you. Find a store for athletes and ask them to measure your feet and do an actual fitting. Ask the employees to recommend some shoes for your purpose and help them find the proper support for your feet.
Warm up and cool down before running
Running is an excellent form of exercise and has many mental and physical health benefits. Do a few stretches before you begin and jog in place for a few minutes to loosen up the knee and increase your heart rate. When people bypass these types of exercises, it will put even more tension on your knees and often result in problems over a longer period. Warm up and cool down exercises along with strengthening exercises are vital because they help your body stretch and prepare for running.
Exercise to Increase Knee Strength
Knee strengthening exercises are important because they keep your body balanced and help prevent knee pain. You should strengthen the entire lower body and train the thighs and shins to maintain knee stability. Knee stiffness usually occurs when the body is strained for example if you attempt to do too much before you are ready. Gradually increase your mileage and create a steady routine.
Use Ice Packs
Ice packs will help you recover faster, alleviate knee pain, and reduce swelling.
The methods outlined above are proven to help with some knee conditions, such as knee pain and stiffness. We recommend getting an opinion from a professional if you experience a moderate degree of pain performing any of the exercises mentioned above. In most cases, knee stiffness can be prevented by strengthening the supporting muscles, but it’s important to speak to your GP if you suspect an injury that is limiting your ability to live an active lifestyle.