You’ve heard the following saying:
“The only guarantees in life are death and taxes.”
A fairly accurate – yet depressing – statement.
If you’ve been in the powerlifting and strength training world for an appreciable amount of time, the previous statement should be amended to:
“The only guarantees in life are death, taxes and my knees are going to feel creakier than a 148 year-old rusted door hinge.”
If you’ve never experienced the dull ache bombarding the area just above or below – or if you’re one of the “lucky” ones, both – your kneecap at some point in your lifting career, then you obviously don’t put hundreds of pounds on your back so you can drop it like it’s hot once or twice a week….
…Or your knees were blessed by the gods and lubed up with a steady supply of a human’s equivalent of grease. If this is the case, you’re hated by an army of hobbling strength athletes.
Bum knees are part of the game you choose to play. It’s a sacrifice you make for those 10 extra pounds on your squat.
Despite your knees sounding like a bowl of rice crispies meeting milk for the first time, there’s no reason you can’t continue to train hard, build muscle and hit new PR’s. You just need the right plan of attack when working around your feeble bird knees.
It Begins with Alignment
If your car’s alignment is off – even slightly – there’s going to be some extra wear and tear on the neighboring parts, such as the tires. The tires are being put into an inefficient position.
This leads to a lack of performance and the fact your tires are going to wear out sooner than originally planned.
The same rationale can be used for your body.
Think of your pelvis and rib cage as you would a car’s alignment. Put your pelvis and rib cage in crappy positions and the tires – in this case, your knees – are going to take a beating. The inefficient position will be reflected by less than stellar numbers on the platform and a general achiness you can never seem to shake.
Why focus on your pelvis and rib cage?
Everything is controlled by these structures.
The front of your pelvis rotates in a clockwise fashion. Your leg flies counterclockwise to create a compensation.
The front of your rib cage points at midnight when it should staring at six. Your low back will begin to arch harder than Roman architecture.
Your body is smart enough to create these compensations so you can stick to your primordial evolution and stand on two legs instead of being on all fours.
Despite the genius that is your body, these compensations aren’t something you want – in case you haven’t caught on to that fact.
Referring back to the car metaphor, the misalignment is going to cause a premature tune up which only your mechanic – an orthopedist or physical therapist, in this case – can fix. Unless you enjoy paying for their $80,000 sports car, I’d align your out of whack body so it doesn’t snap.
So, you now know what shouldn’t be happening, how do you go about fixing the issue?
The Knee’s Three Best Friends
Just like how you have some pals who would drop everything to give you a helping hand, the same can be said about your knees.
The obliques, hamstrings and adductors are those three friends.
These three amigos have attachment points which put your joints into their strongest, and safest, positions. Each of these muscles counteract the common positions you, as a powerlifter and strength athlete, put yourself in while lifting freaky weights.
Your obliques are made up of two muscles; the internal and external obliques. Put simply, they’re the sides of your core.
Don’t worry about deciphering which is which. When you’re training them as a unit, they’re both receiving their fair share of work.
You should be concerned about getting some oblique work in because of where they attach on the rib cage and pelvis.
Most lifters are going to have a rib cage where the bottom elevates on the front of the body along with a pelvis where the top is pulled down and forward.
Your obliques will directly oppose your flared rib cage – by pulling it down – and anteriorly tipped pelvis – by pulling it up.
If you want your knees to stop feeling like an 83 year-old who deals with osteoporosis, be sure to include plenty of work for those obliques.
Do you have the typical lifters lower back pain?
You know, the area around your S.I. joint, just above your tail bone. Squatting and deadlifting the weight of a small car on a consistent basis will cause that nasty little ball of tightness.
The forward tipping of your tipping is the cause of the low back tightness.
If you haven’t already guessed it, having your hamstrings turn on harder than a horse kicking its rider square in the chest is what you’re after. Your hamstrings are in such an advantageous position to pull the back of your pelvis down to a more neutral position.
Your pelvis being in a more neutral position means less back pain, less ache in the knees and your muscles are allowed to do their jobs properly, which equates to higher squat, deadlift and bench press numbers.
The ugly step-children of the lower body.
Your adductors – more commonly known as the groin – are the meaty suckers on the inside of your thighs. The only time you seem to hear about these guys is when someone talks about pulling their groin.
If this all too important group of muscles was trained properly, or at all, your talk of groin pulls would disappear.
When squatting, you’ve always been told to push your knees out or screw your feet into the ground. These are good cues when your knees are collapsing inward like a bridge or you’re going for a max effort lift, but they’re putting your pelvis and upper leg in a compromised position when used on a consistent basis.
That compromised position leads to, you guessed it, achy knees.
Performing some dedicated adductor work will give the feeling of your entire foot being on the ground. When the knees out cue is aggressively used week in and week out, you’ll notice you have most of your weight on the outside of your foot.
Strengthening your adductors reverses the tendency of having your weight on the outside of your foot.
Putting All of This Anatomy Talk into Action
It’s not necessary dedicating an entire workout to any of these three muscle groups. You’re better off doing more frequent, low-level work for each area so they’re ‘turned on’ on a consistent basis. That’ll do you better than less frequent, intensive sessions.
The best times to work on each of these weak areas:
- In the morning after waking up
- Just before bed
- During your warmup of each training session
- After every training session
- As a filler/active rest between more intense sets of your training session
The more work you can sneak in throughout the day, the better off your knees are going to feel.
It shouldn’t feel like you just a hardcore training session, but you need to really feel the targeted muscles working hard. Becoming like a bodybuilder and having a great mind-muscle connection is key.
The Best Options to Put in Your Exercise Arsenal
There are countless options you could use to activate the obliques, hamstrings and adductors – none of which would be bad choices – but the following are the options I’ve seen work best for myself and clients.
- Side Plank
- Weighted Plank
- Single-Arm Plank
- Single-Arm Farmers Walk
1-2 sets of 30 seconds work best for these.
- Leg Curl Machine
- Glute-Ham Raise
- Stability Ball Leg Curl
- Slider Leg Curl
1-3 lighter sets of 15-20 reps on the leg curl variations. An easy 8-10 reps for the RDL’s and glute-ham raise.
- Adductor Machine (Good Girl Machine)
- Contralateral Split Squat (DB in opposite hand of front leg)
1-3 sets of 15-20 reps for the adductor machine. 10-15 reps for the split squat.
In addition to each of the above exercises, during squats and deadlifts, think about feeling your entire foot throughout the movement. You should feel it from heel to toe.
The Final Creaks and Pops
Whether you’re the most diligently lifter since the dawn of time or not, chances are, you’re going to face some sort of knee ache at some point. That achiness shouldn’t be a mainstay in your lifting career, though.
Being proactive by repositioning your rib cage and pelvis is a crucial step in making sure you don’t miss out on potential strength and muscle gains due to achy knees. Strengthen your obliques, hamstrings and adductors with the exercises listed above and see how much better your knees feel.