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Weak in the knees

August 16, 2010

My new strength training class has one thing in common with my previous strength training class: an obsession with moves that put lots of stress on the knees. We’re not talking just the usual lunges and squats featured in many of these Definitions/Sculpting/TorturePoseOfTheDay classes, but a whole series of exercises that are knee-centric.

For many of my classmates, who range in age from 20-something to 70-ish, this does not seem to be a problem. But for me, all those knee-bending gyrations cause worrisome twinges in my kneecaps that don’t stop until we’ve moved on to exercises that target other body parts.

The good news is that the pain lasts only as long as the moves do and it doesn’t shoot through my eyeballs, cause water balloon-like swelling or any of the other symptoms that health websites list for problems with acronyms like ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injuries or PFP (patellofemoral pain). The bad news is that I can’t escape my gender, which apparently puts me at higher risk for knee problems than that of the average male gym rat.

Why women are more prone to knee pain and injury depends on whom you ask. One common theory is that because women usually have broader hips, this creates a wider “quadriceps angle” than men have, putting more strain on the knees. Another is that high levels of estrogen (what else?) somehow loosen ligaments, making them less protective of the knee joint.

This is what the American Council on Exercise says about ACL injuries specifically:

“A woman’s ACL may be smaller than a man’s, which may make it more susceptible to fraying or becoming injured. Some experts suggest that relatively weak hamstrings may also pose problems for women. When the hamstrings contract, they help stabilize the knee, so if the hamstrings are weaker or don’t activate fast enough, injury may result.”

Since I don’t participate in any of the sports that typically cause ACL tears or PFP, such as running, tennis or basketball, and I use proper form when doing squats and lunges (knees aligned with ankles, etc.), my theory is that my knee creakiness is simply due to wear-and-tear – i.e., aging — and maybe some hamstring and quadriceps tightness related to fitness walking. That doesn’t mean I have to stand still – literally – and just take it. In fact, fitness gurus recommend squats, lunges and the like to improve knee stability, which means that I don’t get a free pass on those delightful activities during class.

So my solution is to build up my knee strength. Luckily, I recently came across a magazine clip – buried in one of my “stuff to file” files – illustrating a few knee strengthening exercises. And I actually started doing them. I don’t know why I didn’t make this a habit long ago, especially since two of the three routines can be done while I’m sitting at my desk (say, while writing a blog post). They are similar to moves done on leg extension and leg curl machines in a weight machine circuit, minus the noisy metal plates. (For demonstrations of various knee strengthening exercises and correct form for lunges and squats, check out this YouTube video. Of course, warm up for a few minutes before trying these stretches.)

So far, so good. My knees actually seem to be getting stronger and I no longer feel the urge to down painkillers before my twice weekly class or the need to slap an ice pack on the knobby joints afterward.

© Janice Leary and My Point Exactly, 2010-2014. Unauthorized use of this material, including original photographs, without permission from this blog’s owner are strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Janice Leary and My Point Exactly with specific direction to the original content.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. cathy permalink
    August 27, 2010 12:28 pm

    this is good information and exercises to share with my fellow outdoor enthusiasts, especially my female hiking friends around my age who have knee aches and pains coming down off mountains.

  2. Joyce aka sintwister permalink
    September 10, 2010 5:10 pm

    When I had a knee injury (PFP) after an aerobics class in late winter/early spring, the orthopedic surgeon I saw who is a specialist in sports injuries echoed the whole female body theory. He said that generally a woman’s build, with her hips being wider than her knees, puts women at risk for knee problems. His treatment plan included physical therapy, which was beneficial. Sure beat surgery! Great info and recommendations here.

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