Remember that song “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”? Sure, it teaches children about anatomy, and gets them moving a bit, but the more I started to think about it (don’t ask me why it was on my mind), I realized that these parts of our body are somewhat ignored in our fitness routines—yet they’re important. Big toe flexibility is crucial, your shoulders are the steering wheel of your body, your head holds your brain, and your knee is center to every movement you do.
Think about it: Your knees are the all-important joint that’s smack in the middle of your legs, so their stability and overall strength makes for smoothly functioning gams that can, well, take you wherever you need to go. To be more technical: “A stable knee is a knee in which all ligaments and surrounding muscle groups are intact, healthy, and strong enough to support body weight during movements and activity,” says Jeff Brannigan, program director at Stretch*d in New York.
Stability in your knees, of all other joints in your body, is even more important because you’re utilizing them with literally every step that you take—so they’re the most prone to get injured. “The knee is already vulnerable to injury, so when the integrity of the joint is compromised, the risk for injury skyrockets,” says Brannigan.
Not that any and all movements take a toll on your knees. Brannigan points out that the knee is especially vulnerable when it’s moving in not-natural planes of motion. For example, not so much when you’re simply walking, but when you’re moving side to side. “The knee is particularly vulnerable during activities that require a lot of lateral, or side-to-side movement,” he says. “The joint naturally flexes, or bends, and extends, but rotation is very limited. This means that activities like walking and running come more naturally than a sport like soccer or basketball that involves a lot of quick bursts of movement and cutting back and forth on the field or court.” A-ha—hence why you hear about so many pro athletes getting knee injuries.
There are things you can do to make sure your knee joints are primed and ready to move, though—Brannigan says it’s all about basic, fundamental movements. “It’s helpful to start with fundamental exercises that will help the joint at a structural level before graduating to more advanced exercises,” he says. Keep scrolling for what you can do.
How to improve your knee stability
1. Knee extension: The most basic exercise of all—that actually really helps—is a knee extension, which is Brannigan’s favorite knee-strengthening move. “All you need to do is sit on an elevated surface so when your knees are at the edge and your legs hang down, they don’t touch the floor,” he says. Then simply bring your knee from a bent to a straight position. Once that gets easy, he recommends adding weight or resistance—but start with a manageable weight so that you don’t overload the joint. “You want to isolate the vastus medialis in the lower quadricep,” he says. “If you extend the knee straight and hold the position, the muscle here should feel dense and hard.”
2. Single-leg balance: Start by standing on one leg and holding for 30 to 60 seconds—if that’s easy, Brannigan says to stand on a cushion or a Bosu ball at the gym. “The instability under the foot will help to strengthen muscles throughout the foot, ankle, and lower leg which helps provide a better foundation for the knee,” he says, noting you can even challenge yourself further by holding a light weight out to your side.
3. Single-leg step up: For this exercise, you’ll need a stair or some sort of platform at your side. “Place your closer foot onto the platform and use that leg to lift up your body weight,” says Brannigan. Make sure it’s a manageable height so that you can stand upright, which strengthens the muscle groups throughout your leg while providing support for your knee. You can also add weights to your arms for more resistance.
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