If your knees ache when you walk, run, or jump, there’s a fair chance you’ve got wobbly knees — I know, that’s a highly technical term. Knees that don’t track forward when bending can be a result of weak hips, feet, thighs, or any combination of these — and probably all of them.
Often this comes up around pregnancy and postpartum, because our posture changes so much so quickly, but I also see this issue in all ages. Often, folks won’t look at how the knee joint is functioning until there’s significant pain — I urge you to try this test now, before your pain starts limiting what you can do!
Here’s how to check: Wearing shorts, set your phone up to record yourself doing each of the following:
- Watching your knee caps, walk forward about 5 or 6 paces. Do one or both knees seem to dip inward as you walk? Or outward?
- If you passed that test, start from standing and do 3 or 4 bodyweight squats, as deep as you comfortably can.
- If you passed that test, try a squat jump.
Watch specifically what’s going on in your knees at their most bent point and in the transition from bent to straight (e.g. in a squat, when you’re at the bottom and pushing back up to stand).
If you can’t control what’s happening in your knees in a walk or squat, then running or jumping will almost certainly hurt. If you can manage a squat but can’t jump without your knees getting wiggly, then you may be able to get away with some running or jumping, but higher amounts or more years on that joint may slowly cause more and more pain.
Here’s a quick training plan to work toward correcting it.
Side-Lying Leg Lifts, aka Jane Fondas
Lying on your side, use your core to stabilize your pelvis and trunk as you lift your top straight leg up as high as you can (without the pelvis rocking). Repeat for 10 reps, and if that feels too easy, add a mini-loop band.
Lying on your side, bend your knees and draw them forward, so that if your back were against a wall, your back, tailbone, and toes would all touch the wall. Keeping your toes touching, lift your top knee as high as you can without your hips moving. Repeat 10 times, and if that’s too easy, put a mini-loop band around your thighs.
Put a band around your lower thighs and squat as low as you comfortably can and return to standing, continuously pressing gently out into the band to keep the knees from moving. (If possible, do this in front of a mirror so you can watch the knees.)
Lots of muscles are involved in stabilizing the knees, but for our purposes, I’m going to give you a calf strengthener, a hamstring exercise, and a lower thigh exercise, which will all help stabilize the knee itself.
Standing Calf Raises
With your hand on a wall or countertop and feel parallel and hip distance apart, keep your knees straight as you rise up to your tip toes and return back down. To progress, take the hand off the wall, start with toes elevated slightly on a blanket or thick book and heels all the way on the floor, move to one leg, and/or add weight.
From sitting, place sliders or any other slippery material (paper plates work on carpet, towels work on hard floors) under your heels. With one leg at a time, press your heel into the slider, extend your leg away all the way straight, then drag your heel back in. To progress, move to both legs at once, perform the exercise lying on the floor, or in a glute bridge. If you can’t keep your leg tracking straight forward and back (i.e. it slides on a diagonal in or out) try holding a block between your thighs.
From sitting, hold a yoga block between your thighs with both feet resting on the floor. Extend one leg all the way straight in front of you. (Notice is you slouched backward as you did this. Can you do it while staying straight upright in your posture?) Repeat 10 times and if this feels too easy, add a mini-loop band around your feet.
Yes, fallen arches or generally weak feet may be a cause or a symptom of unstable knees (the body is interesting like that, ain’t it?)
Standing with feet parallel on the ground, press your inner balls and heels into the ground, and try to lift your arches up. Don’t allow your feet to roll open; keep the whole ball and heel of the foot down. Other ways of mentally creating this activation is by thinking about scrunching your ball and heel closer, or about lifting your inner ankle bone. Keep trying!
I’ve been working on my own knee stability for several months, and I’m excited to say that I can finally squat jump with no knee rock. What this means is that I’ve been able to load up my exercises with more weight and keep work on getting stronger WITHOUT causing knee pain. I would love to hear from you if you try this!