Do your knees hang low?
Do they wobble to and fro?
Can you tie them in a knot ?
Can you tie them in a bow?
Ok, maybe knots and bows are going a little too far, but you should be able to deliberately lift and lower your kneecaps and slide them easily across your knee joint when you are at rest.
Yup. That’s what we in the movement biz call a motor skill. Being able to say to yourself “I am going to move my kneecaps/ lift my middle toe/ rotate my leg in the hip socket/whatever other bizarre thing it is I can think of” and then have your brain, your nerves and your muscles all respond appropriately.
Your knee caps are largely controlled by your quadriceps muscles, the big group along the front of your thighs. Many (if not most of us) overuse our quads to everything up to and including wiggling our eyebrows. Ok, not really the eyebrow thing, but they do tend to be overly recruited.
Why is that a problem? Because if they are chronically “on” they affect knee position, gait, stance, pelvic floor health and the capacity to engage other, equally important musculature.
- Chronically tight quads are implicated in knee issues because they pull the patella up and back into the joint space. That pressure creates friction, which can lead to inflammation which can lead to discomfort and possible osteoarthritis. Which is no fun at all!
- Chronically tight quads mean that it is REALLY hard to produce a posterior -driven gait. What does that mean? Walk from your booty, that’s what it means. Your steps are meant to be driven form your hamstrings and glutes, but if the front of your legs are too tight, then you can’t get them far enough back to engage those muscles.
- Chronically tight quads mean it is really hard to get your pelvis to its optimally aligned position over the heels.
- Chronically tight quads mean that the balance is off from the front to the back of your hip muscles. Not enough glute and hamstring strength means you may well be a butt-tucker which doesn’t support the pelvic floor muscles and leads to flat-butt syndrome. Let’s be real… curvy butts are important for both health AND aesthetics!
So, with all that in mind, let’s try an experiment.
Stand up. Line up your pelvis over your heels with your legs straight.
Can you lift and lower your knee caps?
And that means legs stay straight, knee caps going up and down, not back and forth.
If you can, mazel tov, go have fun.
If not, either continue to read along, or if you prefer the quick and dirty video version, click here for the knee cap and quad release techniques
If you can’t, maybe your legs aren’t actually straight. Check yourself sideways in a mirror and see if they are a bit bent. Tight quads often mean the legs are not quite straight, and you can’t release (or disengage) your quads if your legs are bent.
If they are straight, but you still can’t move get the knee caps to move, try leaning against the wall with your feet 12″ away, so you have a bit of a fold at the hips. The release at the top of the quads sometimes helps to let them down.
If that still doesn’t work, sit on the floor with your legs out straight in front of you, put your hands just above your knees and feel for the muscles to activate and release.
If they don’t move, it usually means the thighs are too tight and the knee caps are not moving DOWN, rather than that they aren’t pulling UP. We don’t actually want them to be up for any protracted time, this exercise is intended to reveal to you that you may have more habitual tension in the quads than you were aware of, and/ or that you may be lacking this basic motor skill.
I am often met with disbelief when I ask people to try this. They look down at their knees, then up at me with big sad kitten eyes. It’s not possible! they say. Nobody can do that! I’ll never be able to do that! Why would I bother doing that??
Bother doing that so you can rule your quads rather then they rule you. It isn’t enough to stretch tight quads, you also need to learn how to release them so they aren’t tight all of the time that you aren’t stretching them. Even if you do three quad stretches every day, and hold each one for a full minute, you are stretching for 3 minutes and in a habitual tightening for the other 23 hours and 57 minutes. Which pattern is going to win? Stretch and release are two different and equally important things!
Keep practicing this (another thing you can add to your list of exercises that don’t take any extra time) as you wait for the bus/ for the kettle to boil/ for the computer to boot up/ whatever you do in your busy day. Your knees will love you for it!