and other advice on looking after your knees
The following video on knee massage is one of a series on Google Video. If you like it, take a look at the others by this author here. If you are doing Chinese swordsmanship, taijiquan, or any type of athletic exercise that impacts the knees, this page will be helpful to you.
How many times have you been told to "look after your knees"? I heard that many times but the information about how to actually do that came in small doses over a number of years and by the time I understood the phrase, I'd already done some damage. I had already done some prior to beginning training too - galloping into a post on a horse, horses falling on my leg, car accidents, etc. Much of it was fixed in a recent operation and from now on, I'll be taking my own advice written on this page - everything from knee massage to limiting repetitions of push hands exercises and steering clear of low stances.
Individual Knee Factors to Consider
Training young is an advantage.
Age. When I first started training in taijiquan, I saw other students doing low stances. I found them difficult. I persevered, thinking it was only a matter of time and training until I could do them as well. I kept injuring myself and since I was training alone with my teacher on the other side of the world, there was no one to tell me what to do. I knew I should look after my knees but I thought I was doing that. I didn't know what it really meant and I couldn't see any reason for not being able to go as low as an 18 year old. I was over 40 at the time. So by the time of my first seminar, I could go lower than most of the young ones in taiji stances, but the damage had already begun.I wish I had known knee massage when I started. Every little helps.
Good alignment for a lunge.
- Body structure. Alignment is important. When you do anything that involves putting the weight of your body on one leg, make sure your lower leg is at an angle of no more than 90 degrees. Your toe should still be visible with your knee behind it. This goes for lunges in swordsmanship, squats, and anything else. As well as that, the knee should not roll in or out. On the outer line, your hip, knee and ankle should be in a line. If you are female you should be extra careful. Women injure joints and ligaments 8 times more often than men because their muscles are not as strong, their hormones cause weak times and their body structure is different.
- Weight. When I started training I was 20 kilos heavier than I am now. I'd like to see some of those fit young men hold 20 kilos and do their training without damage to their bodies. There is no getting around it. Extra weight puts extra stress on the bones, ligaments, and especially the joints. I could do all the low stances beautifully in the swimming pool because the weight of my body was supported by the water. It wasn't a flexibility problem.
Previous training. When I train children in taijiquan and Chinese swordsmanship, I encourage them to develop their maximum potential of flexibility. There is never an easier time and the more they get while they are young, the more they can keep as they age. People who start training early in life in ballet, martial arts, etc, have a headstart on people who start in middle age. Don't feel you have to catch up.
Know your own body.
Know when to stop. I grew up on a farm where the children had to work like men. We pushed ourselves beyond the point of pain every day. I was trained in going far beyond what my body said it could endure until I lost the capacity to know when to stop. The result of that early conditioning is that I still don't know when my body is hurting or I've driven it too far. If I break a finger in swordplay, I say "ouch" switch off the pain and keep going. No one knows I'm hurt and I can't tell them because my brain has lost the capacity to say it's time to stop. I hope none of you are as dissociative as that. I hope you know when you are hurt or when you're pushing your body too far. If not, I hope you have a watcher in training who can see it for you and make you stop. You can warm down with a knee massage as well if you like.
This movement takes a lot of leg strength.
- Muscle strength. One of the main reasons we do low squats in forms and repetitive push hands exercises, is to strengthen the muscles. If your legs are not as strong as someone else's and you attempt to do the same number or intensity of exercises they do, you will damage your knees. Build up the muscle strength gradually. Try putting your back against a doorframe and gripping the other side of the doorframe with both hands. Then sink only as far as you safely can with that support. Gradually build up strength. If everyone is supposed to do 50 spirals up and down on each side in class, and your knee is crackling after 5 - stop! Whoever told you to do that doesn't wear your knees. Do only what you can. You have to decide.
Contributions from Readers
Here is some good advice from Bev
, also known as Bel_again
, who I met on Twitter:
It's important to know your own knees (mine have early ostoarthritis and lifelong kneecap tracking issues). Getting personalised advice from a health professional helps to build your bag of tricks for caring for your own knees. If your tai chi teacher doesn't correct your alignment, ask him for his opinion or get a fellow student to keep an eye out for you. Watch yourself in a mirror, sliding glass doors or a video. A friend and I sometimes give our knees a bit of lubrication on the swings in the playground at our tai chi park - not weight-bearing and the knee movement pumps the synovial fluid around.
Bev also recommended this great blog article on preventative body mechanics.
Warm Ups and Knee Massage
Warm up with knee rotations.
To protect your knees, do some low impact warming up before a swordsmanship or taijiquan session, especially if push hands is involved. Five minutes on the exercise bike is a good warm up. So is walking a few blocks to class. Warm up further by doing a knee massage such as the one in the video on this page. Then stretch. There are a lot of suggested leg stretches here.
Knee rotations can get the fluid flowing evenly in the joint. Leg stretches help the muscles that give strength to the knees. Try to hold each leg stretch for at least a minute because less than that won't improve flexibility of ligaments. If it gets boring doing the same thing each time, pair with another student and do knee massage on each other.
So look after your knees.
Add to your knee massage routine with a good linament. People have their favourites, so this space is here for you to recommend yours.
- Tiger balm. My recommendation - available at any pharmacy.
- Wood Lock Oil. Recommended by Taijirich on Twitter. Check it out here.
What to do if you damage a knee in training
- Stop immediately. Sometimes that's the only thing you can do. When I tore a meniscus in swordplay, there was a loud crack and I couldn't walk. If it isn't quite that serious, still stop. It will only get worse if you continue training.
- Use the RICE principle. That's REST, ICE, COMPRESSION, ELEVATION. Rest means don't train on the knee again until it's better. Ice it for 20 minutes out of every hour, or at the most 2, for the first 48 hours after the injury. If it is a torn ligament, the ice will slow bleeding into the joint. For any other injury, it slows swelling and aids healing. Compression means wrap it firmly with a strong crepe or elastic bandage. Keep it wrapped all the time except when you are icing it. Elevation means putting the foot up - higher than the heart is best, but at least higher than the hip - even in bed. Sleep with it on a pillow.
- DON'T USE KNEE MASSAGE ON AN INJURY. The knee massage above is for prevention. If you are injured, knee massage can spread blood or broken splinters into the joint, making the injury worse.
- See a doctor. Don't be silly about struggling on in training when you should be on crutches. I tried that once. I took enough painkillers to be a zombie and trained on a knee with torn meniscus, damaged ligament and broken bone trapped in a joint. I trained like that 6-8 hours a day for a week. I was so good at hiding the real damage that when someone hurt a finger in swordplay, I was the one sent to get ice - a long walk with every step agony. I fooled everyone. But about 18 months later and still in constant pain, I had to get it operated on. I did get knee massage, but sometimes we need more than that.
Reader contributions about knee massage and other types of knee care, are welcome.
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