How to Keep Your Knees Healthy in Martial Arts
Once upon a time...
Once upon a time, I was a bada$$. Look at the photo!
I was in a magazine!! I did Kung-Fu and I played with a big stick!! I had wicked muscle definition in my arms!!
At the time this picture was taken, I'd been doing martial arts for about 20 years. I'd taken judo, taekwondo, hapkido, karate, and two styles of Kung-Fu.
I loved it but I had to quit completely at age 30 when I found out I had Grade 4 osteoarthritis in my left knee and had to have surgery on it. This was the complete opposite of fun. I tried really hard to make it better, but after a year and a half of researching and physical therapy and attempting to get back into sports, I realized it just wasn't gonna happen.
Because I'd participated in martial arts so carelessly and completely during my adolescent years, I did irreparable damage to my knees.
Here, I'm hoping I can explain to you how to prevent knee problems in martial arts before they get to you, too.
Keep Your Quads and Hamstring Balanced
In martial arts, most of your leg work is done with your quadriceps, leaving your hamstrings rather neglected. Most stances focus on your quads. The only thing I can think of that works your hamstrings is that sort of kick where your leg comes up in the back (in my Kung-Fu class, we called it a Scorpion-tail kick).
An imbalance in the quads and hamstrings leads to improper tracking of the knee-cap which in turn leads to wear and tear of the bone and cartilage.
So, take time to work out your hamstrings. You can do this by doing straight-legged deadlifts or working on the hamstring machine at the gym.
Running also works your hamstrings. Most runners have weak quads but strong hamstrings.
I see hyperextension most often in young, flexible, adolescent martial artists.
They kick and punch with quite a bit of force behind it, and at the apex of the move, you can see the knee or elbow bending backward under the strain of hyperextension. This occurs most frequently when kicking without hitting a target. When a target is present, the movement naturally stops before hyperextension.
Hyperextension stretches out the ligaments, making the joint overly mobile and leading to improper tracking of the kneecap once again.
Practice kicking without without hyperextending the joint. Become aware of your movement and the point at which your joint goes beyond what is healthy.
Keep Your Knee Above Your Ankle
This is something I see people doing in certain show styles of martial arts. They get in to these fabulously-low front stances the lazy way... by pushing their knee way forward past the toe. This puts all of the stance's pressure on the knee.
A strong stance puts most of the pressure into the quadriceps muscle. To activate the quadriceps, you should not push your knee past your ankle when doing a stance. The knee should be directly over the ankle. You may be able to get away with pushing your knee forward to your toe height, but this is far from ideal.
Back stances are a bit more difficult in this respect, as changing the weight from your knee to your quads may affect your balance at first.
Don't kid yourself. If your knee is far forward, it's not a good stance. It's not a strong stance. It's not even that pretty of a stance. Use your muscles. Make it count.
Don't Train Through the Pain
"Walking it off" is just not a good idea. You're not cooler or tougher if you train until you fall apart and can never train again. Trust me. I know. I looked a lot cooler in tournament than I do on the couch.
Joint pain is your body's way of telling you you're doing something wrong. Martial arts are not supposed to be pain-inducing in any way except for getting hit or getting muscle-soreness. Chinese monks did Kung-Fu and Tai Ji until the day they went to the big monastery in the sky, and their joints did not fall apart from it.
Follow RICE-N protocol for joint pain: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation, and Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (N-SAIDS). In other words, take it easy, ice the injury, wear a knee wrap, keep your leg up, and take Ibuprofen, Aspirin, or Naproxen (Tylenol isn't going to work here).
Here's to many more years of martial arts training for you!