How to Keep Your Knees Healthy in Martial Arts

Updated on December 6, 2016

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!!

Good times.

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.

Avoid Hyperextension

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!

How are your knees in respects to martial arts?

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      • profile image

        Alice 4 weeks ago

        Thanks for sharing your experience. I have been training for 30 years (karate-do, taekwondo,kali, muay thai). Never had any injury until 2 weeks ago when I twisted my left knee in a bad way. I just got my MRI results w/c indicated I have a high grade tear of the ACL. My doctor's appointment is next week so I still have to wait for his advice.

      • MoRita profile image
        Author

        MoRita 6 months ago from IL

        Thanks!

      • profile image

        Izabela 7 months ago

        Great advice

      • MoRita profile image
        Author

        MoRita 22 months ago from IL

        Good idea! (The soundtrack is brutal, though!) My left knee is so bad that I can barely stand on it to kick with my right leg without it swelling up the next day. I'll try this to practice my right-leg kicks. Thanks :)

      • profile image

        Joe 2 years ago

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WP8d3YvtySU

        If you're experiencing knee pain you could try this. It helped me, I don't know & am not responsible for how it affects your legs. Just simple kicks in bed for a month & taking it easy on my legs helps increase the range of motion in the knee for me. I've injured my legs pretty seriously 2 times (1 on each leg,) but gradually rehabilitated them. Also, prayer's never hurt if you're a relgious person.

      • profile image

        Gina 2 years ago

        Hi Morita. You just pointed out something that most professionals in the physical therapy field fail to address. They focus and there is so much information out there about the knee and quads. However there muscles in the hamstrings are involved in more movements in the knee(flexion, external and internal rotation)

        Heads(Hamstrings):

        1.Biceps Femoris, Long Head

        2.Biceps Femoris, Short Head

        3.Semitendinosus

        4.Semimembranosus

        Movement:

        Knee;

        Flexion [1, 2, 3, 4 ]

        External Rotation [1, 2 ]

        Internal Rotation [3, 4 ]

        While the quads only in 1 type of movement. (Extension)

        Heads (Quads):

        1.Rectus Femoris

        2.Vastus Lateralis (Externus)

        3.Vastus Intermedius

        4.Vastus Medialis (Internus)

        Movement:

        Knee;

        Extension [1, 2, 3, 4 ]

        I saw my brother get broken hearted when he had to quit the Olympic team in my country because of that and i don't want the same to happen to me (I'm just a newbie)

        But your insight is so different and makes much sense.

        Do you think i should work on strengthening my hams before i worry about my horse stance because i feel like it's very hard to keep my knees from collapsing inward if i keep my toes pointing straight forward.

        Thank you so much!

      • MoRita profile image
        Author

        MoRita 4 years ago from IL

        Yep. I had to quit completely after my knee injury. I wish I'd taken my own advice or learned proper form when I was a kid. I did martial arts for about 20 years, and I regret not having the ability to do it anymore.

      • NateB11 profile image

        Nathan Bernardo 4 years ago from California, United States of America

        Good advice here, and you're right. Injuries, in addition to stress, pretty much put me out of commission from training a few years ago. But I kept going way past the point I needed to. Many martial artists have a strange sense of trying to prove something by training too hard and even when their bodies are damaged.

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