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How to Keep Your Knees Safe, Healthy, and Injury-Free in Martial Arts

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MoRita did kung fu and other martial arts for over 20 years, until irreparable damage to her left knee stopped her.

At the time this picture was taken, I'd been doing martial arts for about 20 years.

At the time this picture was taken, I'd been doing martial arts for about 20 years.

Don't Make My Mistakes

Once upon a time, I was a bada$$. I did kung fu and I played with a big stick! I was in a magazine! I had wicked muscle definition in my arms! Those were good times.

I did martial arts for about 20 years: 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 that required surgery. 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.

Below, I share four tips on how to prevent knee problems in martial arts before they get to you, too.

1. 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 kneecap, 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.

2. Avoid Hyperextension

I see hyperextension most often in young, flexible, adolescent martial artists. They kick and punch with quite a bit of force, 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.

3. Keep Your Knee Over 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 onto the quadriceps. To activate the quadriceps, you should not push your knee beyond 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.

4. 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 that 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 chi 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 your many more years of martial arts training!

Joint pain is your body's way of telling you you're doing something wrong.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Alice on May 18, 2018:

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.

Mo Rita (author) from IL on November 22, 2017:


Izabela on November 08, 2017:

Great advice

Mo Rita (author) from IL on August 01, 2016:

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 :)

Gina on June 24, 2015:

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)


1.Biceps Femoris, Long Head

2.Biceps Femoris, Short Head





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)



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!

Mo Rita (author) from IL on July 21, 2013:

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.

Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on July 19, 2013:

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.