One of my jobs as a strength and conditioning coach to a team of athletes as well as private sector athletes is to protect them against injury. Period!
Sure, getting them stronger, leaner and more powerful is also very cool but an athlete that’s broken will NEVER be able to perform at the same level a well constructed and functional athlete can.
Plain. And. Simple.
The reason I’m starting with the knees is that most of the people that come to see me, be it athletes, crossfitters (who are usually littered with injuries and niggles) and general public is that so many of the problems that they come in with can be seen in poor knee strength, stability and basic biomechanics. This isn’t to say that all of them have knee issues but lot’s of their problems can be seen in the knees.
Knowing how to train short, tall, slender and stocky athletes is a must for a strength coach. Not all shoes fit the same feet and the biomechanics will play a big part in what you actaully do with them. Too many of these athletes are being forced to squat by powerlifting coaches or mis-informed coaches because squats are meant to be the mother of all lower limb exercises. Even though there may be truth to that, getting all your clients squatting right off the bat because it’s sexy, the in thing or because they’re apart of the big three is not a safe practice.
I agree, squats are amazing for knee strength and the carry over to most sports has a lot of science to back it up. BUT loading a poor squat it like putting a toddler in the drivers seat of an NASA rocket – it’s just not going to work out well for anyone.
Just because a squat is good, doesn’t mean you should get every fucking person doing it! More often than not, my athletes won’t squat for at least 4-8 weeks until I’m happy with how their moving. Putting heavy loads (because everyone wants to squat heavy these days) on a person with a poor squat pattern is going to do an amazing amount of damage to the knee if it’s not corrected.
Moving on from that, the knee is vital for running, jumping and changing direction (COD). As a good friend and expert in this field, Dr Tania Spiteri once said to me, “If you want them changing direction faster, make them stronger. You can’t make them strong if they’re broken.” I’ve covered it in the #CoachKnows Volume 1 blog post but incase you missed her research, here is the breakdown (graphic courtesy of www.strengthandconditioningresearch.com)
…loading a poor squat it like putting a toddler in the drivers seat of an NASA rocket – it’s just not going to work out well for anyone.
Here is an example of what your squat should look like when the biomechanics, lever length as well as mobility work has been done correctly
Here, Atlas Performance Level 1 Coach – Jade Hawley – showing what patience and hard work looks like when it comes to the squat. This squat was achieved after some structural balance testing and hip assessments to find where her optimal stance is and where her biomechanics allows her to be. Drop me a line if you want some of this information on how we did this.
So that’s why I have put the top exercises and training movements that I use with my athletes here for you to use and implement. You may not always be able to stop a knee injury but you want to have the greatest amount of protection of which is the best you can do.
Just because a squat is good, doesn’t mean you should get every f***ing person doing it!
I remember about 8 years ago, Andre Benoit talked about this in Sydney when I was out there for a course. We talked about how the step up (as well as the Peterson Step Up) was a great tool in developing knee strength and tracking practice. A very simple exercise never really seemed like it could be as valuable as it was. This is something I’ve used with every single client since then and really owe him a lot because of it.
The reasoning behind the step up is to aid in the training of the VMO (Vastus Medialis Oblique). A major muscle in both knee extension as well as stabilising the knee. From my own experience, there’s been a huge carry over to building the strength in the VMO and the reduction in knee injuries those who play both non-contact and contact sports. The research backs this up as well in terms of injury risk reduction.
Remember, the incline surface makes it easier than a flat surface due to the shortening of the calf and the subsequent dorsi flexion of the foot. Once you’ve mastered this, remove the incline and start doing this from a flat surface. Flat surface shown here.
Band resisted lunges
Over the last few years, I’ve started putting these into the programs of my athletes. Lots of my taller (6’4″ and up) athletes will know these all too well. The taller you are, the more important a stable knee is simply due to the fact that the levers of these guys and girls are just so much longer than the rest of us. If you don’t have a strong set of muscles and connective tissue surrounding the knee, you’re walking a fine line between moderate gains and major injury.
The design of this movement is to promote a conscious effort in stabilising the knee and tracking it inline with your toes. Depending on the movement, the knee will go over the toes (and if you’d like to debate me on this, feel free to drop me a message on the Contact page and I’d be more than happy to educate you!). But the importance is keeping the knee steady and straight. The beauty of this exercise is that you can have the band from either the lateral or the medial side. You can also have the band attached to an object (pictured) or you can have a coach hold it and move it for increased difficulty.
I would suggest training with the band coming from both directions (laterally and medially) as the knee is going to train and reduce valgus and varus (inward and outward) movement.
Note: Here is one of my basketball athletes (6’4) and playing a tall role in his teams and in his coaching. Due to the longer levers he has, we make it a habit of using this exercise as a foundational one after he can properly split squat. #ProgressionIsKey
Single leg Romanian deadlifts
Hamstrings are a crucial component of knee. So much of EVERYTHING we do revolves around knee flexion and extension. Often we are too strong in our quads and not strong enough through our hamstring (remember as well we have 4 quads muscles and only 3 hamstrings. The numbers aren’t in the favour of the good ol’ hamstrings). Risk factors in a lot of knee injuries come from an imbalance between the hamstrings and quads. That imbalance is usually case where the hamstrings are too weak and the quads are far stronger. This over powering can cause not only an increase chance of hamstring tears (due to the force and speed of knee extension) but also put a greater amount of strain and stress on the connective tissue surrounding the knee.
The imbalance in strength puts the knee joint at greater risk of trauma in moments of acceleration, change of direction or immediate stopping. Depending on your height and body weight, these factors could then increase further!
What i’ve also seen in the years of working with post-op ACL reconstruction patients is that there is both a dramatic loss in VMO strength and size as well as a very poor showing of strength in the hamstrings. This means that as soon as the athlete is cleared to train, the first steps are to isolate their training to be focussed on VMO and hamstring development. From there, basic movement and then leading into change of direction. Granted, thats a very simplistic run down but we’ll cover this in depth in future articles.
When I had my knee reconstruction at 17 years old (it sounds scary saying that actaully) this was one of the exercises that the physio who I was working with was working me towards. I was pretty excited about these because they looked like a basketball shuffle I used to do when I was a state player.
Fast forward to now, I totally realised why these are important. The knee and hip and a powerful pair when they work together. Glute medius, which is turned on during the movement of a lateral shuffle is a powerful hip rotator. Making sure there is strength and mobility through this muscle is a must for any athlete that has a change of direction element in their sport. (Sprinters and jumpers have a different set of issues that they need to worry about when it comes to glutes and knees).
The important thing to do with this movement is to keep the feet as close to the floor as possible when shuffling. Simply because when you lift your leg up higher, there’s a greater chance of you rotating your leg which will then recruit move hip flexor which is NOT what we want to achieve. Also, the tighter you you hold the band, the harder it is to move. So make it difficult.
Now in full disclosure, I’m a TRX instructor and apart of the TRX global family. I have to say that they guys are awesome and a shit load of fun. Fraser Quelch, a long time friend and mentor of mine introduced me to the family 6 years ago (almost to the day after writing this) and I have to say that my training philosophies and athletes results changed for the better that day. I had another awesome tool in the tool box.
The TRX Lunge (or otherwise known as a Bulgarian Split Squat) is where your back leg is higher than the front foot and in this case, is suspended behind you in the foot cradle of the TRX.
The amount of control this exercise needs is greater than that of a conventional split squat due to the balance requirement. I would not that there are a few different ways to butcher this exercise and are often what’s done in commercial gyms.
- Don’t create too much of a sling
- Knee does travel over the toe. Fucking deal with it!
- The straighter your chest, the greater pull through the hip flexor (thats a good thing)
- The height of the TRX needs to be at least 15 cms off the ground for this to be effective. Any more and you’re killing the outcome
Now, I’m not a fan of all the hops, lateral hops and all the other jazz that sometimes is done in TRX training because there is no carry over to sport where your back leg is suspended and you’re hopping around from side to side. The stimulus and strain that is put through the body during a simple and streamline movement is just that. A Movement. It’s not anything special except training the muscle to do it’s job. From there, we then train the running and hopping in a competitive and technical sense in the sport.
Moral: train the muscles in the gym, train the movement on the field/court