If you've been sidelined with a knee injury from trauma or overuse, you might be eager to get back to your training once you've healed. While that enthusiasm is great, it's important to incorporate exercises that will strengthen your knee after an injury to avoid a relapse or further problems.
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A Look at Knee Injuries
As the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine explains, there are many different kinds of knee injuries and they can result from many different factors. For athletes in training and other active individuals, a knee injury usually results from some kind of forceful trauma, repetitive overuse or some combination thereof.
It's easy to understand why knee injuries are so common: There's a lot going on under the skin around this frequently used joint. The U.S. National Library of Medicine notes that there's bone, cartilage, ligaments, muscles, tendon and fluid. A problem with any one of these could result in a knee injury or disorder, often characterized by pain and some amount of trouble walking.
It's not just athletes and active individuals who have knee injuries. Older individuals are susceptible to knee problems because of osteoarthritis, a disease in which the cartilage that cushions the joints degenerates, resulting in pain and swelling.
Common injuries for people in training, according to the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, include damage to ligaments and cartilage, dislocation of the knee, partial dislocation of the knee and — most common of all — an injury known as patellofemoral pain syndrome, often called runner's knee. This injury is the result of overusing the joint between the kneecap and the thighbone. In some instances, runner's knee can even be caused by a forceful blow to the kneecap.
The Importance of Healing
Even though knee injuries are common, the good news is that they frequently heal well with rest, according to the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine. Most injuries won't even require medical intervention; however, if you see a visible deformity with the knee (that is, the knee actually looks wrong) or you're not able to bear any weight on that leg, you should see a doctor.
Most knee injuries can recuperate at home with two or three days of rest. During the first 24 to 48 hours that you've sustained an injury, keep your leg elevated and ice it frequently.
After you have recovered, whether it was with a doctor's assistance or simply with some home rest, it's important to strengthen the knee after injury. This is because, as the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons explains, doing proper post-knee-injury exercises will help you develop strong, flexible muscles to protect your knee from future problems.
Flexibility is important because it will give you a broader range of motion and will reduce muscle soreness. Strength is important because it will offer more support to the joint, providing increased shock absorption and reducing physical stress.
Talk to your doctor or physical therapist before developing any workout after knee injury, as a professional can help you determine the best exercises for your specific situation and guide you through how to do the exercises properly.
Read more: How to Do Cardio With a Knee Injury
Strengthen Your Knee After an Injury
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons provides a lengthy knee conditioning program to help you strengthen your knee after an injury by targeting major leg muscles: your quadriceps (muscles along the front of your thigh), your hamstrings (muscles along the back of your thigh), your abductors (muscles along the outer thigh), your adductors (muscles along the inner thigh) and your gluteus medius and gluteus maximus (muscles that make up your buttocks).
Here's a sample of two stretching exercises and two strengthening exercises that the academy recommends. Before doing these exercises, remember to warm up with 10 minutes of a low-impact activity like walking or spinning.
Move 1: Heel Cord Stretch
- Begin in a standing position and facing a wall. Put your uninjured leg in front of you, bending the knee slightly.
- Lean forward and place both hands on the wall as if you are pushing it. As you lean forward, keep the foot and heel of your injured leg flat on the floor and bend your toes slightly. Avoid any urge to arch your back. You should feel a stretch in your calf and into your heel.
- Hold for 30 seconds. Relax; then repeat up to eight times.
- Do this exercise six to seven days per week.
Move 2: Standing Quadriceps Stretch
- Begin this stretch by standing behind a chair and holding its back to balance yourself.
- Lift the foot of your injured leg up behind you, bending at the knee as you do so.
- Grab and hold your ankle and pull your heel up close to your butt. Avoid the urge to arch or twist your back.
- Hold for 30 seconds to one minute. You'll feel the stretch in the front of your thigh.
- Lower the leg and repeat.
- Do this stretch two to three times per exercise session and incorporate it into your workout four to five times per week.
Move 3: Half Squats
- This strengthening exercise works your quadriceps, your glutes and your hamstrings. Begin in a standing position with your feet shoulder-width apart. Rest your hands on the front of your thighs. If you have balance concerns, keep a chair in front of you so you can hold the back of it.
- Slowly lower your hips about 10 inches as if you are sitting on a chair. As you move your hips downward, keep your chest out and avoid the urge to bend at the waist.
- Hold the squat for five seconds before returning to standing position.
- As you get stronger and more adept at the exercise, you can hold weights to increase the resistance. Start with 5 pounds and gradually progress to more weight.
- Do 10 repetitions of this exercise for three sets and incorporate it into your workout four to five times a week.
Move 4: Hip Abduction
- To work your abductors and your glutes, begin by lying on your side with your injured leg on top. Your uninjured leg, which will be on the bottom, can bear your body weight and provide support. Both your legs should be straight when you begin the exercise.
- Slowly raise your top (injured) leg to a 45-degree angle. Your knee should be straight but not locked. Avoid rotating your leg as you try to raise it higher.
- Hold the position with your leg raised for five seconds; then slowly lower it to return to starting position. You should feel the exercise in your outer thigh and buttocks.
- Relax for two seconds before repeating the movement 20 times.
- Do three sets of 20 and incorporate this into your workout four to five times a week.
As the workout becomes easier, you can make it more challenging by adding resistance with ankle weights.