Friday 9 September 2011

Lock the knee?!?

What exactly does "lock the knee" mean?
In Bikram Yoga, many of the standing yoga poses are characterized by having one or both legs "locked out".
As this concerns the knee joint (among other elements of the leg) and having had an aggravated knee for a while, we thought to take some time to debunk exactly what "lock the knee" actually means.
In so doing, We hope you will learn a little more about what steps you can take to:
·         Protect your knee when "locking the knee";
·         Lessen the effect of previous knee injuries;
·         Reduce potential osteo-arthritic symptoms; and
·         Enjoy a renewed bounce in your walk as you learn to strengthen your large leg muscles and relax the hamstring.

Using your quadriceps to protect the knee joint
Take a close look at the two photos on the right.
What do you notice?
See how the one on the top does not have the shadow of muscle definition around the top part of the knee joint as the one on the bottom does?
Now the leg in both these photos is actually "locked straight" and both knees are "locked" in the sense that the leg is straight.
However, one is good, the other most definitely not!
So what is the difference and why is it important?
It has all got to do with:
·         The use of the quadriceps muscle;
·         How it acts as a suspension system for the knee joint; and
·         Its relationship when "clenched" with other large leg muscles, such as the hamstring.

Why your quadriceps are important ...
As it turns out, it is often not the knee cartilage causing knee issues or knee pain - it is the lack of surrounding support from the large leg muscles - calf, quadriceps and hamstring.
The quads need to tighten to help pull up the kneecap and in turn effectively assist the knee joint to function correctly (I'm not a sports physician, but this is what I have gleaned along the way).
Apparently this is also important to anyone suffering symptoms of osteo-arthritis.
I've had personal experience with this as in 1993 I manage to break my "neck of femur" (the top of the thigh-bone. Don't ask).
You'll see in the photo below the large pieces of steel the surgeons inserted inside my bone to screw it together in precise position (it's called a GKNail ... which begs the question, "What the heck do they use for a hammer?").
Anyway, in subsequent years and with poor physiotherapy, I developed knee issues and a painful inner thigh.
After switching physiotherapists, I was asked to "contract my quadriceps".
To which I replied, "I am!".
After she explained the importance of the quadriceps in looking after the knee joint, I searched for some good rehabilitation in the form of Bikram Yoga.
There is no question in my mind that this yoga rescued my knees and totally rid me of the previous pain issues.
And so this brings me to the "lock the knee" issue ...
Learn to tighten your quadriceps!
Your quadriceps are your front thigh muscle between your knee and your hip.
You should be able to see some muscle definition around your knee joint simply by tightening the quadriceps (it might take a bit of practice - and can be far easier to practice laying down).
OK good. This is the action that does a couple of key things - especially for your yoga practice ...
1.    Your knee will be held in a supportive position
2.    Your hamstring will be forced to relax by a mechanism known as reciprocal inhibition (I had to look it up too. It means that when one muscle is contracting the other cannot be engaged due to a nerve-mechanism in the body. You can take advantage of this!)
It took me a while to realize what was meant by "lock the knee".
For ages I was simply straightening my leg and leaning on it.
Not good.
For a few weeks I had sore knees!
Then I remembered my physiotherapist's instructions to squeeze the front thigh muscles - and as I concentrated on this in the standing poses, I could see the kneecap "lifting up" and the locked out leg became something strong and powerful, not just straight.
And my knees stopped feeling sore, almost immediately.
So "Locking The Knee" means?
Rather than just straighten the leg in the standing poses, actively engage your quadriceps muscles and you will never have sore knees, your walk will feel lighter, you will be preventing any future issues - and as a side-benefit, your hamstrings will gain more flexibility and lengthen more easily, which is a boon for many of us with tight hamstrings from sitting at desks all day or from sporting activities!

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