A bent knee, is a strong knee
May 8, 2018 by Dr. Yogi Gare
Has anyone ever told you that before? I’d wager that this is probably your first time hearing that.
When it comes to Balance Poses (like Dancer’s, Half Moon, Warrior 3 etc) You’ve likely been instructed to straighten your leg or “microbend your knee.”
These are really common cues, but have you ever stopped to ask:
- Why would you want to straighten your leg when you’re balancing on it?
- Why would you want to microbend your knee?
Question every cue, rather than be a yoga drone!
Let’s take a critical look at these cues, but first I’ll spice in some some knee anatomy & functional movement. Then, hopefully, you’ll have a good understanding on how your knee works and you can make a conscious decision to straighten, microbend, or…
& swear your fealty to functional movement 😛
Knee Anatomy & Function:
Here are the muscles & how they look when you look at the knee from the side. Compared to other regions of the body, it’s not very complicated. This is because the knee is a very very simple joint.
When you look at the knee in relation to the rest of the body. It’s a stable joint, meaning it doesn’t move very much and is designed to provide support and strength to the surrounding structures (like the ankle and Hip)
In Chuck Wolf’s book: Insights Into Functional Training: Principles, Concepts and Application he says something like:
“The knee is the stupidest joint in the body, it only does what the ankle permits and the hip allows”
(totally paraphrased btw, but at the time of this blog post I had lent that book to a colleague)
Clinical Side Note: Knee pain, with the exception of direct trauma to the area, is very often related to the range of motion and function of the hip and ankle. Restore those and your knee doesn’t have to work as hard to compensate.
Actions of the knee:
- Flexion (Bending your knee)
- Extension (Straightening your leg)
- Tiny amount of Medial & Lateral Rotation
Knee anatomy is pretty straightforward. Now that we have an understanding how it moves and works we can start to think critically on some of these cues.
Cue Critical Thinking
“Straighten your Knee”
When we straighten our knee we align the femur (thigh bone) over the Tibia (shin) & partially over the Fibula. This stacking of the bones helps create a position where our hip stacks directly over our ankle to create structural alignment.
This is not a bad position to begin with. Stacking bones is useful in the beginning of learning the structural alignment of a posture. It allows us to focus more on the shape/form so that we can later fill the pose with actions.
When we straighten our knee, or lock it out, we keep these bones stacked and place our weight all on the knee joint. This is where things can get bad.
In the beginning you’ll likely notice no difference. If you keep locking out your knee and bearing all your weight on it, over time it may start to hurt! This is because you’re doing something that causes a lot of injuries in Yoga: loading your body at it’s end-range!
End-range refers to the range of motion of your joint where it can no longer move. Your muscles have extended you to a point where you’re now at the edge of your movement. Going any further could cause harm.
Physiologic end-range is not an optimal place to stay for long. It places a lot of force into your cartilaginous structures: ligaments, tendons, menisci, joint capsule.
Clinical Side Note: It is useful to progressively load these structures when they have been injured (like a tear/sprain) Other than that you want to keep your muscles active to protect these structures! [Cool Video on Progressive Overload in regards to strength training]
At end-range your body is also very biased in it’s movement. This means that there really is only one way for you to move from there (which would be to reverse out of that movement, or return back to neutral.)
Your muscles are also not at a place for optimal strength at end-range. (You can train end-range strength by the way, but you need to own the range of motion first!)
In the example of a straight knee: Your knee is in extension (straight) it is biased to flex (or bend). This is the only motion that can occur once you’ve straightened your knee.
Final Note: A locked out knee is not very functional. You would never walk like that, nor could you jump. So why do we insist on straightening our leg in balance poses?
Conclusion: Locking out your knee is end-range. It okay to do this when you’re learning the shape, but you should not always practice at end-range. Variability is the key to sustainability.
Once you’ve tried the pose a few times it’s time to introduce some muscular strength by…
Bending your knee!
“Microbend Your Knee”
Not a yoga class goes by without this lovely cue. Pretty sure a chakra aligns somewhere in the universe every time it’s mentioned haha
This is a good cue for the straight leggers because that tiny bend is going to take some pressure off the knee joint and add a little muscle to the mix.
This cue still puts us in the realm of end-range, so I’m not the hugest fan. It’s soooo much better than straight up locking your leg!
So what really happens when we soften, unlock, or microbend the knee?
Meet the Popliteus. It’s a tiny little muscle located in the back of your knee. It’s job is to “unlock” you knee or twist the Tibia ever so slightly so that your knee can bend after it has been locked out.
To put it in technical terms:
When the knee is in full extension, the femur slightly medially rotates on the tibia to lock the knee joint in place. Popliteus is often referred to as the “Key” to unlocking the knee since it begins knee flexion by laterally rotating the femur on the tibia.
Popliteus is also attached to the lateral meniscus in the knee and draws it posteriorly during knee flexion to prevent crushing the meniscus between the tibia and femur as the knee flexes.
In normal people terms: When your knee begins to bend this tiny little guy rotates your shin bone and meniscus to allow that movement to occur fluidly.
This little bend will allow your knee to move a little more. It gives us a little bounce & sway because the joint isn’t as biased as a fully extended knee. (It’s still biased, it just has a little bit more freedom)
A little bounce and sway is a beautiful thing. This helps your body move and adapt to its position.
I akin it to how they build skyscrapers. The buildings are not built rigid, they allow for some sway so that they can move with the wind & other forces. This sway ensures that they do not topple over easily because the building is able to adapt and distribute those forces
Conclusion: Microbending/softening/unlocking your knee takes some pressure off your knee joint and begins to engage some of the muscles of your legs. It’s still close to end-range and is merely one way to do things.
There are many other ways, and we are at our strongest when we train our body in with variability.
Alright it’s time to see what all the hubbub is about bending your knee!
Please Bend Your Knee
“A bent knee is a strong knee”
Bending your knee quite simply engages more muscles. Your Quadricep and Hamstring groups activate, your knee centrates in a more neutral position, and your chakras align.
Okay maybe not that last thing, but still a bent knee is SO much stronger.
- More muscles active means your taking less stress on the cartilaginous structures of your joint.
- Knee is more neutral (or centrated), this means that it can now move more into flexion or extension if it needs to.
- It can sway, react, and adapt.
So what does all this equate to?
Much stronger balance poses.
My intention here is not to be flashy & show off, but to give you an example of what you can accomplish when you place your leg into a strong position.
Once I started bending my knee in balancing poses like Half Moon (above), Warrior 3, Dancer’s Pose, etc my legs became much stronger and I became significantly sturdier. I applied this logic to my students and sure enough it benefited them as well!
Once you have that strength and sturdiness you have so many more options available to you!
It all goes back to functional movement. Your knee was designed to bend to support you. It’s at it’s strongest when it’s bent, so why in the hell do we insist on balancing ourselves in a place that isn’t our strongest?
It’s like we’re intentionally stacking the odds against us and setting ourselves up for failure. (pun intended :P)
How to Bend Your Knee:
- Start with any ol balance pose. Let’s keep it simple with Warrior 3.
- Enter the pose as you normally would
- Ex: From a Mountain/standing lift one leg, slowly hinge forward and reach your leg back, lift your heel up, etc
- Bend Your Standing Leg Knee
- Start super slow into a microbend
- Gradually increase the bend (This may take multiple tries/attempts at the poses) Give it time!
- Stay active through your other parts
- The cue I use “Bend your knee like a Chair Pose” [Works really well if you did Chair Pose or a Squat before so they can relate to the sensation]
- Alignment Note: Your Hip and ankle will still remain aligned above each other, the main difference is your knee is bent
The first thing that will happen when you try this is you’re going to ignite some fire and spice to your legs. Breathe through it and stay strong through the shakiness that will likely follow.
After a few renditions of bending your knee you’ll be pretty damn surprised at how rock solid your leg becomes in that position.
Alignment note: Your knee is totally allowed to go past your ankle (WAIT WHHHHAT!?). Its a really common myth that has been spread in yoga and even at the gym.
Final Note: If it hurts to bend your knee, or feels really uncomfortable. Dont do it! Back out, do some more hip/ankle prep/leg strengthening/etc and try again when your knee doesn’t hurt or with some supervision for some aid!
Even if your knees hurt you can attempt this variation.
- Start with a small bend to comfort (so enough of a bend that does not hurt)
- Progress to a deeper bend (or a slightly deeper, not painful bend)
Progressive Overload is a great concept for slowly introducing strength to a painful area while still remaining relatively comfortable.
I’m guessing at this point there are a few of you reading this and shaking your head in pure awe and amazement over the blasphemy of all this
It’s okay, I remember the first time I taught this concept to a bunch of Bikram yogis. You would have thought I had said the Earth isn’t flat or round it’s a parallelogram based on the look of shock.
You honestly just have to try it out yourself and see how you like it
Remember that stacking your bones to find the structural alignment is still a useful tool when learning Yoga Poses. I look at it now as the first step in learning a pose. As you establish familiarity with the shape you’re ready for step 2 which entails weaving in ways to strengthen, vary, & connect to the pose in deeper ways.
Here is an example of one way that I like to look at any Pose/Position/Exercise/Movement:
- Step 1: Assume the Shape
- Learn the structural alignment of the pose, how it looks, how your body feels when entering, holding, & leaving it.
- Step 2: Embody the Shape
- With the baseline info you gleaned from step 1, practice different muscle actions, variations of the pose, & awareness.
- This is the playful step: you learned the pose, it’s time to have some fun or invite a challenge, and find yourself in it!
- This step also entails exploration: what happens if I….
- (Feels good = cool; Feels bad = nope I’m out)
- Step 3: Try a New Shape
- Familiarity is great to practice, but can become so boring for your brain, it’s really good to introduce novel (new) movement and break up routines every so often
- After a bout of novel movement come back to your Pose and see how connecting to something else changes/bolsters what you’ve played around with in the past
Whether you are for bending your knee or still in the straight leg/microbend camp, they’re both right. You need to give your body variability to ensure it’s resilience & sustainability.
The information I present here is merely one way of doing things, and I challenge you to try it.
Instead of refuse and die:
Refuse & do your thing, don’t let some stranger on the internet tell you what to do.
If it feels good, do it. If not, eff it!
I hope this inspiration inspires a little bit of critical thinking and whole new realm of balance & movement for you to explore. I know it did for me, and all I had to do is…