The knee joint is is a hinge joint, which means it has limited range of motion restricted to flexion and extension. Although many athletes can place the knee in rotation during cutting and twisting movements performed during sports, the knee does not like to be in rotation due to the shear forces that rotation creates on the patella. Optimal tracking of the patella is important in maintaining overall strength and stability of the knee. So what are the best exercises to strengthen the knee?
The vastus medialis oblique muscle, commonly referred to as the vmo plays a huge role in proper tracking of the patella. In order to strengthen the knee, it’s important to have a plan to strengthen the vmo.
Women are highly susceptible to knee injuries due to patellar maltracking because of large Q angles. The Q angle is the angle created from the line drawn from the ASIS (anterior superior iliac spine) to the middle of the patella, and the line drawn from the tibial tuberosity to the middle of the patella.
Large Q angles give the appearance of knock knees when the legs are extended. The knees collapse to the midline of the body, causing the patella to track inward. Patellar maltracking is a major cause of instability and weakness of the knee.
Strengthening the vmo muscles will allow the patella to track properly, vastly improving stability of the knee.
The petersen step up, illustrated below, is a great exercise to strengthen the knee, especially the muscles of the vmo.
The petersen step up specifically targets the vmo by forcing it to contract and fire on the concentric (stepping up) part of the exercise. Eccentric strength is very important in assisting the patella to track properly when stepping down off the platform.
Another great exercise for improving overall strength and stability of the knee is the back barbell step up.
The back barbell step up strengthens the knees by primarily targeting the quadriceps muscles and recruiting all the muscles surrounding the knee joint for stability.
When performing the back barbell step up, it is important to make sure the leg on the step does all the work. Flex the toes and lock the knees of the extended leg (non-working leg) before stepping up to the platform. This is to ensure you don’t cheat by pushing off the floor with the extended leg.
Unilateral exercises (exercises that work one limb at a time) are optimal for strengthening the knee by fixing muscular imbalances. Each limb works individually, with minimal compensation and muscle recruitment from the opposing limb.
The petersen step up and the back barbell step up are two great exercises to strengthen the knee. For another great exercise to strengthen the knee, check out this article on split squats!
NYC Personal Trainer / Strength Coach
Bindu Nambiar is a strength coach and fascial stretch therapist at Physiqology Inc., a New York City based personal training company. Bindu helps her clients get stronger, recover from injury, lose weight, and look great!