Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Best Exercise for Strengthening Knees

The most fallible joint (photo from New York Times)

Caryl perfects: The Squat ( You Can Too!)

I’ve always had trouble with my knees. The knee is the most fallible joint in the human body. I read that in Sports Illustrated decades ago—and it stuck with me. Many factors contribute to aching knees, and not all of them have to do with age. My own knee problems began in my teens with a cheerleading accident. Think splits gone horribly wrong. In my 20s, while downhill skiing (or was it tennis??) I tore ligaments in my knee that resulted in a knee brace (hard to wear with the high boots of that era). With exercise, I managed to avoid surgery. As an aside, I am convinced one of the reasons I married my husband is that he carried me up to my third-floor walk-up apartment in Greenwich Village during my six weeks of physical therapy.

Getting older. . .staying active longer . . . gaining weight even. . . can all be factors in increased knee pain as well as diseases such as osteoarthritis.  In recent years there’s been a rush to surgery: more than 5% of women over 50 have had knees replaced. In 2009—the year with most recent statistics—600,000 knee replacement surgeries took place in the U.S. –two times the number of all procedures from the past decade. But before you need to go bionic, there’s a simple exercise that can preserve knee health. You don’t have to have lots fancy equipment, you can do it anywhere, and done correctly, it strengthens the front and back muscles (quadriceps, hamstrings) of the thighs which hold your knees in place and stabilizes the joints.

An alternative to knee surgery

What’s the exercise? The counterintuitive--and sometimes maligned--squat. You have to do it right or it can cause more sheering at the joint. My trainer, Julia Chan, and I made this video
to show you the proper form-- even if it's not perfect (it’s me, remember?) every time. Start by standing shoulder-width apart, feet pointed ahead, toes slightly turned in*. Keep your back straight as you bend from the hip until your thighs are parallel to the floor and arms straight, elbows micro-bent.  Repeat. Again.  
And again.

In the video, I am using suspension straps to keep the weight and pressure off my body. The inexpensive trx training device can be used by people of all fitness levels (and for many different exercises especially strengthening the core); I like it because it  comes recommended by the U.S. military and elite athletes (major league baseball players--and golfers, for some reason) and lots of trainers (like Julia). I feel 
powerful just thinking all those guys and I are using the same equipment. 

Do try this at home

At home sometimes, I will put an exercise ball behind my back at the wall and do my squats that way. Other times, I just make sure my knees face forward like car headlights when I get up and down from my desk chair (like now.. . I am going to get a glass of water). The thing is you need to do about 20 squats a day to keep those knees flexible but it's so much better than surgery---or having your husband carry you up the stairs. Somebody could get really hurt.

*Correction: Earlier in this post, the instruction recommended that

your toes be slightly turned out.   No!  If your toes are turned out
a bit, you should be standing considerably wider than shoulder width.  In that case, you would be doing a plie, not a squat. That exercise is also beneficial to strengthening knees but works a different muscle. If you'd like a video of the plie, leave a comment. Otherwise,  I'm planning on showing you how to do the world's easiest push-up next.


  1. Something is going on with your video -- at first I couldn't get it to work and now it is gone altogether. I'd love to see it and this is great advice!

    Want to know why I want to strengthen my knees right now, even though they have never (so far) given me any trouble? I am going to Morocco in April to visit our son. During our last video chat, he picked up his computer and showed us the errr "facilities." I'm gonna need to have a set of strong knees while we are staying with him.

  2. Judith,

    Thanks for the heads-up on my video. Calling in my IT person--that would be Maryl--to fix it. So great you are going
    to Morocco, regardless of the facilities. I'm think of going there myself for a long (birthday) weekend in April. Maybe
    are paths will cross.


    1. Caryl,
      Let's definitely touch base about this. I'd love to see you and I know you would enjoy meeting my son and hubby too.

    2. I'll let you know when I know for sure. It would be end of April.

  3. Squats definitely help. I have osteoarthritis in one knee but it rarely gives me any problems due to my pilates and yoga,

  4. Pilates has worked wonders for me. I have two resurfaced hips but am hoping to avoid knee replacement by staying strong

    1. I am impressed, Ms. Still Dancing. I too did pilates for a while but then the studio moved several blocks from my
      home--it was across the street--and you know how that goes. I miss it though. It is probably the best exercise
      for women our age because it doesn't put any pressure on the joints and involves lots of stretching. One disincentive
      is that a 'private' or even 'a duet' in New York City was prohibitively expensive for me. Or, did you do group mat
      classes? Do you think those really work? get the same results? I'd so miss the machines, though.

  5. So well timed! I've had about 30 lb regain after weight loss surgery 7 1/2 years ago ... and there it is again ... that knee pain! In addition to a couple of startling spills (landing square on knees) three years ago ... losing the 30 lbs, now to work on strengthening knees!

    Thanks for your blog and video!

    1. First, congrats on starting to take that weight off. I too need to lose a few pounds. Forget about falling down,
      just remember that you continue to get up. Your knees may need strengthening, but your spirit is already strong.

  6. I've been doing a lot of squats lately in class at the gym and yes, it makes all the difference in the world if you do them correctly - that is for your knees. They'so so good for firming the bootie.

  7. Since doing squats every day for the past year my knees have help up during my winter runs. Yippee!

  8. Nice exercise! I think it’s perfect for all people. They can increase their knee joints strength easily with the help of it. I will also try it.back and neck pain bergen county , low back pain bergen county

  9. Pilates, Pilates, Pilates. Love it and teach it. I shall be adding the squat exercise as shown in your video to my classes which I give in Paris especially for my more senior clients.
    Thank you,
    Swan - Now Living in France