One factor that athletic trainers and physical therapists look at when assessing knee injury risk is the reliance someone has between 3 groups of muscles – the quadriceps (quads), glutes, and hamstrings. Here’s a quick rundown of what these muscle groups all do:
For the purposes of muscle balance around the knee, we’re usually looking at the quads as one force and the glutes and hamstrings as the other group. Ideally, we would see these two groups of muscles in balance, meaning that when you perform a movement that utilizes both groups, you’re not relying too heavily on one or the other.
The most common deficit we see is something called quad dominance, or heavily utilizing the quads for actions that would ideally use both groups. For example, when someone squats, we would like to see them move their hips back first, bending their knees as needed to achieve a good depth without letting their knees move excessively forward past their big toes. In general, when someone can squat with proper form, the demand is placed across all three muscle groups, providing less strain on any one particular part of the body. If, when you squat, your first movement is to bend at the knees or if your knees move excessively past your toes, you may be quad dominant.
Correcting quad dominance is fairly straightforward in most cases, although some people require a more individualized approach. Addressing these 3 most common deficits may not only help reduce your injury risk, but also give you a boost in strength and power as you’re recruiting powerful muscles that may not be currently used to their fullest potential!
Hamstring and Glutes Weakness
If your hamstrings and glutes are weak due to lack of use, it’s time to strengthen them up so they can start pulling their weight. Here are three exercises that will help get you started. As always, if any exercise causes you discomfort, stop immediately and contact your physician.
Russian Hamstring Curls:
With your knees rested on a soft surface (bosu ball or padding) and a bench a few feet in front of you (as if you were going to do a pushup on it) have a partner hold your ankles down to the ground. Keeping your body in a straight line from the knee to the head, slowly lower your body towards the ground – with your arms out to catch yourself. Go as slow as you can, repeating 3 sets of 10 repetitions.
Lay with on your stomach with your body completely flat. Bend one knee so that the bottom of your foot is parallel with the ceiling. Extend your leg backwards as if you were trying to put a shoe print on the ceiling. Focus on squeezing the muscles in your rear on the way up and try getting in 30 repetitions on each leg.
Take a slightly longer than normal step forward then bend both knees. Then slowly lower the back knee until it touches (not hits) the ground. Your front knee should stay in line with your toes and not extend past the front edge of your shoe. Push up through the heel of your front foot to return to a standing position and repeat this on the other leg. Try to complete 3 sets of 10 repetitions on each leg.
Sometimes certain muscles take over because they are “overactive” or tight. One way to inhibit that limitation is to foam roll any tight areas you have before performing any activity. When it comes to rolling, we have some great suggestions here to get you started. One area that often gets neglected when it comes to correcting quad dominance is the ankle. A tight ankle can actually cause the body to shift weight forward towards the quads as the joints in your legs bend, so consider using some of these calf and ankle stretches to loosen things up.
Sometimes everything is perfectly fine as far as strength and mobility go, but old habits cause you to still use your quads a bit too much. Working with an athletic trainer to watch you during sport-specific movements (i.e., squats, pivots, jump landings, etc) can help identify if you are putting too much demand on your quads. Realizing which movements need to be addressed can help you correct them in a controlled environment before you put yourself in a compromised position in competition.
It should be noted that this, by no means addresses all of the potential strength and mobility imbalances around the knee and seeking the advice of a health care professional is always preferred to taking a “1 size fits all” approach. These solutions should, however, give you a good starting point to help improve the balance in your legs!