When we think of strength training we don’t always think of rehabilitation, and when we think injuries, we don’t always think strength. There are so many ways to work with the body, and before I get into what really worked for me, I want to remind everyone that working with a really skilled rehab professional is always a good idea when dealing with pain. In my case, the skilled practitioner was my personal trainer, and through his guidance I became more confident and in control of my own healing process. Take this story as inspiration, but also know that without the help from an outside practitioner I would have never had the success that I had.
Knee pain has always been a topic for discussion in my family. My otherwise very healthy and fit grandmother has had three knee replacement surgeries. When I was growing up my mom had different knee issues, at one point a cyst, and at other times discomfort while practicing yoga. I grew up thinking that these knee issues were likely genetic, and at the age of 20 when I started to notice my knees cracking, popping and hurting often, I thought they would never be the same again.
During my first personal training assessment with my previous coach Lovedeep Dhunna (Toronto), he noticed that every time I went into a squat my knees would make a lot of cracking sounds. When he asked me about it I told them they had always been that way, and there was no way it was going to stop, that I knew my body, and that was just my body. He told me that we could have that taken care of within two months, I laughed and thought he was too confident.
When we started training together he put me on a protocol of hamstring exercises, and nothing but. Two days a week I went to the gym alone, I got in the leg curl machine and did set after set of knee flexion exercises. Some exercises were really simple, most of them were done with really minimal resistance at first, and for the first few months my hamstrings were constantly in a state of challenge followed by repair. When I look back on those days, I have to admit that I didn’t think it was all going to work. I couldn’t understand how training the muscles around my knees was going to make my knees feel better, I had always been taught that something had to be released, not tightened. This was the first big learning experience that brought me closer with strength training.
Three months after finishing the most boring, yet sensory rich program of hamstring and leg strengthening I was finally allowed to start working on full body movements again. To my surprise when I focussed on using my hamstrings and glutes for my squatting movements my knees didn’t crack anymore, rather than feeling crunchy through the range of motion they felt more smooth. I began to ask, if strength could do this for my knees, what could it do for the rest of me.
Once I was able to bend my knees, under load, pain free I started to approach my yoga practice again. What I realized was so many of the poses I had been practicing were pulling my knees apart. All the muscles I had just spent months strengthening were getting pulled to shreds with the seated poses I had been brought up to practice. It was time to make a big decision, to let go of pretty much half of my yoga practice.
While I had said goodbye to all the seated poses I had been practicing, I started flirting with the idea of crawling around in a squat-like position. The locomotive movements I had learned early on from Ido Portal started to peak my interest, and I started to work on low-gait mobility. At first these types of movements felt very unstable, my knees, hips and ankles had never been asked to work in the seemingly extreme ranges of motion I was approaching. I made sure to practice carefully, and for only a few minutes a day. Five years later I know that these movements have helped to heal my knees, and my lower body in general. My tissues have changed to support me in different ranges, and there is actually resilience around my joints. Jumping is no longer a scary feat, I am confident that my joints will be there for me when I need them.
So how does this help the average person, yogi or strength trainer? Let’s start thinking outside of the regular knee care box, lets think beyond only strengthening the quads and avoiding full ranges of motion. Our joints need time to adapt, thinking about this as a six-week program will never give the lasting results we are dreaming of, sometimes it takes years. Sometimes we need professional help, physiotherapy, and even surgery, avoiding professional opinions won’t serve us in the long term. Whatever we are coming back from, we can come back to strength in a more calm and mindful way, and when we take our time we can become more resilient.
Some of us don’t need surgery, we just need more balance, we need to do different things with our bodies to stimulate more support. Some of us need more walking, more hills, more squatting and resistance. Every day we move, and we have a chance to re-model our structure, our pain and our patterns.