As part of the basic stance in Restorative Exercise™, I ask my clients to “release your knee caps.” Usually this request is met with a raising of the eyebrows, which is an interesting response, but not the one that I desired. The knee cap (proper name: patella) is embedded in a tendon of the quadricep muscles and is known as a sesamoid bone.
There are four muscles in the quadricep group. They live on the front of your thigh, and one of them, the rectus femoris, runs from the front of your pelvis right down to your shin. That’s a long muscle. It crosses both the hip and the knee, and can influence both of those joints. The patella is embedded in the tendon of the converging quadricep group, and the tendon that continues below the patella to the tibia is your patellar tendon (or ligament, since technically it attaches bone to bone). So when this muscle contracts, the patella is pulled up, towards the hip. At least, that’s what it looks like. The muscles of the front of the thigh tense, and the knee cap is lifted. But it is not just lifted. The action of the line of pull of this muscle acts also to pull the patella back towards the front of the knee joint.
The patella can increase the leverage of this muscle group and also acts to protect the knee joint itself. Which is a good thing. But if the “quads” are always tensing, the patella is always held tightly against the front of the bones that make up the knee joint, resulting in friction on both the back side of the patella and the front of the joint, leading to osteoarthritis for example.
So it stands to reason that releasing this tension would be good for the long term health of your knee. But how is this done? It sounds easy enough to stop contracting a muscle, but the truth is, we are so short in this muscle, and we stand in a position where our pelvis is projected out in front of us (from years of sitting and wearing shoes with heels – even minimal heels) that the muscle is often stuck in the “on” position. So much so that when I ask someone to tune in and turn off, they can’t even begin to fathom where that ability comes from. Of course, not everyone is unable, but enough people are that it is worth a blog post, and those who don’t get it, really don’t get it!
Here’s a tip for learning the knee cap release: lean against a wall with your legs out from the wall and your feet shoulder width apart. The knees are straight. Keep your butt against the wall and lean forward so you can look down and see your knee caps, like this:
Because you are shortening the rectus femoris, you are more likely to get a knee cap release in this position. Then when your brain learns the motor program, you can try it standing. Eventually you want to be able to control your knee cap at will. Like this: