#PTonICE Daily Show – Friday, April 12th, 2024 – Addressing knee pain in the fitness athlete

In today’s episode of the PT on ICE Daily Show, Fitness Athlete Division Leader Alan Fredendall discusses incidence of knee injury in functional fitness, common types of knee injuries seen in this space, and how to begin to treat knee pain for the fitness athlete.

Take a listen to the episode or check out the show notes at www.ptonice.com/blog

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Hey everybody, Alan here. Currently I have the pleasure of serving as their Chief Operating Officer here at ICE. Before we jump into today’s episode of the PTI Nice Daily Show, let’s give a shout out to our sponsor Jane, a clinic management software and EMR. Whether you’re just starting to do your research or you’ve been contemplating switching your software for a while now, the Jane team understands that this process can feel intimidating. That’s why their goal is to provide you with the onboarding resources you need to make your switch as smooth as possible. Jane offers personalized calls to set up your account, a free date import, and a variety of online resources to get you up and running quickly once you switch. And if you need a helping hand along the way, you’ll have access to unlimited phone, email, and chat support included in your Jane subscription. If you’re interested in learning more, you want to book a one-on-one demo, you can head on over to jane.app.switch. And if you decide to make the switch, don’t forget to use the code ICEPT1MO at signup to receive a one-month free grace period on your new Jane account.


All right. Good morning, everybody. Good morning, Instagram. Good morning, YouTube. Good morning to those of you on the podcast. Welcome to the PT on ICE Daily Show. I hope your Friday morning is off to a great start. My name is Alan. Happy to be your host today. Currently have the pleasure of serving as the Chief Operating Officer here at ICE and our division leader in the fitness athlete division and practice management divisions. It is Fitness Athlete Friday. We would say that means it’s the best darn day of the week. And here on Fitness Athlete Friday, we talk all things for folks who are recreationally active. So those patients and athletes active in CrossFit, functional fitness, running, endurance sports, whatever, that person who is getting up every day and getting in their daily movement, we’re here to help you help them. So today we’re going to be talking about knee pain in the fitness athlete. And in the context of today, we’re going to be talking about specifically those folks who are probably squatting on a regular basis. So CrossFit and functional fitness athletes, folks who are maybe squatting, squatting heavier, higher volume on a more frequent basis than maybe some of our endurance athletes.

So I want to talk about what types of injuries do we see in the knee in this space, describe a little bit about those injuries, and then discuss the beginning stage of how to begin to treat some of those conditions. So first things first, What do we see with knee pain in the fitness athlete population in general? The great news is over the past decade or so, we have got a lot of great high-quality research out of the CrossFit and functional fitness space about what regions of the body are injured most frequently, and then kind of what conditions follow those injury diagnoses. So we should know that in the fitness athlete, we primarily see shoulder as the most injured region. About 45% of injuries are from the shoulder. Really close behind that is the low back about 35% and then really musculoskeletal injury kind of falls off after shoulder and low back. Specifically today talking about the knee we see about 15% of injuries are related to the knee. Beyond that we have elbow, wrist and hand, ankle and foot, that sort of thing. So primarily shoulder and low back and then a real sprinkle of the knee. With those knee injuries, we’re not seeing really major traumatic injuries. It’s very rare, probably never in your gym, anecdotally, have you seen somebody fracture their leg, fracture their patella, tear their ACL, get hit by a vehicle, fall off a thing. That usually doesn’t happen in the space of the gym. Primarily what we see in the fitness athlete population, folks who are doing a lot of impact, a lot of squatting, is that we see a lot of patellar tendinopathy and we see a lot of what we maybe would describe as a meniscus issue but really something that we could just generalize as medial knee pain. So now breaking down those two major conditions patellar tendinopathy and meniscus or medial knee pain first things first I would tell you if you haven’t yet taken our extremity management course with Lindsay Huey, Mark Gallant or Cody Gingrich I would recommend you get to that course as soon as possible. That course is a really great complement to our fitness athlete courses as far as being able to recognize and diagnose and stage a tendinopathy, diagnose an extremity condition, but also treat it and learn a lot of progressions and regressions to treat those injuries. Specifically, they spend a lot of time the entire afternoon on Saturday addressing the knee in a lot of detail. So make sure you’re really comfortable with these conditions. if you hear words like patellar tendinopathy or meniscal care and you think, quad sets? I don’t know.

So talking about patellar tendinopathy, what do we know in overuse condition? who is that person in the gym that we maybe need to be aware of, or questions in our subjective exam with that person that would let us know this person may be in that bucket. Somebody brand new to squatting, think of somebody in their 40s or 50s, sedentary, maybe their entire life, that’s not out of the realm of possibility these days, who is now jumping into CrossFit, jumping into Orange Theory, jumping into F45, being expected to squat at higher volume and higher loads than obviously they ever have in their life. Folks who maybe are not new to this space but are maybe incurring and encountering a higher level of squatting volume than normal may also fall into this bucket. There are also movement patterns that tend to show up in these folks. I like to stage these as two different movement patterns. The first is what I’ll call the close enough squat depth pattern, right? That person who is getting to maybe just above or just at parallel. what do we know about that range of motion in the squat we actually know that’s when force on the knee is at its highest that above that point at about 45 to 60 degrees or less of knee flexion and then below 90 degrees of knee flexion we know we have a deloading effect at the knee so those folks who are trying to squat to full depth but are in just that close enough bucket are putting a lot of mechanical force on their knee that they could get rid of if they either squatted more shallow, which is not ideal, or ideally squatted a little bit deeper. The second group of movement pattern folks who fall into overloading their knee is that back and down squat pattern person. So that person who does not break at the hips and knees at the same time. So as we instruct the squat, we like to tell people, imagine there’s a rope around your hips and your knees and they’re pulling in opposite directions at the same time. That means your hips should flex and your knees should flex. And ideally with a relatively vertical torso, you sit down, sit straight down into that squat pattern. The down and back folks tend to initiate their squat with a hinge, and then to get to depth at the last moment, bottom out that squat and drive all of that force into the anterior knee to hit depth. This is kind of how powerlifters tend to squat, especially with a low bar back squat. But folks who just have not grooved out the motor pattern of the squat yet, when they hinge back and then sit down to finish the depth, the knee again is taking up a lot of force that really we could clean up with some coaching and cueing, right? Maybe we could elevate that person’s heels, give them a corrective to hold a plate in front of them, but otherwise encourage a more vertical torso and a more sit straight down squat pattern that distributes force equally between the hips, knees and ankles in their squat pattern instead of at the moment of truth, putting all the force in the knee as they try to hit depth. So that’s the patellar tendinopathy bucket. What about the meniscus, the medial knee pain bucket? These are folks who are encountering a lot of impact in rotation. So we do see this a lot in the functional fitness space, right? We do running. We might not go run marathons, but we do a lot of workouts with 200, 400, 800 meter runs. We do a lot of box jumping to train triple extension. We do a lot of double unders for model structural cardio work. And we have begun to introduce shuttle runs, at least in the CrossFit space, to be able to run indoors during the winter in a competition environment where maybe we don’t have access to run outside or we don’t have the treadmills to be able to run inside on a machine. With shuttle runs comes not only the impact of running, but now a turning rotation moment. not too dissimilar from catching a box jump in the bottom of your squat with your double unders or with running in general. Also in this group are folks who might be new to squatting full depth or otherwise increasing their squat volume, right? No different than the patellar tendinopathy bucket that they are now encountering extra volume. So understanding who that person is is really important and that’s where knowing that this person is a functional fitness athlete knowing if they are new to this or not, if they’re returning after a break, if they’ve never done something like this in their life. Uncovering all of that in the subjective history is really important because it’s going to give you a better idea of where your treatment might take you.

So let’s talk about that treatment. What should be our priorities in treatment? With our functional fitness athletes, we’re demanding full range of motion at every joint whenever possible. That means one of our primary goals should be if we find an asymmetry, a lack of range of motion, particularly in knee extension and knee flexion, we need to restore that as soon as possible. Again, I’ll point you towards our extremity management course. I’ll point you towards our fitness athlete live course to learn techniques to self-mobilize to load to restore that full range of motion. But as we’re restoring that full range of motion, respecting the irritability of the patient, we need to begin to strengthen in whatever available range of motion we have. These folks do not need more volume, right? They’re coming to you with an overuse, a repetitive use injury already. Giving them a 20-minute AMRAP or a 30-minute AMRAP and having them do hundreds of squats or lunges in the scope of their PT session is just adding insult to injury, especially if we are thinking that this is a patellar tendinopathy case, for example. These folks need strength, they need capacity and resilience in those structures, so that they can continue to not only stay in the gym, but perform in the gym, ideally, beyond the point at which they got injured, right? We don’t wanna just return somebody to the exact moment at which they got injured. Ideally, once we clear them fully, hey, you don’t need to do your PT exercises anymore, they are a stronger person than when they first began rehab with us. So we need to strengthen that full range of motion of the whole knee. Now PT school has closely associated in our brains that the knee means quadriceps and that’s it, right? It’s all over the research. It’s all over knee extension machines and really, really focused on making sure that we have really, really strong quads, which is not a bad place to start, especially if that person is missing some knee extension, right? Some, some traction banded straight leg raises can do a lot to both begin to restrengthen quadriceps, but also restore knee extension. but we can’t just stop at the quadriceps. We need to strengthen the whole knee, right? All four muscle groups of the leg that attach to the knee. So we also need to make sure we’re targeting our hip abductors, our hip AD ductors. We need to target, yes, the quadriceps, but we also, especially if we’re thinking this is a rotational-based injury, if we are thinking this is medial knee pain, call it meniscus, call it whatever, we really need to focus on the hamstrings because why hamstrings flexed and rotate the knee. They are pulling the knee into medial or lateral rotation in a movement like running. Ideally, hopefully, they’re firing pretty much in sync so that we don’t have a lot of rotation in our knee. We’re primarily going through flexion extension, but our knee does have the capacity to rotate, obviously, and it’s primarily driven by our hamstrings pulling the knee into flexion and in rotation. What is the problem with hamstring strengthening? The problem with hamstring strengthening is that in most functional fitness environments, we don’t primarily isolate and train the hamstring. We certainly do a lot of deadlifts, we do a lot of kettlebell swings, that sort of thing, but if you think about the range of motion from the knee and the hip in motions like deadlift, kettlebell swing, it is not full range of motion of the hip and or knee, which means we’re not strengthening the hamstring through its full range of motion. Yes, you’ll feel a little maybe glute, high hamstring burn on high volume deadlifts or kettlebell swings, but you are not getting that deep behind the knee stimulus that you are with things like Nordic curls or even just isolated knee flexion on a knee flexion machine or banded knee flexion or anything like that. So understanding that the hamstrings flex and rotate the knee is really important to kind of finishing the drill on a really comprehensive knee strengthening program. Understanding that biceps femoris is responsible for knee flexion, but also yes, lateral knee rotation, and that semimembranosus and tendinosis are responsible for flexion and medial knee rotation. So particularly with those medial knee pain bucket folks, we wanna get into semimembranosus, semitendinosus, maybe with our hands, with needles, with cups, whatever, try to restore both that flexion and rotary component of the knee, and then get out in the gym and really strengthen those hamstrings on top of, yes, the quadriceps, the hip abductors, and the hip adductors.

The key with strengthening the knee, again, is time under tension. The folks you’re working with are already doing higher volume, higher repetition, relatively moderate to higher load training for the knee in a Metcon style workout. So adding in more air squats at high volume or light wall balls or thrusters or goblet squats is really just doing the same thing that they’re already doing in the gym, which led them to be sitting on your table in the first place. So just giving them more of that isn’t necessarily a prescription. When we have students at Health HQ, they’re so excited to have people out in the gym moving, folks who are interested in taking care of their health and fitness, and they love to jump up to that whiteboard and write out, Remom 24, Amrap 30. We have to go, wait, stop, stop. That’s not appropriate for this patient, right? This patient is already dealing with the consequences of too much volume. We need to back their volume down, especially in physical therapy, and focus on time and attention. So be careful that we’re not actually exacerbating or at least prolonging the healing time of that patient’s condition because our volume in PT, our volume for our home program is too high. Slow it down, less reps, less sets, more time under tension. Depending on the patient’s irritability will let you determine how much tension you can apply both in the clinic, in the gym, and for homework. When someone’s really irritable, I’m thinking maybe isometrics, and I’m thinking something like a reverse Tabata. 8 rounds, 10 seconds of work, 20 seconds of rest. There are apps out there. I personally like GymNext. It is a timer. It has a Tabata built in, EMOM, AMRAP for time built in. It can connect to a Bluetooth clock that the company sells, but you can also just use it as a standalone app and play it through a Bluetooth speaker or just through your phone speaker for your patient to hear. So reverse Tabata, eight rounds, 10 seconds of work, 20 seconds of rest, that gets us 80 seconds time under tension. That’s a pretty good start, especially if we’re doing it isometrically and the patient is really, really, really irritable. Now, as symptoms calm down, as function begins to improve, as tolerance to loading begins to improve, we want to increase that time under tension dose, especially if we’re convinced that this is a tendinopathy based condition. So I like to move next to 10 sets of 10 seconds of work. I’ll usually do 10 seconds on, 20 to 30 seconds off for 10 sets. That bumps the needle about 20%. That gets me 100 seconds time under tension. Then, when that patient appears ready, we’ll probably progress to a Tabata. That’s 160 seconds, right? It’s the opposite of a reverse Tabata, a full Tabata. 8 rounds, 20 seconds of work. 10 seconds of rest. So the inverse of a reverse that gives us 160 seconds. So now we’re close to pushing three minutes time under tension through that structure. At this point, you’re probably away from isometric exercise, but if you’re not great, keep rocking the isometric exercise for more attention. And then really for me, kind of the hallmark that someone is getting close to the end of their plan of care is when we can do isotonic movement, we can do five sets of five, and we can do some really gnarly tempo right think about a slant board goblet squat right so he was really elevated a lot of focus on tension through that anterior knee and that medial knee structure three seconds down hold the bottom and as deep of a squat as you can show me three seconds and then three seconds standing concentrically out of that squat. That’s nine seconds per rep, five reps per set, five sets. That gives us 45 seconds time under tension per set. That gives us 225 seconds across the five sets. That is what the tendinopathy research tells us we need to be hitting as a benchmark for our time under tension. So understanding, depending on that patient’s irritability, depending on how long this condition has been going on, that person may not be able to walk into the clinic and do a slant board, heels elevated, goblet squat, five sets of five at 3-3-3-1 tempo. That might be a lot, right? Certainly probably going to make them sore, but it might aggravate their condition. So understand how we can regress and progress, time and retention is needed. And then make sure as well that we’re doing that for every structure of the knee. Again, that we’re hitting the medial knee, the lateral knee, the anterior knee and the posterior knee, particularly doing things for the hamstrings like Nordic curls, curls on the rower, furniture slide curls, anything to really target the hamstrings as they insert at the knee as they flex and rotate the knee. and not just strengthening mid-range of the hamstrings and mid-range of the quadriceps.

So knee pain in the fitness athlete. How frequent? About 15% of all injuries, so relatively low compared to all the other injuries that this population encounters. Primarily, folks, patellar tendinopathy, meniscus, medial knee. Why? Overuse, either a sudden spike in volume from a more competitive athlete or a new athlete, or someone who is maybe doing extra stuff outside of the gym, extra running, extra squatting, whatever. Folks to watch squat when they’re with you, are they the close enough depth person? Do maybe they need some help in their ankles or hips to hit better depth and take load off the knee? Are they the back and down squat person? Do they primarily squat with a hinge and then bottom out through the knee to hit depth? That is a person that can benefit from sequencing their squat pattern a little bit better, especially if they do have a goal to be a functional fitness athlete. They need to be able to show a relatively vertical torso squat, a high bar back squat, a front squat, a thruster, a clean, that sort of thing. With our treatment, make sure that we’re working as soon as possible to restore full range of motion of both extension and flexion. We need full knee flexion to squat. We want full knee extension for impact. We want to strengthen the whole knee, not just the quadriceps. Hit the hip abductors, hit the AD ductors, and particularly full range of motion hamstring work, not just things like deadlifts and kettlebell swings. They’re already doing partial range of motion hamstring strengthening in the gym. And then remember, it’s not about volume. It’s not about coming into PT and doing 500 air squats. They can definitely do that. It’s probably going to exacerbate their symptoms. What we’re focused on with our strengthening with their home program is time under tension. Start with the reverse Tabata. 10 seconds on, 20 seconds off, eight rounds. 80 seconds time under tension. Move to 10 sets of 10 on, 20 to 30 off. That’s 100 seconds. Move through a full Tabata. Now 160 seconds, 8 rounds, 20 on, 10 off. And then the gold standard is can we do 5 sets of 5 of a movement at 3 seconds eccentric, 3 seconds isometric, 3 seconds concentric. Can we get to that 225 second time under tension benchmark? So I hope this was helpful. I’d love to hear questions you all have, throw them here on Instagram, shoot us an email, shoot us a message over on the ice physio app. Some courses coming your way from the fitness athlete real quick before I let you go. Our next cohort of fitness athlete level one online starts April 29th. That course is already almost sold out and it does not start for three more weeks. So if you’ve been looking to get into that class, that class has sold out every cohort since 2017. This next class will not be the exception, I promise you. So if you’ve been on the fence, get off the fence. If you’ve already taken that course, your chance at level two online to work towards your certification in the clinical management fitness athlete begins September 2nd. And then some live courses coming your way. Mitch Babcock will be down in Oklahoma City this weekend, April 13th and 14th, if you want to join him. He’ll be back on the road again, May 18th and 19th out in Bozeman, Montana. And in that same weekend, Joe Hanesko will be up in Proctor, Minnesota, which is in the Duluth, Minnesota area. That will also be the weekend of May 18th and 19th. So hope this was helpful. Hope you all have a wonderful Friday. Have a fantastic weekend. Bye everybody.

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