Instructors Notebook (INB) #28: About Knees

Knees009They may tremble. They may protest. They may also be right and you should listen to them.

Obviously I’m talking about your knees, not your parents. Other parts of the body politic should be heard from once in a while but the knees are of special concern to anyone who would like to keep them functioning. 

In Kung Fu, due to its huge range of poses and movements, the answer is not so simple even when it seems simple. Take, for a sample, that perennial admonition that you should keep your knees behind the line of your toes. The second half of this injunction is that the back should be kept relatively erect.

The 1000th Question

I have been asked how this works at least 1000 times. People bend their knees and then look down in complete confusion, wondering how they could possibly accomplish this stunt. When they look back up they are already in a quandary.

The trick is like folding a cloth. If you think that the knees just bend one way, and you hold your weight the other way, you may find yourself walking around on your knees; and then where will your toes be?


Try this: bend your knees a little, lower your pelvis a little. You may seemingly already be at your limit–or at least you think so. The next step is to feel a folding action just at your hip joint as you tuck in your pelvis a small amount, and by that I mean small like one inch. Then you go back to your knees and bend them a bit more; but if you encounter any resistance then retreat to your pelvis and hips and try tucking them up and under just a bit more.

From this back and forth method you may already grasp the idea: you don’t bend down linearly but rather fold yourself in and out.


Illustration Notes: 
The technique here is EDGING.
1. Fold your knee forward a bit.
2. Change your
attention to your pelvis and fold that a little.
3. Return to the knees and finish setting yourself …
4.  …in a proper horse.

If you really scrutinize the issue you may see the concepts involved: every joint in the human body is a circular one, actions which “implode” should also fold. There is no really no straight forward path created by anatomical movement. Consider the straight Wing Chun punch, long considered the straightest strike in all of martial arts. In brief, it starts about where your heart is and shoots forward to opponent’s nose like an arrow. But if you check the elbow of the punching arm you will see that the elbow powering this piston action is actually moving in a quarter circle. So much for straight lines.

Back to the knees. The martial concept is that what creates power and leverage while practicing should also help to preserve the knees. Of course, it would be claiming an angelic purity to say that most of us never abuse our bodies. But there is a reason that the knee is known medically as the “stupid joint.” Caught forever in the middle between the hips and the feet, the knees have little choice but to somewhat passively attempt to do what they are told, though that might be the worse thing for them.

 Knees014Knees012Knee Tracking
For instance, some people have an extreme range of knee cap flexibility. In fact, a percentage of the population have knees, somewhat like crossed eyes, which do not point in the same direction as the feet. Correcting postures with students such as these can be tricky since their knees are not supposed to point in the same direction as the toes.

This condition aside, probably the single most helpful piece of advice is to suggest to the student that he or she “track” the knees. In other words, the knees should generally point in the same direction as the feet. Sometimes you cannot stack the knee directly over the foot but the rule still follows in that the knee should face a direction parallel to the foot. This not only helps with the power generation, but can be a very easy way to stem the tide of knee pain. Though very simple to understand, there is an “out of sight, out of mind” effect with the knees that should be monitored.

For instance, take the simple action of shuffle and hand strike. In its proper execution the front leg is pushed forward by the rear leg, the stance lengthens temporarily, and as the hand strike is delivered the rear leg moves up from behind to re-establish the proportions of a proper stance. Trouble is, when the front of the body–front leg and striking hand–move forward, so does the attention of the practitioner. What often happens right at that moment is the rear, unobserved, foot rotates to face in the opposite direction or, even worse, slips off the ground and kicks into the air a bit. Though it doesn’t look like much, this action-reaction not only robs the strike of much of its strength, but twists the rear knees in a direction countermanding the front knee. This rarely results in injury, which is a good thing because it is quite common, but it is terrible training.

Seek the Root
Another key element in generating martial movement and at the same time preserving proper alignment, is to originate most knee and foot changes from the root: namely the hips. One of the best ways to do this is to have the student stand up comfortably, not in a stance. Next she places the right hand on the right hip (for feedback) and turns the hip outward, causing the entire leg to rotate a little this way and to take the knee, and hence the foot, with it as it goes. Back and forth, like a barn door, she will continue until the physical association is made and sticks.

This has to do with stances, walking and kicking which, in the final examination, are three first cousins. Eventually the student will understand that besides the shoulder girdle and the pelvic girdle, there is a vertical connection, mostly developed from training, that doesn’t just connect the hips to the foot, but the hip to the hand and, ultimately, the foot to the hand. This hemispheric approach to training does not just let the student manage her body better, but opens a door to a much higher level of martial development and a much lower level of instances we know as knee pain. Knees017a 

Illustration Notes:
These three show the hip-first training.
1. Notice the hip rotates outward without the foot engaging.
2. This is  followed by the  knee rotation.
3. Finally the whole leg, including the foot,  points in  the new direction.

This is not always the best sequence but it is excellent for practice.

2 Responses to “Instructors Notebook (INB) #28: About Knees”

  1. Walter says:

    Very useful and well thought out,
    I specially like the phrase
    “to stem the tide of knee pain”

  2. Jeff says:

    My problem has always been my feet. In addition to the occasional fracture, I have had issues, first with plantar fasciitis, and now with Merton’s neuroma, that have caused me no end of trouble and pain. There have been mornings where I could barely walk.

    I always felt this is because I’m doing something wrong in my training. But what it is is not clear. I learned some foot exercises to try to strengthen the muscles in my feet and hopefully let the muscles bear some of the strain my bones and tendons are currently taking, but so far I haven’t noticed much improvement.

    I am starting to think that the problem isn’t my feet at all – it may be my ankles. Sometimes I sit and meditate on the pain and for some reason it always feels as though the pain originates there. The doctors I have spoken to think I’m crazy. But their treatments haven’t worked, either.

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