Yes, I did just quote a Britney Spears song to open an article. But it kinda fits, just follow along.
If you’ve been reading these for a while, or are friends with me on FaceBook, you may remember that a few years ago I sprained the popliteal tendon in my right knee, ending up with a small avulsion on the tendon that took months to heal.
In that process, I learned a number of things. First and foremost, I learned that both my knees hyperextend slightly, which apparently isn’t that common. But, when that was combined with the fact that my right foot is about one centimeter shorter than my left, that lays the groundwork for movement imbalances, particularly when I go into triple extension during explosive lifts because the right leg has to extend more than the left in order to keep the pelvis even when I get up on my toes.
So, here’s your anatomy lesson. The popliteal tendon is the lesser known “5th” stabilizer in the knee. It isn’t as popular as it’s other siblings, the MCL, PCL, ACL, and LCL. It is tiny by comparison, but has a very important job. It lies on the posterior, the muscle is tiny, and largely goes unnoticed until it is needed and cannot do its job. You see, because it is on the rear, it can be overstretched during extension (or hyperextension) of the knee. Common injuries to the popliteal muscle/tendon are sprains or tendonitis in runners. But part of what it is designed to do, is to keep the femur from sliding anteriorly too far across the tibial condyle when the knee is bent to greater than 90 degrees. If the popliteal tendon is damaged, and the popliteal muscle cannot do its job, then the menisci can be damaged during flexion and extension.
In a nutshell, that’s what happened to me. At the time, I was doing a workout that I loved (and wish I could still do), the Barbell Complex. It was 5 movements, done back to back without taking my hands off the bar. The complex consisted of a Deadlift, Push-Ups on the bar, Clean, Press, and Front Squat. I started feeling some discomfort while doing my squats, and then the back of my knees started feeling tight when I would ride my bike. I was also doing heavy Goblet Squats once a week, heavy enough that I would jump into triple extension to get the KB up to my chest.
It was during a set of heavy Goblet Squats that I felt a “pop” in my right knee, and immediately felt instability. I had just lowered myself to the bottom position, and had just initiated the drive out of the hole. I dropped the KB in front of me and fell to my backside. The joint heated up, tightened up, and I couldn’t put weight on it. I feared the worst, that I had blown a major ligament. I saw a Sports Orthopedist, and at first all we could figure out was that I had a slight avulsion of the popliteal tendon, but all the ligaments and menisci were healthy. After months of consultations and ongoing pain, he finally checked for hyperextension, and he said “That’s interesting” after checking both knees. If you’ve ever been in a doctor’s office, the last thing you want them saying about you is “That’s interesting,” and then bringing in his colleagues as though you are a science experiment.
That was when we put two-and-two together, and I realized that it was the vertical extension that was causing the issue. I immediately removed any triple extension movements from my programming, and all pain and discomfort disappeared over a few more months.
That is, until I discovered my newest favorite toy, the Ultimate Sandbag. Now, I first want to issue a major disclaimer that it wasn’t the Ultimate Sandbag that reinjured my knee, but a poor movement pattern instituted because I didn’t have the strength to properly complete a lift.
I’m not the most patient person in the world, and so when I heard that Josh Henkin was going to be running a Level 1 DVRT Certification in Southern California I wanted to be there. Unfortunately, this meant that I only had a few months to prepare for his Clean and Press challenge, and I had yet to even attempt a clean and press with a Strength bag, let alone a Burly.
So, I dove into following a posted training plan, and the only way I was able to get a 90lb Burly up onto my fists was to go into triple extension with my hips, knees, and ankles. Even though I knew I shouldn’t have been doing it, I was in love with my new toys. (“I got lost in the game,” to continue the Britney reference)
Big surprise, when I was doing double KB front squats, which I do frequently, I felt the familiar tweak as I initiated knee extension after dropping below 90 degrees. I really wanted to act like it didn’t happen, and keep going through my normal weekly workout schedule. But I reminded myself of how scared I was two years ago when I feared that I wouldn’t ever be able to ride a bike again, let alone lift weights.
I’ve been taking it easy this week, as I have a Certification to teach this weekend, and I can’t risk seriously hurting myself. I contacted Josh, and we talked about my form, and I disappointingly backed out of his certification for now. I now know how and where I need to back off my training to lay a thicker foundation before I can move forward again.
Just like all of you, I’m not that innocent, (this never gets old, ha ha!!) and I get wrapped up in the fun of training, and it can be hard to slow down and take in a big picture look when the dominoes start falling, leading you towards injury. But it is important to listen to your body first, because you and only you know what your personal limitations are. Don’t fall for some internet meme that tells you that you need to keep crushing it at 200%, even though you aren’t 20 years old anymore and as much as you’d like to deny it, your body just doesn’t work like it used to.
Tim Peterson, Chief FitRanX® Instructor