Our knees are a critical link to make our movements connected and grounded. In martial arts we start movements from the hip, but actually if you think about it, the leg muscles are the ones that initiate that movement. And the leg muscles need the knees to transform power into kinetic energy. There is no proper martial arts movement that doesn’t start from the knees.
The knees are perfectly designed to flex and support your body weight dynamically for that motion. They are not designed for torque or tilt with only limited range for rotation.
And that’s where the problem begins for many martial arts practitioners and sports enthusiasts. I was one of them. I was doing a lot of athletics and running when I was 16. And my knees hurt almost every day. I was lucky that I met my Karate and Tai Chi teacher Hilmar Fuchs at the age of 20. He taught me how to use my knees properly and equally important, what movements to avoid. Today I’m way older (let’s not talk about that right now), I’m still practicing martial arts and running and I have no knees problems at all. I’m pretty sure without Hilmar’s intervention I would have had a knee surgery already.
That is precisely why Uli and I put so much emphasis on proper walking and knee utilization in our Tai Chi classes. The classical Tai Chi bow step teaches us many principles about how to use the knee and what to avoid. ‘Normal’ walking looks different, but the key principles still translate.
Here is my list of key principles for the bow step that we focus on in our classes:
- Knees point in the same direction as toes
- Push the knee no further than over your big toe
- Keep some flexibility, don’t lock your knees
- Feet are shoulder wide apart
- Pull weight off a foot before you turn it
- Hip initiates moves and turns, not the legs, feet or arms
- Keep your hip on the same level, don’t go up and down
The key goal of most of those is to avoid tilt or torque forces on the knee by avoiding to turn against resistance, over-extending or having unnatural angles between the toes and the knee direction. Some of the principles are also meant to most efficiently translate power into kinetic energy, starting a motion with strong but slow muscles and then engaging weaker but faster muscles. But that’s a topic for another blog post.
Pay attention to what you’re doing, you want to be able to practice for a lifetime without regular visits to your favorite surgeon.