Why Wont My Knees Fully Straighten?!

After posting the article on how to work with Sway Back knees earlier in the week, we have had a flood of emails asking about what to do in the opposite case! Lots of people have trouble fully straightening their knees and there are some pretty unsafe practices out there…
so I have written an article explaining everything to do, and what not to do!

Enjoy!

Hi Lisa,

First, I want to thank you for all you do to help dancers be their best! You are a blessing.

I just read your email with suggestions for people with hyper mobile knees. My daughter actually has the opposite problem. She cannot fully straighten her knees and does have very tight   hamstrings and hip flexors. She says her legs feel as though they are completely straight, but her   teachers are constantly telling her to straighten her knees. How do I know if this is an issue of   tightness or if it is a structural problem? When she was younger, she didn’t have this problem,   but as she grew older and taller, it became an issue. Also, she has developed very flat feet,   which in turn causes her leg to tend to rotate inward, which makes turnout difficult. But I’m   getting off on a tangent. I just wanted to paint the picture for you. Is there anything she can do

to remedy this problem of legs that won’t fully straighten, so that she, too, can have that beautiful leg line?

Thanks for any advice,

Faye S

Hi Faye

Thanks so much for your letter. Many young dancers have problems with this and it can be a tricky one to work out on your own. Often tight hamstrings get blamed for the problem but I often find that this is actually not the true problem. There are a few things that I routinely check on anyone who complains of knees that don’t straighten.

1 ) The first thing I do is assess how much range they have in their knees, by bending and straightening the knee myself (i.e. with no muscle activity. Some girls have reasonable range but just find it hard to do it themselves). I test this in a position where the hamstrings are relaxed so that any tension in them does not cloud the picture. (I.e. it is much harder to keep the knee straight in a grande battement devant than in standing).

2 ) If the student has full range but just finds it hard to straighten the knees in class, I get them to sit with their legs outstretched and “pull up” their knees, at the same time as I feel the muscle on the inside of the knee. (VMO)  Many young dancers are weak in this muscle, and in some it will not activate at all. When this happens, over time the knee will become stiffer as it is never going into its full range.

3 ) If however the student does not have full range in the knee even when it is being moved by someone else, we need to track down exactly what is blocking the range. The first thing to check is where she “feels” the restriction when she tries to straighten her knees. Does she feel a  stretching in the back of a knee, or perhaps a blocking in the front? is the tension on either side of the knee or deep in the knee joint? This gives us some idea of where to start.

4 ) If the restriction is in the back of the knee, this can often be resolved. There is a little muscle called ‘Popliteus’ in the back of the knee that can block extension range if it is too tight. I don’t teach students to massage out this area as there are lots of delicate nerves and blood vessels in the back of the knee, however if you consult a qualified physical therapist or massage  therapist then they should know how to release some of the tension in this muscle. I have had some extraordinary results with some students by doing this.

5 ) Tension around the inside of the knee can also be settled with massage to the inner thigh muscles, and from the pictures that you sent, I have a feeling that this may be a contributing part to your daughter’s lack of range. Smooth long strokes to the inner thigh, from the knee up can improve her flexibility enormously (this also help with side splits!)

6 ) Neural tension is a big issue down the back of the legs, and especially as you note that she only started to have this problem once she began to grow, I would definitely be looking at how to release tension around the nerve that lies down the back of the leg. Use the foot and calf massage techniques in the Front Splits Fast program should help a lot, as well as the Piriformis Release with the tennis ball.

7 ) I would also try massaging up in the gap between the inner and outer hamstrings to release both the fascial and neural tension that can get held here.(There is a video to demonstrate this in the Members area of the Front Splits Fast site). This makes a big difference for a lot of people.

8 ) If none of these appear to be the cause of the restriction then it may be that her ligaments on the inside of the knee are blocking the range. I do not advocate stretching the ligaments in the knees in any form as this usually leads to many other problems.

9 ) Please do not let her put any force through the knees to try to straighten them out as I have seen some very dangerous techniques! Any releases or stretches need to be well thought out and aim to slowly increase her range and strength over time.

Hi hope this gives you lots of things to try, and do get back to me with how she goes!

Kindest Regards,

Lisa Howell

PS… With regard to her flat feet and turnout… Often it actually goes the other way. The hips start to turn in and the foot follow suit. I would definitely look at doing some work on her deep turnout muscles and foot control to get on top of this quickly. She may also benefit by wearing a soft sports orthotic in her street and school shoes over the next few months.

6 Responses to “Why Wont My Knees Fully Straighten?!”

  1. Ina Says:

    Hi Lisa

    I have a student who is very strong in her upper body. She is also very supple. The problem is that her shoulders are dropping forward which opens her shoulder blades wide and makes them stand out. I’ve tried to correct this problem by working on her pectoralis muscles and make her attend on pulling her shoulders back, but this just leads just to the opposite problem which is a deep ditch between her shoulder blades!

    She mostly get a remark in competitions that she is tense – which she is not – due to her problem. Can you give me some advice?

    Kind regards
    Ina Jooste (South Africa)

  2. Carol Reeder Says:

    Dear Lisa,
    Thank you so much for all your wonderful information from “Perfect Pointe” and your news letters. I’m a teacher who has just this summer, began teaching pre pointe classes and the dancers are loving your material. One student though, is a puzzle. She has straight legs, though has minimal turnout. She can do the front and side splits as well as place her hands on the floor when bending forward. What she can’t do is a developpe with even a limited turnout. Thoughts?

  3. lisahowell Says:

    Hi Carol

    I am so glad that you are finding all of the information I provide useful and that the students are getting on board. It is so wonderful to see them starting to get interested in their bodies at such a young age!

    Many teachers (and students!) get frustrated at the paradox of having turnout and flexibility into the splits yet being unable to use it in their dancing. If this student is able to do both front and side splits, then she most probably has the range of motion needed but is just lacking the strength.

    There is quite a complex coordination of muscles that needs to occur to correctly hold the leg devant or a la seconde that takes some time to develop. Often when students have been trying to “get their leg up” they develop an incorrect motor pattern that uses the Recus Femoris (front of thigh and hip) to hold the leg up, which results in the leg turning in.

    We are developing a program to teach all aspects of this, however, in the mean time, I would ask the student to work in a slightly different way in class.

    For all Grande Battement and Developpe exercises, keep the first repetition at just 45 degrees and focus on engaging turnout and deep core muscles to support the leg. The second repetition may be taken to 90 degrees (if alignment can be maintained). The third repetition can be taken to full height to maintain the functional flexibility that she has as long as the focus is still on presenting the inner thigh and inner part of the heel forward.

    I do hope that this helps you work with your student to refine her technique! This is an extremely important technique to master as it helps protect the front of the hips from overuse.

    Kindest Regards,

    Lisa Howell

  4. lisahowell Says:

    Hi Ina

    While this question does not have much to do with knees that dont straighten… It is a common problem so I will post the answer here!

    This usually happens in girls who are quite mobile yet lack the strength in the deep muscles underneath the shoulder blades to hold them in place. You are right in that there is more that needs to be worked on than her pectoral muscles and rowing exercises.

    The missing muscles are usually “Subscapularis” and “Serratus Anterior”. These sit in under the shoulder blade and help hold it in onto the chest wall. The anatomy of the shoulder is quite complex and in fact the only way that the shoulder blade is connected to the rest of the skeleton is through the collar bone! This means that muscle control around the shoulder blades is very important!

    Instead of pulling the shoulder blades back, we need to focus on maintaining width between them, while maintaining breadth across the front of the chest. Different people respond to different visualisations, however I trained my super mobile shoulder blades by getting a feeling of gently drawing the bottom tip of the shoulder blade under my arm pit (especially in second position).

    This helps open out the whole ribcage while providing a solid base for the arms to be worked off.

    The other very important thing to watch is the students posture outside of class. Many girls have appalling posture when they are at school, studying or at the dinner table, and then wonder why they have no endurance in their postural muscles when in dance class.

    This is not to say that we need to sit bolt upright and tense all day, but having a feeling of gentle elegance throughout the day will help train all of the deep, slow twitch, postural muscles that are so important in classical dance.

    I do hope this helps, and keep an eye out for more upper body work soon!

    Lisa

  5. Danielle Says:

    Hey Lisa

    I wanted to say all your products are awesome and you rock

    Thanks!
    Dani

  6. kailey nilsson Says:

    I have a problem with not being able to straighten my legs, I have stretched my hamstrings and quads almost everyday for a year with little progress, I can force them straight whenever I bend forward, but standing up straight they look awkward and it looks as though I’m slightly being my knee. I have had this my entire life, and I haven’t been to a doctor yet who will listen long enough to help me. Help! thanks for your time, Kailey. ps I’d like to send photos if you’re interested.

    Hi Kailey,

    Thanks for your question! In fact we have a great article on our other webiste, The Ballet Blog, that answer this exact question! CLICK HERE to view.

    Hope that helps!

    Kind Regards
    Alex

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