Many fitness enthusiasts adopt workouts like Pilates to build a bodies like those of dancers – specifically their long, lean legs. But the knee joint is complicated in structure. Understanding the correct way to straighten through the back of the legs is essential for healthy and effective exercise while elongating those limbs. What’s the difference between straight, locked, hyperextended, and plain old bent knees?

American Council on Exercise explains the elements of the knee joint, which holds 80% of the body’s weight:

·       The large thigh muscle in the front of the leg (the quadriceps muscles).

·       The equally large muscle on the back of the leg (the hamstring muscles).

·       The muscle on the back part of the lower leg (the calf muscles).

·       A long band of connective tissue that stretches from the hip bone, running alongside the outside of the thigh, down to the outside of the knee (the IT band).

A common mistake, especially in Pilates students with tightness through these surrounding muscles, is to maintain a bent knee in all exercises. Many instructors of popular barre classes also cue students to keep a slight bend in the knee. This can lead to over-bulking of the quadriceps, the front of the thighs, and the opposite of the desired dancer legs.

At the other end of the spectrum are hyperextended knees. This is when the joint naturally moves past a straight line and creates a backwards arc through the back of the legs. The Mayo Clinic reports that sinking into a hyperextended place in any joint can cause damage to the ligaments and tendons as well as weakening the surrounding muscles. Pain and stability can also be problems in hyperextension.

Often times Pilates instructors tell students not to “lock their knees.” Locking is when the bones of the joint sit together without any support from the surrounding muscles, particularly in hyperextended students. “When doing calisthenics, lifting weights or using exercise machines, locking your knees puts maximum stress on the joint, increasing your risk for injury.,” according to Berkeley Wellness, Pilates exercises focused on the tracking of the knees while monitoring the end point of each stretch of the leg will help to correct this.

The happy medium is a beautiful straight knee, where the bones of the join align correctly without aggravated stress to the tendons and ligaments. Utilizing this place during your Pilates workout will build the necessary strength and tone to keep the knees healthy, stable, and looking like the dancer you might admire.

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