Strengthen the muscles surrounding your knee and hip joints to train harder, run better and lift more efficiently.

No matter where you land on the fitness spectrum, there is always risk of a knee injury that will derail your progress. Unfortunately, knee injuries can plague just about anyone — from beginners to seasoned gym-goers and elite runners.

Physically active people are at risk for knee injuries mainly resulting from overuse and improper running or lifting techniques, as well as direct trauma to the joint.

Overuse injuries are often seen in runners who fail to cross-train or who have biomechanical problems. Improper lifting techniques can put uneven forces on your knees, making you susceptible to injuries. And direct trauma to the joint is most likely the result of a work-related incident, a vehicular collision or an accident while playing a sport that requires quick and sudden changes in direction, like basketball, football or hockey.

Although sporting accidents causing trauma to the knee joint can be unavoidable, overuse injuries are preventable. At the very least, there are exercises you can do that will mitigate your risk. The longer you can remain injury-free, the better results you will achieve.

Strengthening your glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps will help prevent knee injuries. The gluteus medius plays a very important role in stabilizing your hips and preventing unnecessary internal rotation of the knee, especially during weight-bearing activities. And if your hamstrings are too weak relative to your quads, you are also more likely to get injured because this causes imbalanced forces to act upon your knee.

The good news: There are five simple moves that will help strengthen the muscles surrounding your knee and hip joints, allowing you to train harder, run better and lift more efficiently.

Clamshell.

1. Clamshell

The clamshell helps strengthen your gluteus medius.

To perform the clamshell, lie down on your side. Then bend both your legs at the knees. While keeping your legs bent and your feet together, activate your gluteus medius as you lift up your top leg. It’s important to do the same number of repetitions on each side. In order to make the move more challenging, add an elastic band around your knees.

Side leg lift.

2. Side Leg Lift

This move is performed almost like the clamshell, except your top leg is straight while your bottom leg is slightly bent. Lie down on your side and make sure that both your hips and both shoulders are directly underneath each other. While engaging your gluteus medius, lift your top leg up toward the sky. Lift it high enough to be able to engage your glutes while maintaining proper form. However, there is no need to lift it super high.

If you would like to challenge yourself, hold your top leg for three to five seconds in the “up” position before bringing it down to start your next repetition. Again, you should do the same number of repetitions on each side.

Glute bridge. 

3. Glute Bridge

The glute bridge works your glutes, hamstrings and core.

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet shoulder-width apart. Place your feet firmly on the floor. Engage your glutes and core as you lift your hips up off the floor. Hold the “up” position for a few seconds before bringing your hips back down to start another repetition. If you would like to further challenge yourself, place a barbell on top of your hips to add resistance.

Resistance-band squat

4. Resistance-Band Squat

Resistance-band squats primarily target your glutes, as well as your quads.

Place a band around both your legs, just above your knees. You should feel resistance from the elastic band as you stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Descend into a squat position while pushing your legs outward to keep your knees from going inward as you squat. As you come down, make sure that your knees don’t go too far forward over your toes.

Ball hamstring curl.

5. Ball Hamstring Curl

Ball hamstring curls target your hamstrings, core and glutes.

Lie on your back with your heels on an exercise ball. Using your arms at your sides for balance, engage your core and glutes as you lift your hips off the floor. While your hips are in the air, contract your hamstrings as you pull the ball toward you with your feet. In order to make this exercise more challenging, try doing single-legged ball hamstring curls. If you are doing single-legged repetitions, be sure to do the same number for each leg.

The number of repetitions you perform for each of the above exercises will depend on your fitness level. Beginners should attempt to do three sets of 10 repetitions. As you get more advanced, you will be able to do more repetitions as well as gradually increase the difficulty of each exercise.

When you strengthen your posterior chain, you will decrease your risk for injury, which will make you a better lifter and runner. The longer you remain injury-free, the better your results will be.

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Here’s how to keep your spine safe and healthy from top to bottom and improve your results in the process.

Maintaining spinal integrity during exercise is paramount, but keeping your spine safe goes beyond the simple directive of maintaining good posture when performing big or heavy movements. It also expands into programming, workout timing and more. Here’s how to keep your spine safe and healthy from top to bottom and improve your results in the process.

Cervical Spine

Without your cervical spine, you’d lose your head — literally. This area consists of seven vertebrae originating at the bottom of your skull and running down your neck to shoulder/clavicle height. It works to support your head, move your spine and protect your spinal cord.

A common instruction when lifting is to maintain a neutral spine, but a lot of people neglect to include the cervical spine in that directive. No matter what compound movement you’re performing, your head should follow your torso every step of the way. You should never be looking up (hyperextending) or looking down (rounding over), which can cause compression in the cervical disks. And because the neck muscles that stabilize this area are much smaller and less powerful than the big spinal erectors that support the lumbar and thoracic spine, they are more easily injured.

Aside from executing proper form 24/7, strengthening the muscles that support the cervical spine 360 degrees around will help you maintain proper head posture during your workout and in all your life activities.

Do these two exercises preworkout to prep for the bigger compound movements to come.

Neck Raise

Do three to four sets of 30-second holds.

Lie faceup with your arms bent 90 degrees on either side of your head, palms facing up. Actively press your arms and hands down into the floor as you lift your head and neck up as far as you can without tucking your chin. Lower to the start and rest briefly, then repeat.

Chin Tuck

Do six sets of 10-second holds.

Stand with your back to a wall so your shoulders and glutes are touching and your heels are against the baseboard. Gently tuck your chin into your neck, and push the back of your head into the wall, gradually increasing the force as if you were trying to leave an impression. Release, rest briefly, then repeat.

Thoracic Spine

The thoracic spine consists of the 12 vertebrae located in your upper and middle back, originating at the end of the cervical spine and extending about 5 inches beyond the shoulder blades to the top of the lumbar spine. Your ribs are attached on either side to each thoracic vertebra, and those attached to T1 through T10 are also anchored in the front at the sternum.

Because this section of your spine is designed to protect and house your heart and lungs, it is fairly rigid and has limited mobility. What movement it does have is used for rotation. However, most people do not have very good mobility in this area, and this lack of rotational capacity is usually compensated for by the lumbar region. Since your thoracic spine should have about five times the rotational capacity of your lumbar spine, this is problematic. Strengthening and mobilizing this area is imperative to protect your lower back while improving performance.

Use these moves to mobilize your thoracic spine preworkout.

Foam-Roller Extension

Do four reps of 30-second holds.

Lie faceup and position a foam roller underneath you across your shoulder blades. Keep your glutes in contact with the floor as you relax completely over the roller, breathing deeply. With each breath, try to relax a little more and deepen the stretch.

Kettlebell Passive Rotation

Do four sets of 10 (each side).

Lie faceup and hold a light medicine ball between your knees. Lift your knees over your hips, legs bent 90 degrees. Hold a kettlebell in one hand over your shoulder and extend your other arm straight out to the side, palm down. Press both shoulders into the floor and keep your raised arm straight as you slowly lower your knees away from the loaded arm toward the floor. Gently touch them to the ground, then return to the start. Do all reps on one side, then switch.

Lumbar Spine

Your lumbar spine consists of five, thick vertebrae, and its function is to support the weight of your torso and head — a tall order for just five links in the chain. Now add to that the already burdensome job an overhead load such as with a squat or shoulder press and you’ll understand why the lower back is the most often injured area of the spine.

The lumbar spine can rotate, flex and extend, but even though it is pretty mobile, using correct exercise form is essential. You probably already know that when setting up for a squat or deadlift, a rounded back is quite dangerous. However, overcompensating by arching your back is no better and can cause vertebral compression, tilting the pelvis forward quite aggressively and shutting down the glutes and lower abs.

This move trains your lower back to resist excessive arching. Do it preworkout to wake up your core muscles in preparation for lifting.

Practical Applications

Designing your workouts to support spinal health is imperative if you want to remain erect into your 90s (and beyond). Here are some factors to consider when planning your programming.

Superset Smarts

Supersets are an excellent technique for boosting intensity and volume, pairing two moves back-to-back that focus on the same muscle group. However, if you’re lifting heavy, your spine endures a lot of compression, so the best way to do a superset is by pairing a move that has a heavy spinal load with a move that has a light spinal load. This allows you to maintain proper form and still get great results.

Perform four sets of 10 reps apiece of each move in your superset. For a loaded carry, shoot for 45 to 60 seconds for each of four rounds.

Extended Plank Walk

Do four sets of six to eight reps.

Stand with your feet hip-width apart, arms at your sides. Fold forward and plant your hands on the floor in front of you. Maintain a neutral spine as you walk your hands away from your feet until you come into plank (hands underneath your shoulders and your head, hips and heels aligned), then walk your hands out two to four more steps so you’re in an extended plank. Hold for three seconds, keeping your core tight and squeezing your glutes so your hips stay in position, then walk your hands all the way back to your feet. Either stand up and regroup or just go right into the next rep.

Time Your Training

You might have heard people say that they are taller in the morning and shorter at night, and there is actually some truth to this: Lying horizontally for eight hours allows the spine to decompress, and as it relaxes, excess intervertebral fluid enters the disks, making it stiff upon waking. This fluid needs time to drain off before you exercise because you are at greater risk for disk impingement or even herniation when your spinal column is rigid.

For this reason, doing heavy squats and deadlifts at 6 a.m. may be doing your spine more harm than good. These vertical pushing movements place a direct load on the vertebrae and are usually the lifts people try for the heaviest weights. If possible, get up two hours before you work out. Can’t make that happen? Either focus on lower-compression movements or put your big lifts to come last on the menu, focusing more on form and reps than on weight.

Move Forward by Not Moving

Isometric training — creating force against an immovable object — can be a big help in the quest for spinal health, with very little risk for injury. Asking your trunk muscles to resist unwanted forces by simply holding form is a wiser training directive than asking them to create force and make the spine move — for example, a plank or a side plank versus a twisting ab crunch.

Training your body to be stronger in the most difficult part of a lift is a good use for isometrics. Take a deadlift, for example: The bar starts on the floor, and since gravity is doing its best to keep that bar grounded, getting it to move upward is the most difficult point of the lift. Once in motion, kinetic energy helps generate momentum during the rest of the movement. So isometric work helps build power and muscle recruitment where you actually need it most.

You can use isometrics as part of your movement prep or as their own workout entirely. In any case, do moves like these two when your muscles are fresh and ready to produce maximal force in a safe setting.

Isometric Half-Kneeling Rotation

Do five sets of 15 seconds (per side).

Assume a half-kneeling position with your left leg forward next to an immovable object such as a pole, doorway or squat rack. Extend your arms in front of you at shoulder height and link your hands, positioning them on the right side of the pole. Apply pressure into the beam with straight arms by engaging all the muscles that would cause you to rotate to the left without actually moving. Imagine you want to push right through the pole. Release, rest briefly, then repeat.

Isometric Deadlift Pull

Do six sets of 10 to 15 seconds.

Load a barbell with 50 percent more weight than you can lift for your one-rep max so there is no way you can move it. Stand with your toes under the bar and grasp it outside your legs in either an overhand or an alternating grip, shoulders over the bar. Your knees should be slightly bent, hips higher than your knees, head aligned with your spine. As if you were going to do a deadlift, contract all your muscles and pull upward as hard as you can for a full 10 to 15 seconds. Release, rest briefly, then repeat.

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Improve blood flow, increase range of motion and relieve stress in less than five minutes with this five-part stretch.

How many of you out there skip your warm-up? Now that everyone in North America has raised their hands, let’s talk time-turkey: This stretch hits almost every muscle in your body and takes less than five minutes to execute. It also combines dynamic and static elements, challenging your central nervous system, increasing your range of motion, and lengthening and strengthening your muscles simultaneously.

Do these five positions in order, holding each for three to five seconds when using as a warm-up or for five to 10 seconds when using as a cool-down or for mobility training. Move smoothly between positions, and perform the entire sequence three to five times per side. Breathe deeply throughout, and each time you repeat the sequence, try to stretch a little farther.

Part 1: Lunge

For hip flexors, hamstrings, adductors, glutes, calves, lower back

Step your right leg forward and bend your right knee deeply, keeping your knee over your toes. Place both hands on the floor inside your right foot, aligning them with your instep, and square your hips. Keep your rear leg straight by actively pushing back through your heel, squeezing your glutes and contracting your quads.

Part 2: Elbow to Instep

For hip flexors, glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves, back

Holding your lunge position and keeping your left hand in place, bend your right elbow 90 degrees so your forearm is parallel with the floor and place it against the inside of your right leg. Slowly fold forward with a flat back and slide your elbow down your leg as far as you can without rounding your back. Your goal is to get your entire forearm on the floor with your elbow on the inside of your arch (shown).

Part 3: Internal/External Rotation and Reach

For thoracic spine, shoulders, chest, adductors, lower back, hamstrings, obliques, biceps

Place your right hand back on the floor inside your right foot and open your chest and shoulders to the left, reaching your left fingertips for the ceiling and looking up at your left hand (shown). Return both hands to the center, re-square your hips, then keep your left hand on the floor as you turn to the right, reaching your right fingertips for the ceiling and looking up toward your hand.

Part 4: Quad/Hip Stretch

For quads, hip flexors, adductors, chest, shoulders

Return to the center, then place your left knee on the floor and tuck your pelvis underneath as you reach your arms overhead, elbows by your ears. Don’t overarch your back; rather elongate by actively reaching upward.

Part 5: Hamstring Stretch

For hamstrings, back, calves

Lower your arms and place your fingertips on the floor on either side of your right foot, then lift your glutes toward the ceiling as you straighten your right leg. Square your hips and keep your back as flat as possible as you lift your right toes and press back into your left heel.   

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Can’t squat ass to grass? Deadlifting strength stalled? The problem could lie below — way below.

When I started lifting weights, I entered the gym as a 16-year ballet dancer with plenty of plantar flexion (pointed toes) and zero dorsiflexion (flexing ability). While this was great for executing pirouettes, it was problematic when it came to squatting.

While most people consider hip and hamstring mobility to be paramount for proper squatting and deadlift mechanics, if you lack ankle mobility, it foreshortens your depth potential and causes forward torso lean, which places unnecessary load on the lower back and increases the effort required to lift. Strength becomes stalled and can even decrease over time if ankle mobility is not addressed.

These five exercises are designed to improve overall ankle mobility, and they are broken up into preworkout and postworkout moves: Preworkout, you’re aiming to mobilize the ankles and calves in all directions and improve coordination with ankle ABC’s, as well as a low-lunge stretch to mobilize the calves and Achilles tendons. Postworkout, you’ll do three static stretches for the shins, calves and plantar fascia to improve range of motion, decrease postworkout soreness, and keep your muscles long, mobile and healthy.

Preworkout

Ankle ABC’s

Sit in a chair or stand by a sturdy structure or a wall for balance, then lift one foot off the floor. Draw the ABC’s slowly and deliberately with each foot, in uppercase or lowercase, cursive or all of the above.

Low-Lunge Stretch

Get into a wide runner’s lunge with your left foot forward, right leg behind. Drop your right knee to the floor and rest your torso on your left thigh. Place your hands on either side of your left foot, or grip your foot underneath your toes. Keep your left heel flat on the floor as you lean into your left thigh with your torso and gently press your left knee forward. Hold for 30 seconds, rest, then repeat. The second round, try to press your weight into your big toe for 15 seconds, then into your pinkie toe for 15 seconds.

Postworkout

Wall Calf Stretch

Place the ball of one foot against a wall with your heel on the floor, leg straight. Maintain even pressure along all five toes as you press your hips forward to find a deep stretch in your calf. Hold for 30 seconds, then release. Repeat two to three times.

Kneeling Shin Stretch

Get onto all fours with your knees and ankles together and the tops of your feet flat on the floor. Walk back with your hands and sit up until you feel a stretch in your shins, then hold for one minute. If you’re more flexible, place your hands behind you and slowly lean back, allowing your knees to lift off the floor and hold for 20 seconds (shown). Come back to all fours to rest briefly, then repeat twice more.

Kneeling Toe Stretch

Get on all fours and bring your knees and ankles together underneath you. Tuck your toes under, then walk your hands back so you’re sitting on your heels. If you’re flexible or want a deeper stretch, sit up tall and place your hands on your hips or in your lap (shown). Hold for one minute.

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Properly identifying the pain and symptoms can help you assess the next steps with your workout routine.

If you’ve spent enough time in a gym, you’ve probably heard many pain-centric mottos from trainers and fellow gym-goers: “No pain, no gain.” “If it’s not hurting, it’s not working.” “Pain is temporary, quitting is forever.”

But what if that pain you’re suffering from is more than just a nagging soreness or discomfort? What if it’s actually an injury?

“While exercising strengthens and tones the body and allows for the muscles to get stronger and firmer, it also applies an immense pressure that can easily lead to injury,” says Dr. Armin Tehrany, founder of Manhattan Orthopedic Care and honorary surgeon for the New York Police Department. “It’s important to understand your body’s limitations in order to prevent injury and grow stronger.”

Signs and Symptoms

Start the process by discerning what constitutes “good” versus “bad” pain. Tehrany says good pain can be described as a general level of discomfort during your workout and 24 to 48 hours postworkout, so long as you are putting in the effort. However, if you are feeling pain or soreness while resting or an overwhelming level of soreness after 72 hours, to the point that you are questioning whether you should work out again, you should see your doctor.

Your experience undoubtedly will vary depending on the part of the body in question, but it could look something like this:

Knees: The knee is one of the largest joints in the body and faces near-constant activity, which means it can easily be at risk for injury without the proper precautionary methods. Some signs you need an expert to evaluate your knee, according to Tehrany, include significant localized pain on the top or bottom of the knee that is causing you discomfort and/or preventing you from walking or standing as part of your daily routine.

Shoulders: Common, repetitive motions, like overhead lifting or throwing, can lead to shoulder issues. If you feel your shoulder area “popping” during certain workouts and/or if you find that you can’t lift your arm above your head without pain, Tehrany advises seeing a doctor.

Muscles: When it comes to muscle strains in the back, arms and legs, it’s important to notice whether you are feeling overwhelming pain in any of these areas during your workout. If your muscle pain is slowing you down during a workout, you may have strained the muscle or even suffered a muscle overuse injury. Ensuring you are properly warmed up before exercising can help prevent certain strains, Tehrany says. Though it is also important to keep in mind many other factors like workout intensity, your body’s limitations and making sure you have the correct form.

Overcoming Injuries

Depending on your specific level of soreness or injury, Tehrany recommends the following self-care:

Active rest. Don’t just sit on the couch and pout — yoga may provide the relief you’re looking for. “Yoga helps the body achieve active recovery from soreness or muscle pain by helping stretch the areas where you feel discomfort, releasing tension and providing you with relief from aches and pains,” he says. “As a result, your body will feel energized and you will feel increased mobility overall.” Yoga is also known to help your body achieve an improved balance, which can, in turn, help improve your workout technique to avoid future muscle strain or injury.

Actual rest. While this may include some downtime catching up on Netflix, make sure you aren’t binging all night long — getting a good night’s sleep is essential for restoring the body. “When your body enters the non-REM or deep sleep stage, your body is working on stimulating tissue growth and muscle repair,” he says. “If someone’s sleep patterns frequently change or if their quality of sleep is hindered, their body may not recover from muscle pain or injury as well as someone who has a regulated sleep pattern.” Lack of sleep also can lead to the loss of muscle mass in general, which can ultimately affect how you perform in the gym.

Hydration. Postworkout recovery is as important as the workout itself. Proper postworkout hydration helps your body digest the nutrients it needs to repair muscle damage. If you are dehydrated after a workout, your muscles will not break down and rebuild (or get stronger) as successfully as someone who is properly hydrated. Also, dehydration causes fatigue, which will make you work harder in the gym and can lead to an overuse injury in the long run.

First aid. Finally, you must protect the strained or injured part of your body from further injury. This can mean icing, compressing and even elevating the injured part of your body during your rest period.

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