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Why do people get bad knees?

There are many reasons why people have knee problems. Here are a few examples:

Overdoing it at the weekend
Irregular, often strenuous exercise
Bad lifting technique

Too much sitting
Poor physical awareness
Poor coordination
Balance problems
Twisting & over-stretching
Failure to rest appropriately
Stiff muscles that are not appropriately exercised (or are exercised in an abusive way)
Locking the knees
Bending the knees unnecessarily

Many of these causes are also responsible for back problems.

How do you use your knees?

The problem often lies with the way in which the knee is being used. Knee problems are usually the result of 3 errors:

  1. Bending rather than relaxing

  2. Twisting the joint rather than using it as a hinge or a piston

  3. Moving the knee too far forwards

Functionality needs to be addressed. New insights must be uncovered. Understanding is required. Old habits can be broken.


In everyday life people usually focus upon the hands. If your hands are misaligned, it will not cause you harm. However, your legs and feet are another matter entirely.


Remember that your legs are weight-bearing and that alignment faults with the feet can seriously damage the knees.
Correct usage of the hip joint, combined with accurate placement of the feet and appropriate weight distribution will prevent these problems.

Weight loss

If you are notably overweight, it can badly affect the knees.

Locked knees

Locked knees or overly-straightened legs prevent the knee from acting as suspension for the body. Relax the knees but do not bend unless squatting down to lift something.


Most people have very tight hamstrings. Unfortunately, the back compensates for tight hamstring muscles (by slouching); giving the illusion of greater flexibility than is actually present.
We address this in the syllabus by way of psoas exercises and leg stretches. The training is done carefully, gently - in a controlled manner - without exertion or strain.


How many sports were originally conceived with good knee usage in mind? Any? Be honest here. Really think it through.
It will explain to you why so many athletes suffer from knee problems and why so many runners are wearing knee braces.


If your knees ache at first when doing tai chi, rest. If your thigh and calf muscles ache, this is good. If your knees are in pain, see your instructor.

Bad tai chi

Not all tai chi is knee-friendly. It depends on the emphasis of the individual school, style or instructor. Some teachers have better knowledge of human anatomy and biomechanics than others.
e.g. if you watch a few tai chi exponents on YouTube it is quite common to see knees buckling in, torquing and being used carelessly.

Good tai chi

In our tai chi school we are very keen to ensure healthy knee use. It is a notable concern.

Shoulder-width apart

Most instructors will tell their students to stand with their feet shoulder-width apart. This is good advice.
The relative distance between your feet in Yang-style tai chi is shoulder-width apart pretty much all of the time.

Suspended from above

This is the first of Yang's 10 essential points. Done correctly, this concern will facilitate a more balance use of the skeleton and this will directly affect the knees.
The thigh muscles will lengthen and draw up from the knees, rather than sag and drop. Counteracting the pull of gravity will lead to a lighter, more nimble step and reduced pressure on the knees.

The internal is not a gift. It must be worked for, and discipline is necessary. What is wanted is good balance.

(Robert Smith)

Pluck up the back

If you succeed in correctly suspending the skeleton from above, the spine will lengthen and you will experience the sensation of 'pluck up the back'.
If unfamiliar, your body will revert back to known habits and resist the change in poise. Be patient and gently re-correct your posture until the muscles of the torso lengthen and strengthen continually.

Relax the knees

Make space behind the knee joint, as if the knee were moving forward. Do not bend deeply, simply relax. Done correctly, the legs will free-up considerably and the lower back will feel looser.
This is not a squat. You are simply relaxing the knees.

Look in a mirror

Stand next to a mirror without trousers on. In profile. Now do 3 different things, one after the other:

  1. Lock your knees

  2. Relax your knees

  3. Bend your knees

The difference between the 3 positions should be visually obvious. Never lock your knees. Bend only when squatting to lower the body. Relax the knees at all times.

Confused about bending?

Bend your knees and try walking. Relax your knees and try walking. The contrast between bending and relaxing should be obvious.
A bent knee is for static squatting. A relaxed knee is for standing, moving and walking.


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Page created 18 March 1997
Last updated 16 June 2023