This is a special-topic post. Super-boring for anyone not interested in knee injuries or P90X. Sorry.
I have bad knees. First of all, I’m knock-kneed (officially, genu valgum). I don’t much like the look of it, but more concerning is that it makes the supposedly straight hip-knee-ankle line more more of a triangle. It results in all sorts of problems, including chondromalacia patella - a softening of the cartilage under the patella.
I made this a whole lot worse in my teenage quest to dunk. I did way too many squat presses with way too much weight, which overbuilt my quads, which pulled my kneecap up which meant that the cartilage on its underside rubbed on my femur every time I bent my knee. (I never did dunk a basketball, but I did get enough air to dunk a volleyball.) I had a special brace that was supposed to hold my kneecaps down, but they didn’t work very well.
The result was that I had arthritis by the time I was in my mid-20s. Then, when I was 30, I ruptured my right ACL in a Shotokan Karate tournament. I had an ACL allograft to repair the knee. It turned out that I already had Grade IV chondromalacia (the worst), and that was “cleaned up” too. The cartilage should look like a hard boiled egg; mine looked like that fake crabmeat.
I had the allograft because it was the most agressive option, supposedly it would get me back the fastest and fullest. Unfortunately, as strong as my new ACL has proven to be, I completely destroyed my patellar cartilage during rehab - all those knee-bending exercises that help build the muscles around the knee to support the new ligament just tore them up.
So, three years later, back under the knife I went. This time, both knees were operated on and I was in a wheelchair for a month, then on crutches. As soon as I was out of the braces, I went back at it again, and had so much swelling and pain that I couldn’t work out for more than a day or two a week - with the support of too-frequent drainings (via a giant needle - horrid) and cortisone injections.
Still not smart enough to shift approaches, I went on a tour of leading knee surgeons. “What can I do?” All three started off with “Well, you’re really too young for knee replacements.” One suggested that I consider osteotomy - my fibula would be sliced diagonally, realigned, and pinned in a geometry that would align my hips, knees, and ankles. That was enough to scare me off of all of it, and I gave up.
I had been a hard-core 7-days-a-week competitive athlete from 13 to 30 and I turned into a couch potato. I couldn’t bike for more than an hour and walk the next day. I gave up backpacking. It was horrible.
Finally, after my second daughter went to pre-school, I decided that I had to exercise for exercise’s sake. I had never done exercise in my life - I had done athletics - and it’s very very different. I decided that NordicTracking was the right thing - little knee bend, controlled motion, full-body, cardio. So I bought one for $50 on eBay and started doing it every morning. I had to ice daily for the first couple of months. Thankfully I got the full West Wing on DVD that Christmas and was so motivated to see the next episode that I quickly worked up to about 45 minutes a day. And I skied hard. That got me back in OK shape. But it was so boring.
Then - drumroll please - on our annual Memorial Day camping trip, a friend told me about P90X. If you watch TV, which I don’t, you’ve probably seen the infomercials. I bought the DVDs, weights and a pull-up bar, and put in the first DVD. When I started I could barely do most of it. Jumps, deep knee bends, push-ups, pull-ups. You name it, I couldn’t do it.
P90X is a very structured 90-day program. I made it through 45 days that first time and had major trouble with… my shoulder! I could barely move my arm, couldn’t raise it above shoulder level, and it hurt like crazy. It took 3 doctors to figure out that I have artritis in my clavicles (from all that shooting for all those years) which led me to compensate in odd ways which ended up in tendonitis in my bicep. UGH! I did nothing with that arm or shoulder for almost two months while it healed.
Voltaren, which is essentially a topical version of Aleve, worked wonders for me to control the swelling from the arthritis. I still use it on my shoulder or even my knees when things start to flare up.
I’ve also found glucosamine chondroitin very helpful, although I’m no controlled study, when I forget to take it for more than a few days my shoulder and knees remind me.
Once I got past that roadblock, I started to see results. Miraculous results. You can find hundreds of before and after shots of people with newly ripped abs from P90X, and they are real - I know some of them.
I don’t look quite that ripped, but my results are miraculous for me. I am almost pain-free. I can run five miles with no swelling. I can ski, three maybe even four days straight. I can do a deep knee bend - painlessly, even thought it makes an awful crunching sound. I can jump, cut, turn, and spin. I can bicycle. I can pick up a ball and shoot around without fearing that something terrible is going to happen. I’m hoping to start martial arts again this fall.
Why did it work? I think that it’s:
- Focus on the core
- Every muscle group is isolated and developed
- Movement - you have to jump, pivot, etc, but can start in a very modest way
- Flexibility, which feels like it reduces pressure without, because of the strengthened muscles, feeling loose
- Every day, seven days a week, but doing something very different every one of those days, seems easier for my body to maintain than an alternating schedule of days off
- You can ease into every exercise in every one of the 12 workouts. There are some exercises that I’ve just begun to do fully in the past couple of months - more than 2 years after I started!
Those are a tenth of the great things about the program, but they are the ones that are important specifically to knees. Thanks Tony.
Lessons learned: run from the knife, never say die, and just press play, every day!