Sore Knees

by alex renwick on 2010/10/24

One day at lunch I pointed out a deficiency of our training to Master Chen.

“There is no stretching in the foundation exercises,” I said.

Master Chen’s eyes narrowed and he growled, “We don’t sell vitamin pills, either!”

The need for vitamins, he went on to explain, indicates an imbalance in the body. It shows you have a problem, and the problem is not fixed by pills. Taiji works to bring the body back into alignment with nature. It supports true health.

Master Chen was careful to point out that there are cases where medication is appropriate. If your organs fail, or if you are in a car accident and lose a lot of blood, the natural thing to do is to die. So we turn to medicine, since we are human and we don’t want to die.

I was interested in stretching because my knees had begun hurting in the second week of full time training. I had already asked Master Chen about that. He hadn’t been surprised.

“It is because of your kua and your feet,” he had said. “Never plant your foot.”

He had pointed to a tripod in the corner and said, “Taiji is about relationships. None of the feet is planted to the floor, but the tripod is very stable.”

After that I had payed closer attention to my foot placement, but I also kept remembering some advice I had heard while fencing. Knee problems, they said, can come from tight leg muscles. During the first week of training my leg muscles had definitely become tighter.

If taiji training had caused the muscle tightness then it should also provide an antidote, I reasoned. So I asked about it, and that’s when I heard about the vitamin pills.

I was still skeptical. “Some of the moves of the form–fall and split, for example–require more than ordinary flexibility,” I said.

“Yes,” Master Chen allowed, “but it is not ordinary flexibility.” He smiled to himself, apparently pleased with turning my words around to support his position.

He went on. “When I asked Hong about what it means to have an open kua, he said an open kua is a kua that opens. You could have an eight year old girl who can put her foot above her head, and her kua is not open. You can have an eighty year old man who can hardly move and his kua is open.”

He paused, then emphasized this point. “Taiji is not about flexibility. It is not about flexibility, or strength, or speed.”

I decided to take is word for it. I spent the next week being careful to allow my feet to pivot and relieve stress from the knee. I didn’t go too low while doing the form. Gradually my hip joints became more active, allowing my posture to adjust without torquing the knee. My knees didn’t get any worse. Gradually they became better. Now, after five weeks, they seem fine.

Maybe Master Chen knew what he was talking about. Or maybe I was just lucky. Either way my knees work and I can keep training. I’m satisfied.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Kelvin Ho October 24, 2010 at 8:16 pm

I definitely had knee pain when I first practiced taiji. However, it was with the muscle just above the knee cap. It gradually got worse as I practiced more. At several occasions, in the middle of yilu, I had to stop because a particular move just hurt too much. I started to notice that the knee location relative to the foot was not where Master Chen said it should be. I had been putting my knee at a place according to instructions someone else gave me previously. With the correct location, it doesn’t hurt anymore.


Frances aka "Barefoot Fresca" and "Avocational Singer" October 25, 2010 at 7:50 am

I enjoyed this post a lot. I am a Kung Fu student for three years. I added Tai Chi a couple of years ago and did it for a year. I loved it SO much. I am overweight, but was doing very well with it, but I had trouble with my knees.

At the end of a year of training, I took a couple of weeks off for a vacation and my knees got completely better. I never went back to Tai Chi because of this. The Kung Fu doesn’t hurt my knees and I run too, but I am afraid to go back to Tai Chi because of the knee issue. I’ve been looking for answers. Losing some weight is probably one of them, yet I can’t help but think that it should be possible to be strong enough to bear my weight if I progress slowly and carefully enough.

I’ve bought some books looking for some answers for better alignment and stuff like that.

The idea of the hip joints becoming more mobile might be key.


Ping Wei October 25, 2010 at 4:48 pm

I had a new student a few months ago. He came to me because of his knee problem. In his first class, I taught our positive circles. When he tried only 3 circles (less than one minute), he had to give up, because he felt severe pain in his both knees. The pain he has is not because the tai chi he tried. He had pain in his knees for years. He never tried tai chi. So, the pain was not caused by tai chi, but by bad alignment, bad postures, and over weight. Realizing that, I had to stop and slow down our progress. Luckily, he came back next week, because he understood what I explained and trusted in me. So, we continued our circles. This time, he could do for over 5 min. That’s an improvement. Two months later, in one of our private lesson, when he started doing circles, we all heard sound of knee joints cracking. I was happy to hear that, which means his knee joints gain mobility. All his previous knee pain was caused by stickiness, (粘連)which was the result of lack of movement. Three months passed, he’s about to finish the first 13 moves of Yilu. He even tried to play basketball. I told him to hold off basketball for a while, until his knees become more healthy. Tai Chi (the right way, the right teaching, the right ractice) is the key.


Frances aka "Barefoot Fresca" October 27, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Thank you for this explanation. Perhaps I will return to class and try again at some point. My instructor had told me about good alignment and I tried very hard to achieve it. But it is possible that I progressed too rapidly. When you mentioned that you had to stop and slow down the progress in the student you describe, it made me remember how excited I was and how quickly I was learning and I also was practicing a lot at home — maybe too much for my weight and abilities. I also had watched some videos of people who were going very low in their stances and I tried to use deep stances and I think I was not ready for that.


Ping Wei October 25, 2010 at 4:32 pm

I found some people try to twist joints which are not designed to twist. In Master Hong’s book, he discussed about the lift (提) and drop (落) of knees. 順纏而上提,逆纏而下垂。It is complied with kinesiology of knee joints.


Tim Duehring October 25, 2010 at 7:09 pm

I have several students who continually complain about knee pain. I have adjusted their posture and the knee pain goes away. The next class they are complaining again and their alignment has resorted to the previous problem. With some of these people this has been going on for over a year. The other problem I see is that when a person plants their foot, they seem hesitant to move it. I am constantly working up exercises to teach these fundamentals, but some just don’t listen. The knee has to stay in line with the foot. If you move your body and your knee changes direction, you have to move your foot to compensate.


Frances aka "Barefoot Fresca" October 27, 2010 at 2:14 pm

In my case I did not have the pain while I was in class or while I was practicing. That’s why it seemed and looked like things were “right” while I was in class. I felt really terrific while I was doing it. It was in between classes walking around in my life that I felt the pain.


Tim Duehring October 27, 2010 at 6:27 pm

That is when you will notice it. You will also notice it after class is over and you sit for while. In class you are very conscious of placement and of body alignment. Plus in most classes you do warm up exercises that will gently warm up and stretch the muscles and tendons. Outside of class one has a tendency to be more lax about their posture and this is when the stress on the joints really shows up.


jdub7771 December 5, 2010 at 2:16 pm

I’m new to this site and The Practical Method. I’ve been studying Chen style for almost a year now, and I notice every now and then my knees are sore also. This makes perfect sense that improper foot alignment will have this effect. I’m trying to correct this now that I have noticed it. I find what’s been written here insightful. I do have one question. What do you mean by,”don’t plant the foot”? Do you mean, where you put the “root” or weight on the foot? I do find that when I transition into stances, I struggle to determine where my weight should be. I notice my Kua closes when transitioning, and this may be my problem. Any advice is highly welcome! 🙂


Luke June 5, 2012 at 1:05 am

Hey hope you are still practising Chen taijiquan. Just saw you post and thought I’d offer some solution if it hasn’t been addressed. So, you know how when you are in your right stance we are taught to sit in our KUA, there’s a few things to keep in mind: 1) The left kua moves into the right (as in, when moving to the right, it is initiated by the left side), this keeps the butt perpendicular to the floor and prevents leaning of the spine, and increases structural strength in the hip-bones; 2) now, when seated on the right leg, your foot and leg are securely planted on the ground, and the left leg is offering pole-like support through the heel and up the back of the leg (you know how they talk about full and empty? observe the taiji symbol: white fish has a black eye, black fish a white eye – this means your “empty” leg must contain structural strength too!); 3) The weight on the right foot must then be released first, and this is done by a slight rotation of the hip TOWARDS the right foot, as you begin to transfer weight across to the left side. In doing this the foot is no longer planted on the floor. If you do not do this, you end up twisting the cruciate ligaments of the knee, and this is what causes the pain. Practise this in silk reeling to get used to the concept. Hope fully I’ve described it well, because it’s much easier to show than write.


Luke June 5, 2012 at 12:39 am

Hey, knee pain is common in a lot of Chen taijiquan schools because the schools don’t understand anatomy like Chen village. Taijiquan is demands a high understanding of micro-management in terms of human anatomy. The feet and knees only move in conjunction with the hips, and while the foot is actually “planted” on the ground (in the Western understanding of the word) the planting must be released by the turning of the hips. If the hips turn while the foot remains planted, you put strain on the cruciate ligaments of the knee. It’s a very simply mistake to fix, but a very common one that’s made. If people started to realize the amount of anatomical awareness needed in taijiquan and stopped practicing for its look sand namesake, there’d be A) a lot less students and B) higher quality ones.


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