Of all the manifold exercises that bedevil the athlete on his way to glory, the Deep Knee Bend and its wicked descendant, the Duck Waddle, are the most unloved. The Deep Knee Bend is a hand-me-down from basic fitness formulae and is self-defining. The Duck Waddle, a favorite for torturing football players, is executed from a fixed squatting position and is so called for its resemblance to the walk of a duck that has just been hit behind the ear. The Army improved the Duck Waddle with a conjunctional horror of its own known as the Squat Jump, or Death Bounce, which is an alternating knee bend performed in spastic jerks and calculated to leave the legs with just enough juice to move the body to a couch.
The best possible thing one can now say for these three exercises is that they are rapidly going out of business. They have lost face. Studies show them to be of little conditioning value. Worse, they are adjudged harmful by many informed persons—an opinion welcomed by athletes, who have always thought them nasty. The incidence of knee injury in ratio to deep knee exercises has, when pointed out, genuinely alarmed the nation's football coaches. Many now claim to have struck these exercises from their regimens long ago.
The unacknowledged leader of the abolitionist movement and the provider of most of the damning statistics is an associate professor at the University of Texas who has studied the knee for 20 years. Professor Karl K. Klein, in fact, is on such familiar terms with it that he speaks of cartilage and ligament as if they were sons and daughters, and even keeps a piece of the gristly, milk-white cartilage from his own knee in ajar of alcohol on his desk. His charts and statistics are voluminous. He has lectured and written unceasingly on the knee. He has invented a calibrated instrument to measure its pitch and yaw, and apparatus to strengthen it. His friends say it would not-surprise them if he some day ossified into a kneecap himself. When Texas football players limp off the field, people have been heard to cry: "There goes another statistic for Klein!"
It was, thus, a delight to Klein in July of 1961 when the Army ordered an end to two decades of squat jumping, though his joy was short-lived—the brass promptly substituted a Deep Knee Bend, with rifle. This, in Klein's view, was reverting from fire to pan—"anything below a half knee bend," he says glumly, "is useless and ruinous." A finer endorsement of Klein's position, without strings, came in the August issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The AMA "generally disapproved" of deep knee exercises, and spoke darkly of their "potential for severe injury (medial cartilage deterioration) to the internal and supporting structures of the knee joint." And in New York last week the superintendent of schools passed the word to gym teachers: no more exercise involving the deep knee bend.
By most standards, Klein is no Texan. He is a 47-year-old native of Buffalo, and a University of Indiana graduate, who resorts to squash for recreation. On his bony head a cowboy hat (which he wears gamely) is as misplaced as the Greek columns atop Texas' Spanish-rococo Administration Building: it sits gingerly, as if afraid to take hold. Klein himself, however, is a take-hold guy with an inventive mind, a cheery nonstop pitchman for his assortment of ideas, and he thinks big—which is in keeping with the Texas posture. Not long ago he asked for and got a $10,000 government grant to further his study of the knee. "My hobby," he said, "then became my work."
The knee held no particular fascination for Klein until he unhinged one of his own in a high school hockey game. A dozen years later, in 1945, he watched by mirror as Navy doctors extracted the torn cartilage. Afterward he was granted permission to assist at other knee operations—"which pretty much surprised some of the guys in the operating room. Including, I suppose, the patients."
At Texas, Klein heads up a unique Physical Education Rehabilitation Laboratory, into which stream athletes in disrepair and fat liberal arts majors who are dissatisfied with the shape of themselves. Klein gives them equal time. The rehabilitation section is under the Department of Required Physical Education, which dedicates itself to "getting young men in shape to enjoy their weekends."
Klein's laboratory baby is his all-aluminum measuring device that clamps around the thigh and calf, with a calibrated tolerance dial at the joint. He lovingly keeps it under lock in his cubbyhole office in the basement of Gregory Gymnasium. With the instrument, and with a blood pressure bulb to gauge the pressure applied, Klein is able to measure the play in the knee and the tensional strength of the leg. The tighter the ligament, the more fit the knee. "When the knee receives a blow," he explains, "the ligament sends an instantaneous signal to the brain, calling for tighter muscles to take up the slack. The brain immediately returns the signal to the muscles, ordering them to tighten up. But if the ligaments are stretched, as they are by deep knee bends, the entire process is slowed up, the signal is delayed and an injury results."
With the use of his device, Klein can detect ligament looseness in advance and prescribe corrective exercise. At that point another of his contraptions is brought into play: a bench on which the subject sits, bent-legged, with feet down and out and hooked under a crossbar. By tensing upward, with stress on both the hamstrings and quadriceps, the knees straighten and the trunk rises from the bench. The object is to tighten the ligaments and buttress them with strong muscle.