September 21, 2021 10 min read

Knee pain is extremely common and could have any one of a number of causes. Too much inactivity and time spent in front of the computer might make your knees ache or you could overwork them at the gym. Long-distance runners or grocery store stockers, powerlifters or couch potatoes - anyone can experience knee pain.

A common piece of medical advice is to try knee-strengthening exercises when your knees are in bad shape. The right exercise program that targets your quadriceps and other thigh muscles will make them better able to support your knees and prevent pain and injury. But sometimes people take it too far. Overuse can be as dangerous to your knee joint as a sedentary lifestyle.

Read through this guide to learn the 10 best exercises for people with bad knees. Whether you have chronic knee pain because of conditions like osteoarthritis or you’ve recently strained your knee and have some temporary discomfort, the exercises in this guide work great for a strong workout without exacerbating knee pain.

How Your Knees Work

Understanding how your knees work with the muscle groups in your lower body and how they work together to support the knee, hip, and ankle joint should help you see why the 10 exercises in this guide are so effective. You’ll also be prepared to make decisions on what other moves and variations to include in your routine long-term.

 Knee Joint Cross Section Showing the major parts which made the knee joint

The knee has three main parts you should be aware of. Those are the thigh bone, the leg bone, and the kneecap. A prominence called a condyle is at the bottom of the thigh bone and it takes the brunt of the pressure that is put on the knee from above. Your tibia, or shinbone, has two flat sections that sit underneath the condyles at the bottom of your thigh bone.

Beneath this intersection is an important connective tissue called the cruciate ligament. The kneecap is above the condyles. Joint cartilage slides across a groove in the femur, or thigh bone. It’s the job of the kneecap to reduce friction on the tendon between your femur and tibia and keep that tendon in place as well.

The meniscus is located on the inside and outside of each knee and helps to rotate it. When you move your knee too quickly, as you might in a fall, you can have a torn meniscus. Four ligaments surrounding the knee help to keep it in place and they can also be torn.

The quadriceps femoris, otherwise simply referred to as your quads, move the knee from the front of your thigh. Quads extend the knee, which is what happens when you’re sitting down and lift your leg until the knee is straight.Your biceps femoris, an important part of your calf muscles, helps move the knee the other way.

Several other muscles and muscle groups help to move the knee as well, but those are the main ones. You can also work out some additional muscle groups that will provide extra support for the knee and prevent injury there. Most notably, you should target your hamstrings, glutes, abductors, and adductors.

Muscles To Target For Stronger Knees

The total list of muscles and muscle groups you need to target for stronger and better-protected knees is as follows:

  • Quads
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves
  • Glutes
  • Hip Adductors
  • Hip Abductors (Gluteus Minimus & Tensor Fasciae Latae)

As you can see, you essentially need to target all the muscles that move the parts of the body around the knee. Quads are probably the most important. Even short-term weakness in the quadriceps could be enough to damage the knee’s cartilage and cause ongoing joint pain.

The glutes are often left out of the equation but they offer support for the entire upper body as well as the knee. Working out your glutes can reduce both knee and back pain. Hamstrings offer tons of support for your anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and prevent it from tearing during sports and other physical activities.

Weak calves increase the amount of weight that gets loaded onto the knee. When your soles are flat on the ground, the knee is pulled backward by the calves. Without strong enough calves, the knee is going to be doing the pulling. You can imagine how that would make injury more likely.

The hip adductors are small muscles that help propel your hips. That means they also play a significant role in moving your thigh bone from the top. Stronger adductors take the onus off the knee. Hip abductors move your leg away from the body’s midline. When they’re weak, the knee could cave inward more than it needs to. Strong abductors also protect the knees when you’re running.

What Type Of Exercise Works Best For Knee Pain?

Whether your knee pain is related to chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis or an injury, certain types of exercise are probably going to feel better than others.

For one thing, you should focus on low-impact exercise. Low-impact exercises focus on fluid movement that runs the targeted joint through its full range of motion at a consistent pace without it having to strike a hard surface like it would if you were running. Studies show that high-impact exercises don’t provide any additional benefit over low-impact ones when knee pain is a central concern.

Orthopedic researchers have found that resistance band exercises are more effective for resolving knee pain in athletes. Banded exercises apply more consistent pressure on the muscles around your knee which makes them build strength evenly. The resistance band also helps maintain the proper form and prevent injury during the workout.

Strength training is also an effective method for building strength that will support your knees.

If you have tons of hard-earned muscle mass you don’t want to sacrifice to a month of bodyweight exercises, you can use weights and resistance training machines. Just take care not to overload your knees by using the improper form if you’re doing a complicated move like squats.

The best type of exercises for knee pain are fluid, banded exercises that target your knees with sufficient weight to challenge them without a great risk of a knee injury. Depending on your fitness level and body composition, bodyweight banded exercises could be enough. Alternatively, banded strength training exercises may be required.

10 Best Exercises For People With Knee Pain

Try some of the following exercises for knee pain relief. Always make sure to check with a physical therapist or similar medical professional to make sure your knees can take the strain of a fitness routine without taking more damage. 

1. Hamstring Curls

This simple hamstring stretch can be done in a few different ways depending on your experience level. If you’re an expert, you can use it as part of your warm-up to prime your hamstrings for the more rigorous lifts to come. Beginners can perform hamstring curls while holding onto the back of a chair and add ankle weights and resistance bands to continue challenging themselves as the move becomes easier.

How To Do Hamstring Curls:

Start with your feet hip-width apart and your hands either on your hips or resting on the wall or the back of a chair for balance. Lift your right foot behind you so that the right leg bends and then hold that bent knee at the highest possible position for several seconds.

Lower your right leg back to the starting position and then repeat the exercise with your left leg. You can either alternate each leg between reps or you can complete all your repetitions on one leg before switching to the other. 

2. Calf Raises

Calf-raise exercise

Another great exercise for your warm-up or to get your day started, calf raises can be done anywhere with minimal equipment. If you do find the original method too easy, holding weights in your hands will make your calf raises more rewarding.

How To Do Calf Raises:

Stand in the same starting position as you did for the hamstring curls above. You can use the back of a chair for stability or you can put your hands on your hips; either way, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.

Raise both heels until you’re standing on tiptoe and then hold that position for a few seconds. Lower your heels to complete one rep and then repeat. Try this for at least 15 reps to really get your calves working.

3. Straight Leg Raise

A perfect opportunity to bust out the resistance bands, the straight leg raise targets your hip flexors and your quadriceps. It’s one of the best exercises you can do to relieve knee pain and a favorite for physical therapy sessions that target knee injuries.

How To Do Straight Leg Raises:

Lie down on your back with your left foot pulled in toward you so that the left knee is bent. Your right leg should be straight out. If lying directly on the floor is too uncomfortable, lay out a yoga mat first.

Slowly lift your right leg until it reaches the height of the left knee. You’re not trying to make a 90-degree angle here - it’s all about repeatedly lifting the weight of your right leg with the right quadriceps and hip flexors.

Lower the right leg to complete one rep. Continue for a total of anywhere from 10 to 15 reps and then switch to the left side.

4. Side Leg Raises

The side leg raise is nothing more than a straight leg raise that you do while lying on your side. Wrap a loop resistance band around your thighs to give your legs some extra tension and really build strength in your leg muscles.

How To Do Side Leg Raises:

Lie down on your right or left side with your feet on top of one another. You can support the weight of your head with your lower arm. The other arm can rest on your side.

Slowly lift your top leg to the top of its range of motion. Hold it there for one or two seconds and then lower it again. Continue these reps until you feel a burning in your hips, then take a quick 30-second break and switch over to the other side. 

5. Squats

It might surprise you to see this weightlifting classic on a list of exercises for knee pain. After all, you might be lifting some significant amounts of weight on your shoulders during a squat. But it’s actually the perfect exercise for reducing knee pain because it builds strength in your glutes and quads. Even middle-aged people with osteoarthritis benefit from static low angle squatting.

How To Do Squats:

Start out doing bodyweight squats if you’ve had a serious injury or you aren’t already familiar with the move. Begin with your feet shoulder-width apart. You can hold one fist in the other hand or you can put your arms out to each side if you need extra stability.

Push your hips backward and your butt out as if you were about to sit down in a chair. Keep your back straight as you lower your torso. Stop when your knees are at 90-degree angles. If you feel any pain, stop the squat immediately to spare your knee.

Hold the low position of the squat and then rise back into the starting position to complete one rep. Repeat as many as possible, ideally somewhere between 5 and 10 minimum.

6. Leg Extensions (Seated Straight Leg Raise)

If you’re looking for a fast exercise to do during a conference call at work or an online video lecture, this is the one for you. It’s so simple you can do it absent-mindedly throughout the day.

How To Do Leg Extensions:

Sit down in a chair with your fingers tucked under your thighs. Lift your right foot until the whole right leg is straight out in front of you. Hold it there for a couple of seconds and then lower it again.That’s it! Repeat until your right leg feels the burn and then switch to your left leg.

7. Banded Leg Press

You have to lie down on the floor for this exercise, but because you’re using a resistance band you can take it really slow and still give your knee a great workout. Ask your doctor before exercising a seriously injured knee.

How To Do The Banded Leg Press:

Lie flat on your back and wrap a big loop resistance band around one leg. Hang onto the band with both hands while you raise the knee of the banded leg to your chest and back down again. Remember to take it slow and switch sides after you complete all the reps on the first side. 

8. Clamshells

Clamshells are a fantastic hip adduction exercise that is made even more beneficial with the addition of a resistance band around your thighs.

How To Do Clamshells:

Lie on your side and bend your knees slightly. Some people put them at 45-degree angles, but just stick with whatever is most comfortable for your knees.Lift your top leg without changing its bent knee position. It should look like you’re trying to flap your legs like bird wings. Don’t run through this too quickly - a fluid motion is most desirable.

9. Glute Bridge

You probably already know this exercise from your regular leg day routine. If you don’t, you seriously need to try it. Best of all, it doesn’t require much knee movement at all. As long as you can lie down with your knees slightly bent, you can do the glute bridge.

How To Do The Glute Bridge:

Lie on your back with both knees bent to about 45 degrees and the soles of your feet flat on the floor. You can place your arms out to either side.Lift your hips so that your butt comes off the ground and your back straightens. The whole torso should form a straight line at the top of the move.

Hold the highest position for a few seconds and then lower yourself to complete one rep.To make this move a bit more difficult, you can hold a barbell across your hips.

10. High Knee Walks

If you are having trouble getting your knees into a 90-degree angle during squats or any of the other exercises we mentioned in this guide, try this high knee walk to make it easier.

How To Do High Knee Walks:

You’re basically going to be walking with very pronounced steps. Place your hands on your hips and your feet about hip-width apart. Take a big step forward and lift your front leg until the knee is at a 90-degree angle, then complete the step. Repeat with the other leg. If you have space, try to walk around the room like this. If not, you can turn around and step in the opposite direction with the other leg.

Conclusion

Almost everyone experiences knee pain at some point or another. The anatomy of your knee is fairly straightforward, but since it’s a joint that bears lots of stress throughout the day, the knee is prone to injury.

Try out the 10 exercises in this guide to work out your glutes, hamstrings, and quads. They’ll reduce knee pain make it less likely to return in the future. With enough preparation, you’re much more likely to avoid the worst knee pain so you can keep building muscle without interruption.


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