The Best Workout for Bad Knees
Overview | Knee injuries account for 15 percent of all sports injuries, according to the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine, but there are likely scores of people who experience chronic knee pain without having an acute injury. The key to recovery and prevention of future injuries is a program of corrective exercises. “You should strengthen the muscles surrounding the knee to relieve some stress from the joint without causing pain to it,” says Alejandro Rojas, head of fitness at Health LA. “Try exercises that help strengthen your muscles by lengthening them. Use no or very little weight so you don’t create stress to your knees.” We’ve gathered the best stretches and exercises to help ease the tension on your knee joint caused by tight muscles as well as to strengthen the surrounding muscles, often the cause of knee pain in the first place. These exercises are mainly meant for those with noncontact injuries caused by muscle weakness and imbalance, so these exercises might not be right for everyone. Consult your doctor, orthopedist or physical therapist before beginning any exercise regimen, and if you feel any pain while doing these exercises, stop immediately.
Overhead Squat Assessment | Before starting on this series of corrective exercises, assess where your strengths and weaknesses lie within your knee joint. The NASM recommends the overhead squat assessment. Perform a squat by bending your knees and sinking your hips back as if you were sitting in a chair while raising your arms over your head. “Look for the knees to do two things: move in (adduction) or move out (abduction),” says Maurice Williams, NASM master trainer and owner of Move Well Fitness Academy. “Both movements indicate some sort of movement compensation and could eventually lead to injury.” If your knees collapse inward when you squat, you’ll need to stretch your calves, inner thighs, hamstrings and hip muscles and strengthen your shin and glute muscles. But if your knees move outward, stretch your calves, glutes and hamstrings and strengthen your inner thighs, back of knee and glute muscles.
STRETCH 1: Calf Stretch | The knee is a “dummy joint,” meaning it doesn’t operate on its own, says master trainer Maurice Williams. Instead, it works in conjunction primarily with the hip and ankle joints. “If you can get the calf muscle to stretch and be in a more relaxed position, that will take some of the undue stress off the knee,” he says. HOW TO DO IT: Facing a wall, brace yourself with both hands as you step one foot a few feet in front of the other. Bend the front knee, keeping it stacked over the front foot, but keep the back leg straight. You should feel the stretch in the calf of the leg that's behind you. Hold the stretch statically for 30 to 60 seconds for one to two sets.
STRETCH 2: Quadriceps Stretch | Your quadriceps is a group of four muscles located on the front side of your leg. All of these muscles attach at the knee and are responsible for extending the knee joint while walking, running, jumping and squatting. Stretching this muscle group prevents tightness in the front of your leg, alleviating a source of potential knee pain. HOW TO DO IT: Stand up straight. Bend your left knee so your left foot reaches toward your left glute. Grab your left foot with your left hand and hold for 30 to 45 seconds for one to two sets.
STRETCH 3: Reclined Piriformis Stretch | This stretch targets a muscle in the gluteal part of the upper leg. “The piriformis muscle typically compensates for other muscles in your hip, which can cause knee pain,” says master trainer Maurice Williams. “If we have something happening at the hips, the piriformis might be working harder than it should be. But if the piriformis relaxes, the knee can relax.” HOW TO DO IT: Lie on your back with your right leg flat on the floor and your left leg raised and knee bent at 90 degrees. Take your left foot and bring it to your right side. Hold for 30 to 45 seconds for one to two sets.
STRETCH 4: Inner-Thigh Stretch | Your inner-thigh muscles connect to the hip and the knee, says master trainer Maurice Williams. So if you notice your legs bending inward on a lot of exercises (or on the overhead squat assessment), spend a significant amount of time doing this stretch. HOW TO DO IT: Stand with your legs several feet apart -- wider than hip distance. Shift your weight to your right side and bend your right knee. Keeping your left foot on the floor, feel the stretch through your left inner thigh. Support yourself with your hands on the ground if needed. Hold for 30 to 45 seconds for one to two sets.
STRETCH 5: Reclined Hamstring Stretch | Lie on your back and lift one leg straight out in front of you while keeping it straight. How high can you lift it? “You should be able to lift your leg at least to 90 degrees,” says master trainer Maurice Williams. “If not, your hamstrings are too tight, which shortens and pulls the muscles in your knee and affects the joint.” Use this stretch to counteract that. HOW TO DO IT: Start on your back with both legs extended along the floor. Lift your right leg up as high as you can without bending your knee or lifting your other leg. Hold on to either the back of your thigh or your calf and continue to pull your leg toward your torso for 30 to 45 seconds for one to two sets.
EXERCISE 1: Calf Raises | As mentioned previously, the muscles of the calf and shin play an integral role in helping the knee joint function properly. So after warming up those muscles with the calf stretch, do a few sets of calf raises to help strengthen your calves and shins and stabilize your ankle joint. HOW TO DO IT: You can either stand on the edge of a step or box or flat on the floor, and you can also perform these as a single-leg exercise (harder) or double-leg exercise (easier). Start standing flat on your feet. If you’re on a step, let your heels hang off the edge. Slowly and with control, lift your heels so that you’re balancing on your toes. Lower back down to where you started and repeat without touching the floor. Perform 12 to 20 reps (six to 10 on each side) at a slow tempo for one to three sets.
EXERCISE 2: Single-Leg Deadlift | The deadlift is the perfect move for strengthening the entire backs of your legs, which will help prevent other muscles from compensating, wearing out and causing pain. “Try single-leg exercises to avoid compensating and to make sure each leg is getting the same amount of work,” says personal trainer Alejandro Rojas. However, if you’ve never done deadlifts, if your knees are too weak or if your balance isn’t stable, start with standard deadlifts. HOW TO DO IT: Stand with both feet hip-distance apart with a dumbbell or barbell in each hand (you can also do this one without weights). Shift your weight to your right foot and hinge at your hip to bend forward so that your torso is parallel to the floor. Extend your arms straight out from your shoulders and let them hang toward the ground. Using only your hamstrings and glutes, contract the muscles in the back of your leg and stand up. Perform six to 10 reps on each side at a slow tempo for one to three sets.
EXERCISE 3: Supine Bridge Kicks | “Bridge kicks strengthen the glutes, hamstrings and torso for core stabilization,” says personal trainer Alejandro Rojas. Plus, adding the kicks to the bridge also recruits the hamstrings without putting the raised knee under a lot of pressure. HOW TO DO IT: Lie on your back with your arms by your side and your knees bent and pointing toward the ceiling. Lift your hips and back off the floor so that your weight is in your shoulder blades, arms and feet. Shift your weight into your left foot and raise your right foot off the ground so that your leg is extended out at a 45-degree angle to the floor, contracting your quadriceps as you do, but without locking your knee. Slowly bring your right foot back to the starting position, but don’t let it touch the floor. Continue for six to 10 total reps on each leg at a slow tempo for one to three sets.
EXERCISE 4: Side-Lying Leg Raise | These next three exercises are a gradual progression that all work the gluteus medius (outer thigh), which is often weak and has a low threshold for endurance, says master trainer Maurice Williams. That’s why it’s imperative to take these reps slowly, so that your muscles spend more time under tension, which will help them grow stronger and more stable. HOW TO DO IT: Lie on your side with your body in a straight line from head to toe and a hand in front of you for support. Bring your feet forward just slightly if you need more stability. Lift the top leg several inches from the top leg for one count, hold at the top for two counts, and then slowly lower it for four counts. Hover the top leg just above the leg on the floor and repeat. Perform 12 to 20 reps on each side at this tempo for one to three sets.
EXERCISE 5: Clams | This is hands-down the best exercise for the gluteus medius, says master trainer Maurice Williams. It’s more focused than the side-lying leg raise, which allows you to use adjacent muscles to help lift the leg. If this exercise is too strenuous on your knees, stick with the side-lying leg raise until you’re strong enough. HOW TO DO IT: Start lying on your side with your knees bent and slightly in front of you. Keeping your feet together, use your outer-thigh muscles to separate your knees several inches. Use the same one-two-four count as with the side-lying leg lifts. Perform 12 to 20 reps on each side at this tempo for one to three sets.
EXERCISE 6: Resistance Band Walking | Resistance band walking takes the gluteus medius work of the previous two exercises and adds the functional element of walking, says master trainer Maurice Williams. It’s the most advanced version of the gluteus medius exercises in this series, so it’s OK to stick with the other two till you work up to this one. HOW TO DO IT: Stand up straight with knees slightly bent. Either place a resistance band just above your knees or ankles (not on them) or take a long resistance band and wrap it under your feet, holding one handle in each hand. Take a step to the right with your right foot and follow with the left. Continue walking sideways for 10 steps before walking back to the left for 10 steps. Repeat for one to three sets.
EXERCISE 7: Straight-Leg Raises | “This exercise is good for people with knee problems because it allows them to strengthen the muscles around the knee with no or very little pressure to the knee,” says personal trainer Alejandro Rojas. It targets primarily the quadriceps and hip flexors, though if you resist on the way down, you’ll also incorporate your hamstrings and glutes. HOW TO DO IT: Lie on your back with your feet extended flat along the floor and your arms by your side. Use your quads and hip flexors to raise your leg up to 90 degrees, pressing into your arms for stability. Hold before lowering down slowly, focusing on using your hamstrings and glutes to lower the leg rather than letting gravity drag it down. Perform six to 10 reps on each side at a slow tempo for one to three sets.
EXERCISE 8: Lunges | Depending on your knee issues, lunges might not be the best exercise to start out with, but the goal of your rehab regimen should be to strengthen your knees to the point where you can do lunges without pain, says master trainer Maurice Williams. Plus, lunges are one of the best lower-body exercises you can do to target all the muscles across the knee joint. HOW TO DO IT: Stand with your hands on your hips for balance. Step forward a few feet and bend both knees so that they are at 90-degree angles. Don’t let your front knee go over your front foot. Push off your front foot and return to standing. Do six to 10 reps on each leg or 12 to 20 reps alternating legs for one to three sets.
What Do YOU Think? | Do you have bad knees? Is your injury a result of overuse, arthritis or a general weakening of your joints? Have you ever done physical therapy? What kind of corrective stretches and exercises did you do? Have you ever tried any of these exercises? Which ones helped the most? Do you think you’ll add any to your regular workout routine? Share your thoughts, questions and suggestions in the comments below!