If you have knee pain, then you may benefit from learning exercises that both strengthen and improve the range of motion in the muscles that move the knee joint.
Consistently performing these exercises using progressive overload training can reduce or eliminate knee pain. Progressive overload training is gradually increasing the intensity or difficulty of workouts over time.
Let’s take a brief look at the anatomy of the knee:
- Tibia (shin bone)
- Femur (thigh bone)
- Patella (kneecap)
- Lateral and medial ligaments
- Lateral and medial meniscus
- Posterior and anterior cruciate ligaments (ACL and PCL)
What does the knee do?
Your knee is a lower body joint that is responsible for daily life activities such as walking, climbing stairs, and standing from a seated position.
Knee pain can limit one or all of these activities. Maintaining a strong and mobile knee joint can help prevent knee pain and injury.
Is exercise bad if I’m experiencing knee pain?
If you want to strengthen your muscles, you must stress your muscles and joints through exercise.
What is important is meeting yourself where you are and starting there. Through trying different exercises and performing them at varying degrees of intensity you should be able to find a starting point that is appropriate for you. The goal is to move you as far as you need to go to reach your goals.
Example: You try the bodyweight squat. It’s comfortable until your thighs are parallel to the floor. A great place to begin training the bodyweight squat for you would be just before your thighs are parallel to the floor.
What are some good exercises to try?
Below we take a look at exercises you can do to improve knee health.
1. Bodyweight squat
Start in a standing position with feet hip-distance apart, toes pointed out slightly, and arms at sides. Shift your hips back and down, bending at the knees to lower yourself to a comfortable squat depth. “Push the ground away” to return to standing.
Watch: Bodyweight squat demo video
If you want a more challenging squat variation, try split squats.
2. Split squat
With your feet underneath your shoulders, step one foot forward as wide as you can while keeping both heels planted on the ground with toes pointed forward. A cue about foot placement that will help with balance: think “train tracks” not “tight rope”. You don’t want your feet directly in line with each other.
As you bend both your knees, shift your weight into the heel of your front foot. Your back heel will lift off the ground as you squat. Once you’ve reached a comfortable depth or your back shin and front thigh are parallel with the ground, drive through your front heel back to standing.
Watch: Split squat demo video
Stand in front of either a step, plyometric box, or bench. Step up with the right foot, pressing through the heel to straighten your right leg. Try not to push off the floor too much while doing this. Bring the left foot to meet your right foot on top of the step. Slowly and with control lower yourself back to the floor.
Watch: Step-ups demo video
3. Hamstring curls with a towel (home friendly)
Lay down with your back on the floor and your arms at your sides. Place a towel on a low-friction surface and place your feet on the towel. Pushing through your heels, bridge your hips toward the ceiling. Flex your knees and hips to slide your feet toward your glutes until your feet are directly under your knees. Extend your knees and hips slowly and with control to return to start position.
4. Single-leg RDL
Step 1: Stand balancing on your right leg. (Optional: hold a dumbbell with your left hand in front of your thigh).
Step 2: Sit your hips back as if you were being pulled by a rope attached to your waist and allow your right knee to bend just slightly. Your left leg should be straight (it’s OK if there’s a slight bend in the knee) and in line with your body throughout the rep.
Step 3: Keeping your back flat, continue to bend at the waist until the dumbbell is at about mid-shin height (this ultimately depends on your hamstring flexibility).
Step 4: Drive through your heel and push your hips forward to stand up to the starting position. Squeeze your quad and glutes at the top.
Watch: Single-leg RDL demo
5. Glute bridge
Lie face up on the floor, with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Keep your arms at your side with your palms down.
Lift your hips off the ground until your knees, hips and shoulders form a straight line. Squeeze your glutes and keep your abs drawn in to keep from overextending your back during the exercise.
Hold your bridged position for a couple of seconds before easing back down.
Watch: Glute Bridge demo video
A more challenging variation of the glute bridge is the single leg glute bridge. To perform the single leg flute bridge try the exercise as described above while keeping one leg off the ground.
6. Core + Knee Health Exercises
Challenge your core and hips at the same time with these side plank variations.
Short Side Plank: Start on your forearm and knees while keeping your trunk in a straight line. Hold this position. Try 3 sets for 60 seconds each, alternating sides.
Watch: Short side plank demo video:
Side Plank: With legs straight and feet either staggered or stacked hold your body in a straight line. Try 3 sets of 60 seconds each, alternating sides.
Watch: Side plank demo
Side Plank + Leg Raise: From side plank (described above) move your top leg up and down slowly with control. Try 3 sets of 30 seconds each, alternating sides.
Now that you know some exercises that can help strengthen and prevent knee pain, you can explore the benefits yourself. Try picking 3 exercises from the examples above and performing them twice a week to start.
Gym Bonus: Reverse Sledpulls
Using either a sled or a sled simulator, do reverse sled pulls. You can alternate the weight you use to allow you to do fast, choppy backward steps like you’re trying to run backwards (a lighter weight), or you can do slower, more drawn out backward steps (a heavier weight).