Knee joints help perform basic movements, provide stability, and support weight-bearing activities, but they are susceptible to injuries due to their constant use.
Knee problems are one of the leading causes of doctor visits, with millions seeking medical attention for fractures, sprains, and ligament tears.
With years of experience as a certified personal trainer, I have gained valuable knowledge about lower body exercises that are gentle on the knees while providing an effective workout.
Whether you aim to maintain an active lifestyle or recover from knee pain, this article provides valuable insights into leg exercises that preserve knee health.
- The best exercises for bad knees include straight leg raises, kettlebell swings, box squats, seated leg extensions, Romanian deadlifts, sled pushes, and lateral walks.
- While performing leg exercises, avoid common mistakes such as improper form during eccentric and concentric contractions, knee valgus, and excessive stress during transitions.
- To prevent knee injuries, warm up adequately, strengthen your glutes and hamstrings, progress gradually, prioritize good form, and follow medical guidance if recovering from an injury or surgery.
Top 7 Leg-Strengthening Exercises for Knee Pain
Here are the top seven lower-body exercises that target your knee-supporting muscles while minimizing the impact on your joints.
1. Straight Leg Raises
The straight leg raise is an essential post-surgery exercise for hip or knee replacement since it’s a low-intensity exercise that gradually increases the range of motion.
Doctors also use it as a diagnostic tool for spine and hip injuries.
Start your leg workout with the following steps for a straight leg raise:
- Lie down on a flat surface, such as the floor.
- Keep your knee bent and position your feet flat on the ground, shoulder-width apart.
- Keep the other leg straight and lift it to the level of the opposite knee.
- Lower your leg, repeat for reps, and switch legs.
2. Kettlebell Swing
This high-intensity, low-impact workout boosts cardiovascular endurance, strength, and explosive capabilities.
Follow these steps to perform a kettlebell swing:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Slowly lower yourself and grasp the kettlebell’s handle with both hands.
- Keep your knees slightly bent and propel the kettlebell upward from the hips, swinging it to chest level.
- When returning the kettlebell to its starting position, ensure it doesn’t swing excessively between your legs to prevent excessive knee bending.
Learn More: Will Kettlebell Swings Burn Belly Fat
3. Box Squats
Most elite lifters perform box squats to alleviate knee pain.
The major benefit of this move is that sitting on a box or bench during the squat eliminates the transition from eccentric movements to concentric movements.
Here’s how you do a box squat:
- Select a box or bench that allows you to squat with your hip socket parallel to your knee in the bottom position.
- Sit back onto the box to maintain vertical shins and prevent your knees from extending beyond your toes.
- Shift your weight towards your heels and lean your torso forward to further engage your hips while counterbalancing the movement.
- Brace your core and lower yourself under control to avoid forcefully hitting the box.
4. Seated Leg Extension
This exercise targets the vastus medialis muscle in the quads, responsible for the final degrees of full leg extension, aiding in quad strengthening.
To perform a seated leg extension:
- Begin by sitting upright in a chair with your back flat.
- Keep your left leg straight and parallel to the ground without being fully locked.
- Flex your ankles, pointing your toes towards the ceiling for optimal positioning.
- Slowly lower your foot back to the floor and repeat the movement.
- Switch to the right leg and perform 8–12 repetitions on each leg, completing 2–3 sets.
5. Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts
Romanian deadlifts are ideal for those with knee issues since they involve a slight knee bend and primarily engage the hips, reducing stress on the knees.
To perform this exercise, follow these instructions:
- Position your feet hip-width apart with your knees bent.
- Allow your torso to lean forward and descend as you lower the dumbbells toward the ground.
- Keep your core engaged and your shoulders retracted.
- Lower the weights until you sense your form is reaching its limit.
- Generate force by thrusting your hips forward and lifting the weight upwards until you achieve an upright position.
- Bring the weight down and repeat for reps.
6. Sled Push
Here are the steps to perform a sled push:
- Load the sled with an appropriate weight that prevents sprinting.
- Stand behind the sled and grip the push rods. Step back and lean forward, keeping your torso parallel to the ground.
- Pushing with extended arms engages the upper leg-pushing muscles.
- Alternatively, tuck your arms and keep your chest close to the rods for greater power.
- Gradually initiate the push, taking small steps to generate more power.
- Drive off the toe of the planted foot while the other leg drives up and steps forward.
7. Banded Lateral Walk
The lateral band walking exercise promotes proper knee movement patterns, preventing inward or outward collapsing and protecting the joint.
It particularly works the gluteus medius, so it is great for hip mobility.
Follow these steps to do this exercise:
- Attach a resistance band above your knees and assume a shallow quarter-squat position.
- Begin by taking a large sideways step with your left foot.
- Take ten consecutive steps towards the left, then switch legs to take ten steps in the right direction
What Causes Knee Pain?
Knee pain can be caused by a diet rich in processed and sugary foods that cause joint inflammation, inadequate intake of omega-3, excess weight, improper exercise technique, and overuse .
These factors can lead to conditions such as the following:
- Osteoarthritis: It is a form of arthritis characterized by the deterioration of joint cartilage and underlying bone.
- Chondromalacia patellae: This condition involves softening the cartilage beneath the patella (knee cap), leading to pain and swelling.
- Patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner's knee): This injury occurs when the patella rubs against the femur bone beneath it, resulting in pain.
- Patellar tendonitis (jumper’s knee): It is an injury to the tendon connecting the patella to the shinbone, often caused by repetitive jumping activities.
- Meniscus tear: This injury occurs when the knee's cartilage (meniscus) tears, commonly associated with squat exercises.
"Knee pain can be tricky, but for many it may stem from a weakness or imbalances in other areas of the body, particularly the glutes and hamstrings."
- Jacque Crockford, M.S., C.S.C.S.
Common Workout Mistakes
Certain workout behaviors may not be detrimental to healthy knees but may worsen the pain for people with bad knees.
Exercise-related factors that may aggravate pain in the knees include the following.
1. Eccentric and Concentric Contractions
Knee discomfort is more prominent during eccentric or concentric contractions, depending on the knee injury.
Patellofemoral pain syndrome causes pain during eccentric contractions, while chondromalacia patellae causes pain during both types .
Pay attention to identifying which contraction causes more pain and avoiding it.
2. Knee Valgus
Knee valgus, the inward collapse of the knee, increases stress on the joint. It’s caused by weak glutes, hips, ankles, or natural limb formation.
The knee valgus places excessive strain on tendons and ligaments, leading to chronic wear and tear and sudden pain. Studies link greater knee pain to increased knee valgus .
3. Stress During Transition
The highest stress on knee joints occurs during the transition between concentric and eccentric contractions. Reversing the direction of a heavy load generates significant stress.
Box squats are excellent for eliminating this quick reversal and reducing knee joint stress.
Tips To Prevent Knee Injuries During a Leg Workout
Follow these tips to prevent injuries while working out:
- Warm-up: Ensure you warm up adequately to prepare your body and joints for exercise. A warm-up promotes joint lubrication and improves muscle and joint function.
- Strengthen your glutes and hamstrings: Weak glutes and hamstrings contribute to knee discomfort. Strengthen these muscles to support the posterior chain and reduce stress on the knee.
- Progress slowly: Avoid rushing into heavy weights. Gradual, progressive overload not only builds strength but also prevents injuries. Allow sufficient time for muscle recovery, considering tendons and ligaments grow slower than muscles.
- Prioritize good form: Maintain good form during exercises to combat knee pain. The load is not the main cause of injury; it's the compromised form due to excessive weight.
- Follow your doctor's instructions: If recovering from an injury or surgery, follow medical instructions and complete physical therapy exercises before progressing to these exercises.
What Are Signs of Weak Knees?
Signs of weak knees include instability and frequent pain or discomfort. Other signs may include difficulty with activities that involve bending or bearing weight on the knees and a sensation of the knee giving way or buckling.
What Muscles Should I Strengthen for Bad Knees?
For bad knees, strengthen the muscles that support the knee joint, such as the quadriceps (front thigh muscles), hamstrings (back thigh muscles), glutes (buttock muscles), and calf muscles.
What Leg Exercises To Avoid With Bad Knees?
Avoid high-impact exercises such as running, jumping, and deep squats with bad knees. Additionally, exercises that place excessive stress on the knee joint, like lunges with heavy weights or leg presses with improper form, should be avoided.
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