How to Do Cardio With Bad Knees
By JASON FERRUGGIA
If you've got a history of knee injuries, doing cardio can be problematic, to say the least. Running or jumping rope is probably not a good idea because of the repetitive pounding. When you run, your body absorbs somewhere around seven times your weight with each stride. This means that if you weigh 200 pounds, your knees will be taking 1,400 pounds of pressure every time your foot strikes the ground. Bad knees won't hold up to that kind of abuse for too long.
Riding a bike doesn't provide the same type of pounding, but it still creates a lot of repetitive stress. This leads to more wear and tear on bad joints.
Enter "no-knee-stress" cardio. To do cardio without stressing your knees, you need three specific implements that will allow you to get in great shape, burn body-fat and boost your conditioning without putting any stress on your knees.
Option 1: Battling Ropes
There are several outstanding exercises you can do with battling ropes that won't stress your knees. A few years ago, these ropes were a rarity, but nowadays most gyms have at least one or two pairs of battling ropes.
Ideally, the ropes will be at least 30 feet long (40 is better) and 1.5-2 inches thick. Loop one end around a sturdy, immovable object and then pull out the slack and grab both ends while standing in an athletic stance.
Make sure you have a stopwatch available and use it to do timed rounds with the battling ropes. Twenty seconds of work will be brutally hard for most people. After your twenty seconds is up, rest for anywhere from twenty seconds to a minute or so before moving on to the next set.
Rope slams are my personal favorite variation, as they are the most aggressive. Simply grab both ends of the heavy rope and slam it up and down, hard and fast.
Alternate waves are done by moving your arms up and down rapidly and creating waves with the rope. As the left arm goes up, the right arm goes down, and vice versa.
You can also do in-and-out waves by moving your arms out away from your body and then bringing your hands back together in a rapid, rhythmic fashion. It's kind of like to a rear delt fly and a chest fly back and forth.
To incorporate those three different styles into one workout, simply do them in circuit fashion, starting with slams for twenty seconds, resting briefly, then moving on to alternate waves, followed by another brief rest period, and finally finishing up with in and out waves. Repeat the circuit 2-5 more times for a brief but intense conditioning session.
Option 2: Kettlebell Swings & Snatches
Kettlebell swings strengthen the muscles of your hamstrings, glutes and lower back, while doing a great job of sparing your knees. Proper hip hinging is crucial for anyone who wants to be powerful and athletic. The kettlebell swing does an outstanding job of teaching this essential movement pattern.
Most guys could start with a 44- or 53-pound kettlebell and soon work up to significantly heavier weights. Three to five sets of 20-40 reps will be sufficient. Be sure to maintain a flat back throughout, push your butt back when you go down and drive your hips forward when you come up. Your arms are just hooks and all of the power should be generated by explosive hip extension.
Unlike what you see most people doing in the gym when attempting to do kettlebell swings, you do not want to squat down. That is improper form and will get you injured.
Kettlebell snatches are another excellent "no-knee-stress" form of cardio that will also strengthen the posterior chain while simultaneously building stable, bulletproof shoulders. For these, I recommend starting with a 26- or 35-pound kettlebell. Set a timer for six minutes and do as many reps as you can, alternating arms each set. Write the number down in your training journal and try to improve upon it over time. Eventually, you can work up to a ten-minute block and heavier weights.
Option 3: Sledgehammer Swings
If there's a manlier form of cardio, I've never come across it yet. To do this properly, you need an old tire and an eight-pound sledgehammer. A spare tire you find at the junkyard will be fine, but a huge tractor tire would be significantly better.
For the first set, place your left foot forward, closest to the tire, and your right foot back. Get a tight grip on the sledgehammer with your right hand over your left then swing it up over your right shoulder in a circular motion and rapidly continue downward, striking the tire hard and fast. Repeat for 10-20 reps, then switch sides.
You can also use a stopwatch and do timed sets. Start with 20 seconds on and 40 seconds off for five or six minutes, then work your way up from there.
Each of these forms of "no-knee-stress" cardio can be done as finishers after your main strength training session or you can do them as separate conditioning workouts on off days. Either way, they'll help you get in great shape while keeping your knees feeling good.
Readers — Do you have bad knees? What exercises do you do to get around them? Have you tried any of Jason’s options? Leave a comment below and let us know.
Jason Ferruggia is a professional fitness coach who specializes in high-performance mass development. A former 98-pound weakling, Jason has gained over 60 pounds of muscle since he began his journey more than two decades ago and has helped thousands of others achieve similar results. He has given strength training workshops and lectures around the country and his innovative methods have been featured in numerous magazines and on radio stations such as ESPN and CBS.