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9 Exercises That Can Hurt Your Knees (And How to Modify Them)

author image Linda Melone
Linda Melone is a seasoned writer and certified strength and conditioning specialist specializing in fitness and health. She also holds a B.S. in nutrition. Her work appears on WebMD, MSN Health, Shape.com, AARP, Oxygen and in many other online and print publications.

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9 Exercises That Can Hurt Your Knees (And How to Modify Them)

Don’t let knee pain take the joy out of your usual workout! There are ways to modify some of the most common exercises that cause your knees to hurt (like lunges, squats and jumping jacks for starters). “General exercise modifications include decreasing speed, increasing control or avoiding deep knee bends,” says Eugene Yim, M.D., sports medicine physician with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, California. The following nine modifications work on one or more of these principles to help keep knee pain at bay.

Before You Start


Since the cause of the pain may vary -- from the bony structures of the knee joint to the kneecap to ligaments and cartilage -- it’s important to see a physician for a diagnosis before attempting exercises on your own. “It’s generally unsafe to work out through the pain if you have symptoms of instability or swelling,” says Dr. Eugene Yim. Symptoms of instability include giving out, shifting, catching or locking up. And keep in mind that not all modifications work for all types of knee pain, so it’s better to ease off when your knees start to hurt during certain exercises than to do further damage.

Related: The Best Workout for Bad Knees

1. Standard Lunges


Traditional lunges are often the first exercise to get cut from a workout plan if knee pain is an issue. But by ensuring perfect form and a minor adjustment you may be able to keep them on the roster. Michele Olson, Ph.D., professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama, suggests the following modifications: 1. Put the toes of your lead foot against the wall, and make sure your other leg is as far back as comfortable. This ensures your knee does not overbend on the lead leg. 2. Place one to two yoga blocks (or something that raises your knee) under the back knee. This helps keep the front knee at less than a 90-degree angle.

Related: 22 New Lunges to Supercharge Leg Day

2. Standard Squats


Traditional squats involve lowering your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor, a position that can trigger knee pain in some people. Olson suggests the following modifications to lessen the risk: 1. Do half squats by only lowering your body part of the way down (go as low as is comfortable for you). 2. Do the yoga chair position, an isometric half squat. 3. Position your feet in a very wide stance with your toes turned out (a sumo squat), which requires you to use more of your glute muscles and helps keep your knees from tracking straight forward. Instead, they’ll track slightly out to the side, which reduces the risk of knee pain.

Related: 12 Essential Squat Variations to Try

3. Jumping Jacks


High-impact jumping jacks can be tough on weak knees. Reduce the impact by taking out the jump. Either of these low-impact versions lessens stress on the knees: 1. Do toe-tap jacks by tapping your right foot out, then your left foot. Alternate feet. 2. From a standing position, lift your left leg out to the side as you bring your arms overhead as if doing a traditional jumping jack. Set your left foot down and step your right foot in (so you're stepping to the left). Repeat on the other side, alternating sides.

4. Curtsy Lunges


This exercise can be extremely challenging if you’re experiencing active knee pain, says Dr. Eugene Yim. “In general, I would advise leaving these out of the workout if you’re experiencing significant pain in the knees.” But if the pain comes and goes (and isn’t too severe), these tips may help: 1. To lessen the load on the knee, focus on controlling the movements rather than speed. 2. When bending into the curtsy, avoid too deep a knee bend, and avoid flexing the knee past a 90-degree angle. 3. Or do modified reverse lunges instead. Imagine you are standing on a balance beam with one foot directly behind the other. Only lunge halfway down.

5. Mountain Climbers


This total-body exercise can stress out your knees if done traditionally. But these modifications reduce the risk of knee pain, says Pete McCall, senior advisor for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). 1. Instead of starting with hands on the floor, place hands on a bench. This puts your hands up higher and reduces the knee angle when bringing the legs forward. 2. Reduce how far the knee is brought forward. You’re likely to experience more discomfort the closer the knee is to the chest. 3. Or skip it altogether. “If knee pain is acute and uncomfortable, a better exercise would be walking or jogging in place without bringing knees up high,” says McCall.

Related: 5 Fat-Melting Mountain Climber Variations

6. Burpees


If you’re looking for an excuse to avoid burpees, minor knee pain won’t be a legit one with these modifications. 1. Use a step platform or another stable, raised surface for your upper body. This elevates the plane of the body from horizontal to slightly elevated, allowing for less force through the knees when performing the exercise. 2. Simply slow it down. Slowly squat down, put your hands on the floor, then step back one leg at a time, hold a high plank for three to five seconds, and then return to standing. “The movement doesn’t need to be fast to be effective,” says ACE advisor Pete McCall.

Related: 15 New Burpees You Must Try

7. Lateral Lunges


Stepping and side-to-side lunging can put a lot of strain on your knees. Try these modifications instead: 1. When stepping out, make sure both feet are parallel as the right foot lands on the ground, and reach forward with both arms while pushing your hips behind you. 2. When stepping out, use your left hand to reach for the right foot. This helps improve hip flexion and reduces the amount of knee flexion. 3. Or similar to the squat modification, simply step out slowly and lower your hips only halfway.

8. Lateral Runs


Used often in sports drills, lateral runs can wreak havoc on knees. These modifications and cues can help lessen the risk. 1. Decrease your speed and use a flat ladder with rungs rather than elevated hurdles. 2. Keep your hips slightly bent. When shuffling to the right, plant the right foot on the floor and pull yourself to the right while using the left foot to push the ground away. “A good shuffle is an automatic combination of half pulling with the lead foot (in this case, the right when moving to the right) and half pushing with the left foot (when moving to the right),” says ACE advisor Pete McCall.

Related: A 35-Minute HIIT Workout That Won't Hurt Your Knees

9. Glute Kickbacks


This exercise is great for shaping and toning your booty! But it can be more of a pain in the butt if it causes a pain in the knee! Modifications for this one are similar to those for mountain climbers. 1. Instead of placing your elbows on the ground on all fours, use a bench, which keeps the knees off the ground and reduces the amount of knee flexion. Lean forward on the bench, bend the leg at the knee and push back through the heel while squeezing the glute muscles. 2. Stand up, balance on the right foot, keep the left knee slightly bent and push back through the left heel while squeezing the glute. This activates the muscle without the need to be on the floor.

What Do YOU Think?


Do you have knee pain? Which exercises cause you the most discomfort? Have you cut any out of your workout because of the pain? Will you try these modifications in your exercise routine this week? If you do try any of them, let us know in the comment section below if they reduced your pain!

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