Every so often, it's OK to push through a tough workout. But when it comes to your knees, there's not much gain to your pain.
Pain is your body telling you something isn't right, according to Joanie Johnson, CPT, a certified personal trainer and pre- and postnatal corrective exercise specialist. And if you often feel tension or pain in your knees during a workout, it may be time for a more tactical approach to your lower-body workouts.
"In my experience, the two most common causes for weak or 'bad' knees are poor alignment and not utilizing the glutes properly," Johnson says. "When the glutes are weak, people tend to overload the knee joint when bending, squatting and moving through their day-to-day activities."
Firing up your backside is often the fix for eliminating knee discomfort. The good news is that there are plenty of pain-free ways to sculpt and strengthen your lower body.
Designed by Johnson, this 20-minute workout can help build major muscle in your legs and glutes without adding strain on your knees. During this session, you run through a warm-up, do each circuit twice and wrap up with a cool-down routine.
Run through this entire low-impact workout — demonstrated by physical therapists and personal trainers Sam Chan, DPT, and Winnie Yu, DPT — making sure to include the warm-up and cooldown to keep your muscles and joints injury-free.
Check out more of our 20-minute workouts here — we’ve got something for everyone.
Move 1: Deep Breathing
- Stand tall.
- Inhale through your nose, filling your belly and ribs.
- Exhale out your nose.
“Starting with breath awareness is really important for anyone that is prone to holding tension or for people who experience pain anywhere in their body during a workout,” Johnson says.
Move 2: Hip Circle
- Start standing.
- Raise your right knee until it's in line with your hips. Keep your left leg rooted in the ground
- Leading with your knee, open up your hip to the side and rotate in a circle until your knee is back tot he starting position.
- Reverse the motion, closing your hip.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
Move 3: Tailbone Tuck
- Stand tall, feet at hip-width distance.
- Gently draw your navel in toward your spine and tuck your pelvis toward your heels.
- Pause here for a moment.
- Return to a neutral spine and repeat.
This move is important to increase your range of motion, improve joint mobility and engage your glutes during the workout, Johnson says.
Move 4: Lateral Step
- Stand tall with your feet at hip-width distance.
- Take a step to your right.
- Take a step to your left.
- Continue alternating at a moderate speed to increase blood flow.
To make this move more challenging, you can turn it into a lateral band walk by adding placing a resistance band around your ankles.
Move 5: Stationary March
- Stand tall with legs at hip-width distance.
- Keeping your left foot rooted, draw your right knee up until it's in line with your hip.
- Bring your right foot back down and raise your left knee.
- Alternate legs and increase your pace.
- Continue at a quick speed.
After you finish every exercise in this circuit, repeat the whole thing for a total of 2 rounds, Johnson says. Rest for 60 to 120 seconds between rounds.
Move 1: Sumo Squat Pulse
- Start in a wide “dancer's second position” with your feet wider than hip-width distance, toes pointed out.
- Bend your knees slightly, pushing your hips back.
- Straighten your legs and return to standing.
- Quickly drop back into the half-squat position.
- Pulse up and down until you complete all your reps.
Try to pulse your sumo squat for the full time but if you start to fatigue, take a quick break before dropping back into your squat.
Move 2: Sumo Squat Heel Raise
- Stand with your feet outside of hip-width distance, toes pointed out.
- Bend your knees slightly and push your hip back, lowering into a half squat.
- Holding this position, lift your heels several inches off the ground.
- Lower your heels back to the ground.
Move 3: Standing Calf Raise
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees straight.
- Lift your heels off the ground and raise up onto your toes.
- Pause here for a moment.
- Lower your heels back to the ground.
Move 4: Wall Sit
- Lean your back against a wall.
- Keep your chest open and your shoulders above your hips.
- Slowly step your feet away from the wall, keeping your weight in your heels (not in the toes).
- Bend your knees and slowly lower your butt towards the ground until your knees are in line with your hips.
- Pause here.
Move 5: Squat to Calf Raise
- Standing with feet a little wider than hip-width apart, push your hips back, keep your weight in your heels and sit back into a shallow squat.
- As you return to standing, lift your heels up to balance on your toes.
“Adjust your alignment to make sure you feel this in your glutes, not your knees. You may have to pitch your weight forward a bit,” Johnson says.
After you finish every exercise in this circuit, repeat the whole thing for a total of 2 rounds, resting for 60 to 120 seconds between rounds.
Move 1: Side-Lying Leg Press
- Lie down on your side. Rest yourself on your bottom forearm with your elbow bent and aligned under your shoulder.
- Bend your bottom leg under you for support and extend your top leg. Your hips should be stacked.
- Engaging your glutes and thighs, lift and lower your top leg, keeping your knee straight and your foot flexed.
Move 2: Parallel Pulse
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Step your right leg behind you and line your feet up as if you are standing on parallel train tracks.
- Drive your weight into your left (front heel) as you lift your right (back) leg up and down in small pulses.
- Repeat on the opposite leg.
Move 3: Clamshell
- Lie on your side so that your hips are comfortably stacked one on top of the other and bend your knees at a 45-degree angle.
- Keep your feet together as you raise your top knee as high as you can. Don't let your lower leg leave the floor.
- Pause and squeeze your butt at the top of the movement, then slowly lower.
After you finish your circuits, don't skip your cooldown! Run through each of these moves once to keep your body injury-free.
Move 1: Figure Four Stretch
- Lie on your back and cross you right foot over your left thigh, bending your left knee.
- Pull the back of your left leg gently toward your chest.
- When you feel a comfortable stretch, hold.
- Switch sides and repeat.
Move 2: Extended Leg Stretch
- Start in a seated position on the floor.
- Stretch both legs straight out in front of you.
- Raise your arms above your head, take a breath and bend forward to reach toward your toes.
Move 3: Open Leg Stretch
- Start in a seated position on the floor with your legs wide and stretched out to the sides.
- Reach toward your right toes and hold.
- Repeat on the left leg.
Move 4: Butterfly Stretch
- Sit upright with the soles of the feet together, knees out to the side.
- Bend forward and hold.