Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your joints. Movement helps deliver synovial fluid, which nourishes your joints with important nutrients and prevents friction between them, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
But not all exercises are good for your joints, and some can do more harm than good, especially if you lack the mobility and/or strength to do them.
"If you have great mobility in all of your joints and have good body control, almost every exercise can be a good movement if you know how to perform it correctly," says Grayson Wickham, PT, DPT, CSCS, founder of Movement Vault. "With that said, there are better exercises than others for specific joints."
From your ankles to your shoulders, experts share which exercises are the worst for each joint — and what to do instead to keep your body healthy and happy.
Be aware of signs that you should stop or back off during exercise. “Any painful clicking, locking or catching is a sign something may be going on in the inside that should be looked at,” says Leada Malek, PT, DPT.
“Swelling, bruising or pain around the joint after or during exercise may also be signs of inflammation and that the moves are too much.”
Several health conditions can affect your joints, including arthritis, lupus, Lyme disease and gout, as well as injuries like sprains. So make sure to talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program.
Skip: Deep Leg Press
Do: Standing Squat
The leg press machine works your quads and glutes, but it can cause hip issues for some. "Deep range of motion leg presses when you lack the prerequisite hip mobility can cause pinching in the front of your hips," Wickham says.
Leg press machines can also limit necessary adjustments or movements in your hips and spine needed to avoid injury, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
A better option to work your quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes is a standing squat, Wickham says. Or try one of these variations: back squat, front squat, dumbbell squat or kettlebell goblet squat. Bonus: Squats also work your core muscles — which you don't get as much of when doing a seated leg press.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand. Start with 3- to 5-pound weights and move up as needed.
- Brace your core as you bend your knees and bend your elbows up, keeping your arms close to your body.
- At the same time, push your hips back and lower your butt back and down, as if you were sitting on a chair. Keep your weight in your heels.
- Continue lowering until your thighs are parallel to the ground, or as low as you can comfortably go. Stay within your pain-free range.
- Push your heels into the ground and stand back up.
Skip: Knee Extension
Do: Single-Leg Squat
Wickham says the seated knee extension machine can put too much pressure on your knees because all of the weight is on your ankles.
This exercise strains your anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), which stabilizes your knee joint, according to a March 2012 article in the Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy. It also puts a lot of pressure on your kneecap and can cause pain or abnormal tracking or movement of the kneecap.
Single-leg squats are a safer and better exercise for strengthening your quadriceps without straining your knees. It also strengthens other muscles that support your knee, including your hamstrings and glutes. In fact, the ACE points out that squats recruit more of your lower-body muscles than knee extensions.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Lift your left leg up off the ground and keep it in front of you either straight or slightly bent. You can keep your arms down at your sides or in front of you for balance.
- Push your hips back and squat down with your right leg, lowering as far as your comfortably can.
- Press your right heel into the ground to stand back up.
- Do the same number of reps on each side.
If the single-leg squat is too challenging for you right now, do a regular squat or dumbbell squat instead (see above).
Skip: Box Jump (Up and Down)
Do: Box Jump to Step Down
Box jumps are a great plyometric exercise that build hip power and strength. However, Wickham says they can put too much pressure on the ankle joint for some people.
"Most people haven't properly built up the calf muscle resilience for the part of the exercise where you jump back down to the ground — and this can lead to pain and injury when performed for a lot of reps," he says.
Instead, Wickham recommends jumping onto the box and stepping back down. As your strength improves, you can progress to jumping up and jumping down.
- Stand in front of a box or step with your feet hip-width apart and knees slightly bent.
- Bend your knees, swing your arms and jump up onto the box.
- Land with both feet at the same time, allowing your knees to bend to absorb the shock.
- Step back with your right foot first, then your left.
- Repeat 3 to 5 times, stepping off first with your right foot, then switch sides for the next rep, stepping down with your left foot first.
Start with a box around 12 inches and move up to 24 inches as your strength and agility improves.
Skip: Behind-the-Neck Lat Pulldown
Do: Lat Pulldown
Lat pulldowns strengthen the latissimus dorsi — the muscle that runs down the sides of your back — hence its name. But you want to avoid the behind-the-neck variation, because it places excess stress on your shoulder joint and can put you as risk for injury, Wickham says.
Instead of doing the behind-the-neck lat pulldown, swap it for a standard lat pulldown, in which you pull the bar in front of you, stopping at chin level. Not only does this put your shoulder joint in a safer position, but it also protects your cervical spine (neck).
- Sit securely in a lat pulldown machine with your knees under the pad (if there is one) and your feet firmly pressing into the ground.
- Engage your core by pulling your rib cage downward and grab the pulldown bar with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Pull the bar down toward your upper chest as far as possible. Focus on moving your elbows down and backward while keeping them relatively close to your ribs during the pulldown.
- Slowly release your arms back overhead to the starting position.
Skip: Floor Push-Up
Do: Elevated Push-Up
Push-ups are one of the best body-weight exercises for strengthening your chest, arms, back and core, but they can put a lot of stress on your wrist joints, especially if you're not able to evenly distribute your weight to your core and lower body.
"Floor exercises like push-ups can be painful," Malek says. "Instead, opt for using dumbbells or handles for a neutral wrist [position] — or elevating your upper body (like on a bench) for less weight-bearing."
Those who have arthritis or a wrist injury can benefit from making this modification, too.
- Start in a high plank, hands shoulder-width apart on a bench, chair or box.
- Brace your core and squeeze your glutes to maintain a straight line with your body. Don't let your hips sag and keep your head in a neutral position, looking a few inches ahead.
- Bend your elbows and lower your body down, pausing at the bottom, before pushing back up.
Skip: Overhead Triceps Extension
Do: Triceps Kickback
"Overhead triceps extensions can be a lot on the elbow joint and triceps tendon," Malek says. This exercise requires you to hold a weight overhead, bend your elbows behind you, then straighten your arms back overhead. In addition to stressing your elbow joint, it can also strain your shoulder joint if you don't have enough mobility.
A better option is the triceps kickback or standing triceps extension exercise, Malek says. This move strengthens the muscles in the back of your arms and protects your joints. "Standing extensions starting with your elbows at the side are a better option for less strain."
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing your body. Start with a 3- to 5-pound dumbbell and work your way up.
- Bend your knees slightly and hinge forward at your hips, keeping your spine straight. This is the starting position.
- Keep your arms close to your body as you straighten your elbows so the weights are slightly behind you. Your body should remain still except for your forearms.
- Bend your elbows to bring your forearms back to the starting position.
Skip: Swap GHD Sit-Up
Do: V Sit-Up
Performing a sit-up on the GHD (glute-hamstring developer) can put undue stress on your spine, Wickham says. To do this exercise, your feet are anchored on the machine as you lean all the way back, hyperextending your spine, and then quickly coming all the way up to touch your toes.
The problem is that it takes your spine to the end range and then uses your core and hip flexors to explosively pull you up. The combination of the speed and hyperextension of your spine could put you at risk for spine injuries.
In addition, an August 2013 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that sit-ups with your feet secured — as with GHD sit-ups — puts more stress on your spine and relies more on your hip flexors to pull you up instead of your abdominal muscles.
Wickham says the V sit-up is a much better way to work your core muscles while keeping your spine in a safe range of motion. This exercise is a challenging move, so you want to make sure you're doing it with proper form.
- Lie on the ground with your arms extended overhead and your legs straight.
- Raise your legs and arms up at the same time.
- Continue coming up to a V position until your hands touch your feet.
- Lower back down to the starting position in a slow and controlled manner.
If this exercise is too difficult, modify it by holding a static V position, either with your arms straight in front of you or resting back on your forearms with your legs at a 45-degree angle.
You can also try a single-leg alternating V-up by following the directions above but only raising one leg at a time and touching it with the opposite hand (ex. right hand to left foot).
How to Keep Your Joints Healthy
Your exercise routine for joint health should include strength training and stretches to improve flexibility and reduce stiffness, as well as aerobic exercise, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
The biggest key to protecting your joints is to ensure that you have good mobility in all of your joints with a good stretching routine. "Having good mobility means that you are able to actively move your joint through the complete range of motion in which it was designed to move in," Wickham says.
"Another key factor when it comes to having healthy, resilient joints is to make sure that the muscles surrounding each of your joints are strong and stable," he says. "Generally, the stronger your muscles around a joint are, the more resilient that joint will be to future injury."
Keep these other joint-health tips in mind when exercising:
- Go with low-impact workouts: Low-impact exercises, such as walking, strength training, and yoga, are gentler on your joints. "If doing impact exercise, be sure to have gradually trained with low-impact into higher levels so your body can tolerate it," Malek says.
- Alternate workout days: "Space out your workouts and target different muscle groups to avoid overtraining, especially if high-impact activity is involved," Malek says.
- Normal soreness versus joint pain: It's normal to feel sore a few days after a workout, but you shouldn't have intense joint pain, Wickham says. "Soreness will typically be located in the muscle, while joint pain will be isolated to a specific spot in a joint."
- Know your limits: Exercise within your pain-free range to avoid excess wear and tear on your joints. "If you don't have the prerequisite range of motion to perform an exercise with good form, you need to limit the range of motion that you perform the exercise in," Wickham says.
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: "Managing Arthritis Pain with Exercise"
- American Council on Exercise: "Is Your Exercise Selection Helping or Hurting Your Clients?"
- Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy:"Anterior Cruciate Ligament Strain and Tensile Forces for Weight-Bearing and Non–weight-Bearing Exercises: A Guide to Exercise Selection"
- American Council on Exercise: "Train This, Not That: The Leg Edition"
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "Abdominal and Hip Flexor Muscle Activity During 2 Minutes of Sit-Ups and Curl-Ups"
- U.S. Library of Medicine: "Synovial Fluid Analysis"