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How to Strengthen Legs With Bad Knees

author image Jody Braverman
Jody Braverman is a professional writer and editor based in Atlanta. She studied creative writing at the American University of Paris and received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Maryland. She also received personal trainer certification from NASM and her 200-hour yoga teacher certification from YogaWorks.
How to Strengthen Legs With Bad Knees
How to Strengthen Legs With Bad Knees Photo Credit: Youngoldman/iStock/GettyImages

Painful knee joints can derail your fitness goals and leave you feeling frustrated. A torn ACL or meniscus, arthritis, patellar tendonitis or just soreness in the knees when you workout can make you wary of leg- strengthening exercises for fear you might do further damage.

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Although you should always consult your doctor before exercising with sore knees, there are leg exercises you can do that will strengthen your legs without hurting your knees. You might even find that building leg strength helps lessen your knee pain because the joints are better supported and stabilized.

Tips for Exercising With Sore Knees

You're not going to be able to do what everyone around you in the gym is doing. That's the most important thing to remember. If you want to strengthen your legs and prevent further damage, you'll need to be very careful about the exercises you do.

Other important tips:

Choose low-impact: Plyometrics aren't for you. Stick to exercises that don't include jumping or sudden, explosive movements. Too much impact can cause pain and further damage to sensitive knee joints.

Avoid heavy weights: Lots of extra weight will put unnecessary pressure on the knees. You don't need to lift a lot of weight to build muscle and strength.

Reign in your ego: This goes back to not being able to do what everyone else around you is doing. It doesn't matter. You can get strong without squatting 400 pounds.

Focus on contraction: Contracting the muscles throughout the exercise will give you more bang for your buck with less weight.

Work within your range: If moving your knee in a certain direction causes pain, don't do it. Stay within your comfortable range of motion.

Read more: Causes of Knee Pain When You Straighten Your Leg

Build strong, healthy legs without hurting your knees.
Build strong, healthy legs without hurting your knees. Photo Credit: g-stockstudio/iStock/GettyImages

Best Leg Exercises for Sore Knees

There's no better way to strengthen your knees when you have a diagnosed knee problem than to do a few sessions with a physical therapist. They'll be able to give you specific exercises you can do that will not exacerbate your particular condition.

However, the following exercises are less likely to irritate bad knees. Give each one a try and see what works for you. If an exercise is painful, don't do it.

Glute Bridges

These strengthen your glutes and hamstrings while opening your hips and strengthening your core.

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor hip-distance apart. Keep your feet and knees parallel throughout the exercise.
  2. Contract your core muscles and your glutes. Pressing through your heels, lift your hips up off the ground until your pelvic bone comes in line with your knees.
  3. Squeeze your glutes at the top and pause. Slowly lower down and repeat. 

Reverse Hyperextensions

Reverse hyperextensions are another effective exercise for your glutes that don't use the knees at all.

  1. Lie down on a weight bench with your hips close to the edge. Grip the bench with your hands and squeeze your legs together.
  2. Contract your abdominal muscles to protect your lower back. Lift your legs to about parallel with the ground. Although this is called a hyperextension, you do not need to go above parallel to work the glutes.
  3. Contract your glutes and hold at the top for 3 to 5 seconds. Lower down and repeat.

Single-Leg Deadlifts

This move strengthens the lower leg, hamstrings and glutes and improves balance and coordination. Start with just your bodyweight. If this doesn't cause any pain in your knee, you can hold a dumbbell in one hand.

  1. Stand up tall on one foot with the knee of that leg slightly bent. Contract all the muscles of the standing leg. If you're using a dumbbell, hold it in the opposite hand as your standing leg.
  2. Slowly hinge at the hips, allowing the lifted leg to extend out behind you.
  3. Keeping the back flat, lower your torso down as you raise the lifted leg, bringing both as close to parallel with the ground as you can. Keep your hips level and the bulk of the weight in the heel of your standing leg.
  4. Maintaining the contraction in your standing leg, slowly begin to reverse the movement, bringing your torso erect and your lifted leg inline with your standing leg. Don't touch the lifted foot down, though; go right into your next repetition.
  5. Complete all your reps on one side, then switch to the other leg.

Mini-Band Exercises

Using mini-bands are excellent for gently strengthening the glutes, quads, hamstrings and outer thighs. They come in different levels of resistance, and there are several ways to use them:

Monster Steps

  1. Put the band around your ankles and step your feet apart a little wider than hip-distance. 
  2. Bend your knees slightly and contract your leg and ab muscles.
  3. Take a large step forward with your right foot, then take a large step forward with your left foot so that it lands diagonally in front of your right foot. Repeat in a forward motion for as many reps as desired, then reverse your direction, taking large steps back to the start. 

Side Steps

  1. Place the mini band around your ankles. Bend your knees slightly and keep your torso erect.
  2. Take a large step to the right so that the band stretches to its full elasticity.
  3. Step your left foot in to meet your right right foot. Repeat, moving to the right for as many reps as desired, then reverse the movement so your left leg is moving against the resistance of the band.


  1. Stand perpendicular to a wall and place the band around your ankles.
  2. Using the wall as a support, lift one foot of the ground. Keep the knee of the standing leg slightly bent and the muscles contracted.
  3. Kick the lifted leg behind you against the resistance of the band, contracting your glutes. Go as far as you can, pause, then bring the leg back without touching the foot down. Use a slow and controlled motion.
  4. Repeat, and then switch sides. 

Read more: 4 Reasons Why You've Got Chronic Knee Pain

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