If you're dealing with knee pain but want to make progress with your strength gains, the good news is that you don't have to nix all lower-body exercises from your routine. Low-impact exercises can help target your leg muscles without putting a lot of pressure on your knees.
When you overdo high-impact exercises, like running and jumping, it can put repeated stress on the patellar tendon — which connects your kneecap to your shinbone — which may lead to a condition called patellar tendonitis, aka jumper's knee, according to the Mayo Clinic. Patellar tendonitis is one of the most common causes of knee pain.
The good news is you can help treat knee pain from patellar tendonitis by strengthening your quads, calves, glutes and hamstrings, per the Mayo Clinic. When you strengthen these muscles, they help take the load off your knees and stabilize the joint.
For example, as gravity pulls the knee down while doing a squat or lunge, the soleus — the calf muscle that runs down the length of the leg — lengthens and helps slow down the ankle and knee as they bend, lessening the impact, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Plus, strong quads can help the hip bend during exercise, which activates the glutes and minimizes stress on the knee joint.
Try These Low-Impact Leg Exercises
Here are some of the best low-impact moves to fire up your hamstrings, quads, glutes and calves.
Move 1: Reverse Lunge
- Stand tall with your feet together and your hands by your hips.
- Take a big step back with your right foot and lower down into a lunge until your front and back legs form 90-degree angles. Make sure your front knee is stacked directly over your left ankle, and your back knee is directly under your right hip.
- Push off of your front foot to stand back up and return to the starting position.
- Repeat on the left leg, and continue alternating until you've completed 8 reps on each side.
Move 2: Kettlebell Swing
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and set a kettlebell a few inches in front of you, forming a triangle with the kettlebell and your feet on the ground.
- Hinge your hips back and hold the kettlebell with both hands with a loose grip.
- Pushing your butt back and keeping your back flat, hike the kettlebell between your legs.
- As you straighten your legs to stand, use power from your hips to swing the kettlebell up to chest height.
- Using the bell's momentum, swing the weight back between your legs and under your hips as you sink into your hips and bend your knees.
- Complete 15 swings.
Move 3: Sliding Hamstring Curl
- Sit down on the ground with your knees bent and place two sliders under your heels. If you don't have sliders, you can use a pair of hand towels or two pieces of paper.
- Lie on your back with your arms by your sides and your hands flat on the ground. Extend your legs in front of you.
- Pull your heels toward your butt, lifting your hips and lower back off the ground to come to a glute bridge. Squeeze your glutes at the top.
- Lower your butt back to the ground, and extend your legs back out in front of you to return to the starting position without allowing your legs to touch the floor.
- Complete 10 reps.
Move 4: Lateral Lunge
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your hands by your hips.
- Take a big step to the side with your left leg and hinge your hips back, bending your left knee. Keep your left knee in line with your left foot.
- Push off of your left leg to lean to the right and do a lateral lunge with your right leg.
- Then, push off of your right leg to return to the starting position.
- Complete 8 reps on each leg.
Move 5: Single-Leg Deadlift
- Start standing and hold a dumbbell in each hand by your sides.
- Keeping your right knee slightly bent and your back flat, hinge your hips back as you kick your left leg behind you for balance. Lower the dumbbells until your torso is parallel to the ground.
- Press your right foot firmly on the ground to stand and pull your left leg forward to the starting position.
- Complete 8 reps on each side without allowing the free leg to touch the ground.
Move 6: Hip Thrust
- Sit on the ground with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground, hip-width apart. Rest the bottom of your shoulder blades on the edge of a bench, couch or chair. Cross your arms in front of your chest.
- Keeping your neck long, press into your heels and lift your hips off the ground to come up to a bridge. As you do this, your neck and shoulders should move onto the bench.
- Pause at the top, and then slowly lower your hips back down until they are hovering just a few inches off the ground.
- Then, press into your heels and lift your hips up for the next rep.
- Complete 12 reps.
Move 7: Goblet Squat
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold one end of a dumbbell with both hands at chest height.
- Keeping your chest proud, hinge your hips back and lower your butt down into a squat until your thighs are parallel to the ground, or as low as you can comfortably go.
- Press through your feet to stand back up.
- Complete 10 reps.