How to Exercise With Bad Knees and Knee Braces

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If you have bad knees, work on other body parts that don't affect your knees.
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Yes, you can work out in a knee brace — but exactly what those workouts look like will vary depending on what sort of brace you're wearing, and why you're wearing it. You might need to focus primarily on your upper body, or you might be able to do almost any exercise you like.

Working Out With Bad Knees

There are two golden rules to working out with bad knees — or really, any injury. The first is that if something hurts, stop doing it right away.

Second, talk to a medical professional before you hit the gym. Exactly which exercises you can safely do depends on the mechanism behind your "bad knees," and a doctor or physical therapist can help you identify the cause, whether it be torn ligaments or meniscus, bursitis, patellofemoral syndrome (aka runner's knee), or even a fracture — all examples from the Mayo Clinic.

Your medical team can also help you decide which type of knee brace is appropriate for you. There are quite a few types of braces to choose from, including the compression knee brace, rehabilitative braces to help you recover from an injury, and functional braces for supporting a knee that was previously injured, as explained by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

If you're not sure how much exercise to do, aim to follow the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. They recommend that otherwise healthy adults get at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity. They also recommend strength-training all your major muscle groups at least twice a week.

Read more: Pros and Cons of an Open Patella Knee Brace

Exercising in a Knee Brace

If you've been cleared to exercise and have a knee support for exercise that still lets you move your knee, you have many exercises to choose from. Consider low-impact cardio such as walking, cycling or pedaling an elliptical trainer.

When it comes to resistance training, you should be able to do almost any upper-body exercise. The following are a few good places to start, along with their analogs on a cable machine or suspension trainer:

  • Bench/chest presses
  • Overhead/shoulder presses
  • Lat pulldowns/pull-ups
  • Back rows
  • Biceps curls
  • Triceps extensions/push-downs

You can probably do many lower-body exercises too, but beware of the leg extension machine. Depending on the specifics of your knee condition, this exercise might be prescribed as part of your rehabilitation — or you might be told to avoid it.

Squats and deadlifts are another hot topic for anyone wearing a knee brace for exercise. Depending on the specifics of your condition, you may need to explore alternative exercises. If you are cleared to do squats, proper attention to form is vital. Key points to watch for include:

  • Make sure your knees track over your ankles (not skewing inward or outward).
  • Lift an appropriate amount of weight, so you're always in control of the motion.
  • Avoid hyperextending your legs — locking them out — at any point during the lift.
  • Limit yourself to a pain-free range of motion. In other words, squat only as deeply as you're able to do without pain.

Immobilizing Knee Brace for Exercise

If you're wearing knee braces that inhibit your knee movement, you may have to focus your cardio and strength-training efforts on your upper body only. One of the most helpful machines for upper-body cardio is the hand bike, also known as a hand ergometer: Just as the name suggests, it's a bike you pedal with your hands.

You can also improvise an upper-body cardio workout by shadowboxing (start with only your hands, and then add boxing gloves or very light hand weights for extra resistance), using battle ropes or doing rope pulls.

Similarly, you'll need to focus strength training on your upper body. As long as you can safely maneuver yourself into position on a weight bench or inside a strength-training machine, you can do almost any of the upper-body workouts already mentioned.

Read more: 12 Exercises That Are Safe to Do With Knee Pain

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