Bad Knees? Try These 14 Knee-Strengthening Exercises

You may not realize just how much your knees do for you until they stop working properly. But anyone who's ever had knee pain knows just how debilitating it can be. While you might be tempted to sit on the couch with an ice pack and wish away the pain, getting up and doing certain knee-strengthening exercises can actually help alleviate certain types of knee pain.

Adding few strategic stretches and strengthening exercises to your workout routine can help alleviate knee pain. (Image: Photos: Corey Hartford, Apparel: Eddie Bauer)

Can You Exercise With Knee Pain?

There's no easy answer to whether or not you should be working out with knee pain. It all depends on what's causing the pain and how severe it is. When in doubt, sit it out until you check in with your doctor or physical therapist, especially if the pain is caused by an injury.

But in general, if the pain you're experiencing is due to the wear and tear of everyday tasks or simply getting older, exercising is exactly what you should be doing. The key to prevention of and recovery from knee injuries is exercise, says Alejandro Rojas, head of fitness at Health LA.

Before You Get Started

As with any workout, it's important not to jump in cold. You want to give your muscles, tendons and joints ample opportunity to get acclimated to movement before you get serious about your workout.

Aim for at least a five-minute warm-up. Start with a few minutes of walking around before transitioning to dynamic stretches (stretches that involve moving as opposed to static holds) and mobility exercises (taking a joint through its full range of motion). These can be low-impact high knees, butt kicks, hip circles or some of the moves mentioned below.

Warning

Always consult your doctor, orthopedist or physical therapist before beginning any exercise regimen, and if you feel any pain while doing these exercises, stop immediately.

The Best Knee-Strengthening Exercises

The best moves you can do for your knees involve two key components: stretching and strengthening. And not just the muscles around that achy joint. It's important to target the muscles surrounding nearby joints (aka your hips and ankles) as well, since tightness or weakness in one of these spots can affect your entire lower body.

Do the following stretches and exercises from Rojas and Maurice Williams, owner of Move Well Fitness Academy. Just be careful: These exercises are only meant for non-contact injuries caused by muscle weakness and imbalance.

1. Overhead Squat Assessment

Start with an overhead squat assessment to see where knee imbalances are. (Image: Photos: Corey Hartford, Apparel: Eddie Bauer)

You might be thinking, "Squats? Really? But my knees already hurt!" Unless your doctor or physical therapist has told you otherwise, a simple squat can actually help you assess where your strengths and weaknesses lie within your knee joint.

  1. Bend your knees and sink your hips back as if you were sitting in a chair while raising your arms over your head.
  2. "Look for the knees to do two things: move in (adduction) or move out (abduction)," says Williams.
  3. Then check to see if your knees collapse inward or bow outward.
  • If your knees collapse inward, stretch your calves, inner thighs, hamstrings and hip muscles and strengthen your shin and glute muscles, he says.
  • If your knees move outward, stretch your calves, glutes and hamstrings and strengthen your inner thighs, back of knee and glute muscles.

2. Calf Stretch

Stretch your calf to relieve the tension that's potentially causing knee pain. (Image: Photos: Corey Hartford, Apparel: Eddie Bauer)

The knee is a "dummy joint," (don't worry — that's not an insult!), meaning it doesn't operate on its own, says Williams. Instead, it works with the hip and ankle joints to help you move. Stretching your calf muscle and getting it to relax will take some of the undue stress off the knee, Williams says.

  1. Brace yourself with both hands against a wall as you step one foot a few feet in front of the other.
  2. Bend the front knee, keeping it stacked over the front foot, but keep the back leg straight. You should feel the stretch in the calf of the leg that's behind you.
  3. Hold the stretch statically for 30 to 60 seconds for one to two sets.

3. Quadriceps Stretch

Your quads can also cause strain on your knee joint, resulting in pain. (Image: Photos: Corey Hartford, Apparel: Eddie Bauer)

More frequently called your quads, your quadriceps are made up of a group of four muscles located on the front side of your leg. These are the muscles responsible for extending the knee joint while you walk, run, jump, squat or move in basically any other way. Stretching your quads forces them to stop holding on so tightly to your knee, alleviating a potential source of pain.

  1. Stand and bend your left knee so your left foot reaches toward your left glute.
  2. Grab your left foot with your left hand.
  3. Hold for 30 to 45 seconds for one to two sets.

4. Reclined Piriformis Stretch

Adding few strategic stretches and strengthening exercises to your workout routine can help alleviate knee pain. (Image: Photos: Corey Hartford, Apparel: Eddie Bauer)

Though you may have never heard of your piriformis muscle before, if you've ever had a pain in your butt (literally), it could be the culprit. "The piriformis muscle typically compensates for other muscles in your hip, which can cause knee pain," says Williams. "But if the piriformis relaxes, the knee can relax." And that means you can relax, too.

  1. Lie on your back with your right leg flat on the floor and your left leg raised and knee bent at 90 degrees.
  2. Take your left foot and bring it to your right side.
  3. Hold for 30 to 45 seconds for one to two sets.

5. Inner-Thigh Stretch

Make sure you're not putting too much pressure on your bent knee with this stretch. (Image: Photos: Corey Hartford, Apparel: Eddie Bauer)

If you notice your legs bending inward on a lot of exercises (or on the overhead squat assessment), you'll want to spend some quality time doing this stretch. It's also a perfect stretch for runners, who are notorious for having overuse injuries in the knees.

  1. Stand with your legs several feet apart — wider than hip distance.
  2. Shift your weight to your right side and bend your right knee.
  3. Keeping your left foot on the floor, feel the stretch through your left inner thigh.
  4. Support yourself with your hands on the ground if needed.
  5. Hold for 30 to 45 seconds for one to two sets.

6. Reclined Hamstring Stretch

You can handle relieving knee pain while lying down. (Image: Photos: Corey Hartford, Apparel: Eddie Bauer)

Here's a little test for you: Lie on your back and lift one leg straight out in front of you while keeping it straight. How high can you lift it? "You should be able to lift your leg at least to 90 degrees," says Williams. "If not, your hamstrings are too tight, which shortens and pulls the muscles in your knee and affects the joint." Try this stretch for some much-needed relief.

  1. Start on your back with both legs extended along the floor.
  2. Lift your right leg up as high as you can without bending your knee or lifting your other leg.
  3. Hold on to either the back of your thigh or your calf and continue to pull your leg toward your torso for 30 to 45 seconds for one to two sets.

7. Calf Raise

Keep a slight bend in your knee during this exercise. (Image: Photos: Corey Hartford, Apparel: Eddie Bauer)

The muscles of the calf and shin don't usually make it onto the cover of fitness magazines, but they do play an integral role in helping your knee joint function properly. (Not every muscle group can be as sexy as the abs, and that's OK!)

So after warming up with the calf stretch, do a few sets of calf raises to help strengthen your calves and shins and stabilize your ankle joint. You can either stand on the edge of a step or box or flat on the floor. You can also perform these as a single-leg exercise for more of a challenge.

  1. Start standing flat on your feet. If you're on a step, let your heels hang off the edge.
  2. Lift your heels so that you're balancing on your toes, and then lower back down and repeat without touching the floor.
  3. Perform 12 to 20 reps (or six to 10 on each side) at a slow tempo for one to three sets.

8. Single-Leg Deadlift

You can do a single-leg deadlift with or without weights. (Image: Photos: Corey Hartford, Apparel: Eddie Bauer)

The tried-and-true deadlift is made even more effective on your knees by balancing on one leg. The deadlift strengthens the entire backs of your legs, helping prevent other muscles from compensating, wearing out and causing pain, says Rojas. However, if you've never done deadlifts, if your knees are too weak or if your balance isn't stable, start with standard deadlifts on two feet.

  1. Stand with both feet hip-distance apart and a dumbbell or barbell in each hand (you can also do this without weights).
  2. Shift your weight to your right foot and hinge at your hip to bend forward so that your torso is parallel to the floor.
  3. Extend your arms straight out from your shoulders and let them hang toward the ground.
  4. Using only your hamstrings and glutes, contract the muscles in the back of your leg and stand up.
  5. Perform six to 10 reps on each side at a slow tempo for one to three sets.

9. Supine Bridge Kicks

Make sure to keep your core tight and your glutes squeezed. (Image: Photos: Corey Hartford, Apparel: Eddie Bauer)

Bridge kicks are the perfect lower-body exercise when your knees are taken out of the workout equation. They not only strengthen your glutes, hamstrings and core, but adding the kicks also recruits your hamstrings without putting the raised knee under a lot of pressure, says Rojas.

  1. Lie on your back with your arms by your side and your knees bent and pointing toward the ceiling.
  2. Lift your hips and back off the floor so that your weight is in your shoulder blades, arms and feet.
  3. Shift your weight into your left foot and raise your right foot off the ground so that your leg is extended out at a 45-degree angle to the floor, contracting your quadriceps as you do, but without locking your knee.
  4. Slowly bring your right foot back to the starting position, but don't let it touch the floor.
  5. Continue for six to 10 total reps on each leg at a slow tempo for one to three sets.

10. Side-Lying Leg Raise

Take it back to '80s workout videos with the side-lying leg raise. (Image: Photos: Corey Hartford, Apparel: Eddie Bauer)

No two days ever seem to be the same if you have a knee injury. One day you're feeling like Superman; the next day you're flat on your back. These next three exercises are a gradual progression that all work the gluteus medius (outer thigh), says Williams.

That way, you can choose your variation depending on how you're feeing. It's important to take these reps slowly so that your muscles spend more time under tension, which helps them grow stronger and more stable.

  1. Lie on your side with your body in a straight line and a hand in front of you for support. Bring your feet forward just slightly if you need more stability.
  2. Lift the top leg several inches from the bottom leg for one count, hold at the top for two counts, and then slowly lower it for four counts.
  3. Hover the top leg just above the leg on the floor and repeat.
  4. Perform 12 to 20 reps on each side at this tempo for one to three sets.

11. Clams

Not only will this exercise help with knee pain, but it'll make your booty look great too! (Image: Photos: Corey Hartford, Apparel: Eddie Bauer)

This is hands-down the best exercise for the gluteus medius, says Williams. This variation is more focused than the side-lying leg raise, which allows you to use adjacent muscles to help lift the leg. If this exercise feels too strenuous, stick with the side-lying leg raise until you're strong enough.

  1. Start lying on your side with your knees bent and slightly in front of you.
  2. Keeping your feet together, use your outer-thigh muscles to separate your knees several inches.
  3. Use the same one-two-four count as with the side-lying leg lifts.
  4. Perform 12 to 20 reps on each side at this tempo for one to three sets.

12. Resistance Band Walking

A resistance band ups the ante on this functional exercise. (Image: Photos: Corey Hartford, Apparel: Eddie Bauer)

Just like you had to crawl before you walked as a kid, the previous two exercises have led you to this one. Resistance band walking takes the gluteus medius work of the previous two exercises and adds the functional element of walking, says Williams. It's the most advanced version of the gluteus medius exercises in this series, so it's OK to stick with the other two until you work up to this one.

  1. Stand up straight with knees slightly bent.
  2. Either place a resistance band just above your knees or ankles (not on them) or take a long resistance band and wrap it under your feet, holding one handle in each hand.
  3. Take a step to the right with your right foot and follow with the left.
  4. Continue walking sideways for 10 steps before walking back to the left for 10 steps.
  5. Repeat for one to three sets.

13. Straight-Leg Raises

When it comes to dealing with knee pain, where there's a will, there's a way. (Image: Photos: Corey Hartford, Apparel: Eddie Bauer)

If knee pain ever does knock you flat on your back, give this exercise a try while you're down there. This exercise primarily targets the quadriceps and hip flexors, though if you resist on the way down, you'll also incorporate your hamstrings and glutes, says Rojas.

  1. Lie on your back with your feet extended flat along the floor and your arms by your side.
  2. Use your quads and hip flexors to raise your leg up to 90 degrees, pressing into your arms for stability.
  3. Hold before lowering down slowly, focusing on using your hamstrings and glutes to lower the leg rather than letting gravity drag it down.
  4. Perform six to 10 reps on each side at a slow tempo for one to three sets.

14. Stationary Lunge

Don't worry if you can't do lunges right now. Make it a goal to work up to them. (Image: Photos: Corey Hartford, Apparel: Eddie Bauer)

Before you scoff at the idea of doing lunges with your tired, achy knees, consider this: Although you might not be jumping straight into lunges on day one, the goal of your rehab regimen should be to strengthen your joints to the point where you can do lunges without pain, says Williams. Plus, lunges are one of the best lower-body exercises you can do to target all the muscles in your legs.

  1. Stand with your hands on your hips for balance.
  2. Step forward a few feet and bend both knees so that they are at 90-degree angles. Don't let your front knee go over your front foot.
  3. Push off your front foot and return to standing.
  4. Do six to 10 reps on each leg or 12 to 20 reps alternating legs for one to three sets.
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