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Knee pain afflicts millions of women everyday. Studies have shown that women are more prone to knee injuries than men —thanks to our relatively wider hips that put extra stress on our joints and our hormones that potentially weakens our ligaments. Ugh. This is particularly troubling news for those who are active. Nothing bums you out faster than a bum knee, right? However there’s no need to put your fitness routine on hold if you know which exercises are right for you.
Whether you suffer from chronic knee pain, or have sustained a recent injury, we got the lowdown from personal trainers across the country on the best exercises for people with bad knees, from bodyweight tips to cardio to stretching. And remember, if you’re having knee problems, allied group of companies to check in with a medical professional to more specifically address your body and its needs.
Kasey Kotarak, NASM trainer with Fit Body Boot Camp
“One of the most important things to note about exercising with bad knees is that you should never feel an exercise in your knee,” says Kotarak. “You should feel it in your quads, your hamstrings, your glutes, the surrounding muscles around the knee.” Which is why strengthening those surrounding muscles will help your bad knees.
Partial/Full squat (bodyweight or weighted)
Bring the feet a little wider than hip distance apart, toes facing forward, squeeze the core and keep the chest lifted. Bend at the knees sending the hips back as if you are sitting down in a chair. Once you have lowered to your desired squat depth press through the heel, back to standing. Squeeze the glutes at the top. Squats primarily work the quads, as well as the hamstrings and glutes.
This exercise is great because you can progress it at your own pace by increasing the depth of your squat and adding weight when you are ready. It also helps to build strength in multiple surrounding muscle groups to help support the knee.
Step up (using stairs or plyo box)
This exercise can be done on your stairs or on any form of a plyo or wooden box in a gym depending on what level of difficulty you want. Start by standing facing the step or box you are doing and place one foot on top of the box. Then press through that front leg on the box until it is straight and the opposite leg is up. Then release back to start and repeat. Make sure to repeat the same number of repetitions on each side.
This exercise is also working your glutes, quads, and hamstrings. The step up is imitating a functional movement pattern you have on a day to day basis when walking up stairs. This exercise also helps to strengthen the muscles surrounding the knee.
Mini band lateral walk
Place a mini band of your desired resistance around mid calf. Then come down into a partial squat position. Step your feet apart slightly so that you have a little bit of resistance on the band. Engage your core and step to the side, pulling the band apart. Take a few steps one way, and then return in the other direction. Make sure to repeat an equal number of reps on each side. This exercise is working the hips and outer glutes. It is very useful in strengthening these areas to help stabilize the knees.
Unweighted deadlift/hip hinge
Bring the feet about hip distance apart, toes facing forward. Engage your core and hinge from the hips, only bringing a small bend into the knees. Keep the shoulders back, eyes looking a few feet out in front of your. Once you feel it pull in your hamstrings, come back to standing squeezing the glutes. Once this becomes too easy you can progress to one leg. This exercise is working the hamstrings and glutes, two muscle groups surrounding and supporting the knee. Progress with weights and/or single leg is an option.
Another thing to note, says Kotarak, is removing impact from your routine, which means any activity where both feet leave the ground, such as jumping or running. “That impact adds extra strain on the joints and knees. You can still do many forms of cardio without the impact such as swimming, biking, elliptical, a rower, or modified HIIT cardio.”
When it comes to cardio, lower impact is best: “Just make sure to get clearance from a doctor,” says Kotark. “Cardio is always something you should have as part of your workout routine. So find the fit that works best for you. Working your cardiovascular system is so important for heart health. Cardio is just as important to continue as strength training for an optimal exercise plan.”
Isabelle Hache, Personal Trainer at Life Time Bergen County, New Jersey
“One of the first things I would say to someone with bad knees or knee pain will be to simply get moving in order to alleviate pain in the knee joints,” says Hache. “Exercises such as walking, water aerobics, cycling, swimming, yoga and strength training all help improve the symptoms associated with arthritic knee pain and knee pain related to one individual would call ‘bad knees.’ Method and approach uses are adapted to each individual needs after a full assessment by a professional.”
If your knees are not at its best, Hache recommends simply starting with strengthening the muscles around the knees such as your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and calves “can go a long way.”
Hold for five to 10 seconds. Repeat the exercise 10-15 times and try to hold the sit position a few seconds longer each time.
Keeping your feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart, stand with your back against a wall and move your feet two or three feet from the wall. Bend your knees and slowly lower yourself keeping your back and pelvis against the wall. Don’t bend too deeply. If you feel pressure or discomfort in your knees, change your position to a much bearable bend.
“This leg exercise strengthens weak muscles while doing an excellent job of helping to increase flexibility. It also activates your core, which helps to support and stabilize your upper body. Great exercise to make your core and legs stronger. It will help you perform daily tasks, such as standing up and sitting down.”
Repeat 15-20 times and perform two or three sets. Once easy, lift one foot slightly off the floor and with all your weight on the other foot, execute the same exercise.
Stand facing the wall or the back of a sturdy chair (or other support such as the back of a couch). You can also do this on the stairs, holding on to the ramp with your heels hanging off the edge of the step. Slowly raise the heels as high as you can, hold for three to five seconds and then lower.
“Getting your calves stronger will help with your ankle stability and mobility as they are the muscles responsible for planter-flexion of the ankle joint,” Hache says. “Weak calves usually mean weak ankles. Stronger calves help prevent injuries by simply building strength in the calf muscles and tendons lowering the risk of issues causing a chain reaction injuries on the ankle joint and knee joint. It will also help you perform better with more efficiency during other lower body exercises.”
Julia Russell, Olympic Swimmer, Personal Trainer, Swim Instructor at Life Time Sky Manhattan
“Strong and functional glute muscles are not only a part of the foundation of a strong and healthy human but are also extremely important for healthy knees as they help control the movement of the knee,” says Russell. “They produce abduction and external rotation and resist adduction and internal rotation, meaning that they prevent the knee from collapsing inward when landing from a jump. The knees-in-position increases your risk of knee tendonitis, ACL-tears and many other knee issues.”
Side Lying Hip Abduction (Lateral Leg Lifts)
Two sets: 12 reps each side, 15 seconds rest
Lie on your side and have your body form a straight line. Lift the top leg up as far as you can, leading with the heel. Do not move your upper body. Stay in a Straight, stiff position. Add a resistance band if the exercise is too easy.
Two sets: 10 reps each side (hold the upper position for 2 to 3 seconds), 10 seconds rest
Lie on your side with your knees slightly bent and in front of you. Rotate the upper leg out by just using your glutes. Don’t move your upper body and don’t push off using your toes. Your range of motion will be low in the beginning if you’re doing it right and you should feel some muscles in your buttocks working. Concentrate on contracting the glute hard. You can add an elastic band to make this knee strengthening exercise harder.
Jim Frith, founder of TopFitPros, author of End the Yo-Yo; the EAMAYW® System, and Advanced Sports Nutrition Specialist
“Bad knees demand a different approach than just doing exercises,” says Frith. “Pain in knees, even when the cartilage is worn out, is most often from tight muscles. Myofascial release of the quadriceps, popliteus and adductors before stretches is best, but at the very least the muscles around the knees should be stretched after warming the body up.”
The ideal time to stretch is after a workout, not at the beginning when they are cold, says Frith. As you ease the bad knees into action, he advises to stretch them at the end of an upper body workout, then start doing lower body work during the next workout — after they have been stretched.
Hold each stretch for 40 seconds, then for 60 seconds.
In standing position, spread legs wide. With right knee straight and left knee bent, lift outer part of right foot, lean upper torso to the right and press on outer part of upper right thigh. Repeat on left.
Standing with right hand on a counter, table, or other support, bend left knee and grab left ankle with left hand. Pull ankle toward glutes. Repeat with right ankle.
Place hands on a wall or other support. Step back with left foot. Lock left knee, turn left toes slightly to the right, press left heel to the floor, and bring the hips forward with torso in line with the left leg. The right leg is bent. Repeat on the right leg.
A version of this story was published February 2020.
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