Which exercises are best for knee pain?
Knee pain can be a debilitating condition, especially for active people who still want to run, squat, stretch and perform other knee-intensive exercises. However, flare-ups and chronic pain don’t need to limit activity.
According to Judd NeSmith, NASM-CPT, PES, an experienced personal trainer, the right exercises may help manage pain and minimize the risk of injury. We asked NeSmith, who has over 25,000 hours of one-on-one training under his belt, to share the best exercises for knee pain that you can do at home or in the gym.
What you need to know about exercising with knee pain
What causes knee pain?
A variety of factors can cause knee pain, and according to Mayo Clinic, it can originate from the knee itself or conditions affecting tendons, ligaments or bursae surrounding the knee. NeSmith explained that knee pain is particularly common among active people with weak patellae. It’s a common symptom for people who are experiencing cartilage wear and tear from sports and activities as well.
“Knee pain shows up as a dull ache,” he said. “You tend to notice it when you walk up or down stairs, jog or run or perform a squat or lunge pattern.” NeSmith also said that knee pain often surfaces after blunt trauma, including “ACL tears from skiing, or somebody sliding into second base and twisting their knee in a certain way.”
Can you exercise with knee pain?
Although knee pain was once thought to put many active individuals and competitive athletes out of commission, recent studies show that performing certain exercises and modifying others can allow many people in these groups to remain active. Some exercises may even improve mobility and balance.
“The last thing you want to do when you have low back pain, knee pain or any kind of arthritic pain is to just lay up and do nothing. Movement always helps blood flow,” NeSmith said.
NeSmith, who designs specialized strength and conditioning programs for people over age 50, said that everyday equipment, from resistance bands to foam rollers, are smart investments for anyone interested in adapting their workouts around knee pain.
How to exercise with knee pain
Strengthening is crucial for managing knee pain while exercising followed by stability and mobility exercises. Performing these exercises correctly is equally important, so Nesmith shared a few tips on safe techniques and good form for each one.
Best strengthening exercises for knee pain
Managing knee pain often involves strengthening exercises for other joints and muscles, particularly the glutes, hips and ankles. NeSmith recommended investing in a few affordable pieces of equipment to help you perform these exercises safely and effectively.
How to strengthen glutes
One of the most important areas you should target if you have knee pain is the glutes, NeSmith advised. He recommended using mini resistance bands, which are typically sold in sets with varying resistance levels.
Place both feet inside the band, bend knees gently and walk across the room sideways. NeSmith said that the exercise “strengthens a muscle called the gluteus medius, which is the side part of your butt. The gluteus medius is one of the knee’s biggest allies.”
How to strengthen hips
According to NeSmith, “tight hips actually can be the prime culprit when it comes to knee pain,” as stiff hips and limited flexibility can result in excessive wear and tear on the knee joint.
To keep the hips loose with a maximum range of motion, he recommended performing single-leg lifts while lying on the ground. Supported bodyweight squats, which also keep the hips loose and engage the glutes, are versatile exercises that fit seamlessly into any workout routine.
How to strengthen ankles
Like tight hips, stiff ankles can cause excess stress to the knee, and over time, it can impact knee mobility. NeSmith explained that when your ankle is stiff, the foot strikes the ground hard and relies on the knee to compensate for the lack of mobility. “Next thing you know, it starts grinding that meniscus cartilage,” NeSmith said.
However, there are a few ways to improve ankle mobility. Foam rollers and massage guns, both recovery devices, can be used to loosen tension and tightness in calf muscles. According to NeSmith, they also “promote optimum tissue health” and boost circulation to surrounding areas.
While foam rollers offer a gentle and controlled release, massage guns deliver intense, deep-penetrating massage. NeSmith said he is partial to using his massage gun’s racquetball-shaped attachment on all three quadriceps muscles for relief.
Other tips for avoiding knee pain during exercise
Besides strengthening exercises, there are a few more precautions you can take to avoid knee pain while you work out.
- Braces: Ankle and knee sleeves or braces can help keep the knee stabilized during moderate exercise, but you shouldn’t use them long term.
- Aqua fitness: Performing non-weight-bearing aerobic exercises in a pool, including with pool noodles or foam weights, puts less stress on lower-body joints than working out on regular floors.
- Exercise balls: Exercise balls work well for supported and modified exercises, such as wall squats and hamstring curls. They’re available in various sizes to accommodate different needs and activities as well.
Top equipment for working out with knee pain
This affordable woven set offers five resistance levels and boasts an anti-slip design that won’t roll or pinch the skin. Sold by Amazon
Perform any floor-based exercises, including leg lifts and hamstring curls with a stability ball, on this quality mat made by a trusted yoga brand. Sold by Amazon
If you’re modifying exercises or need a versatile piece of equipment for a small home gym, the original Step platform is a worthwhile investment that comes with four risers. Sold by Amazon
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Sian Babish writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.
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