Exercise Ideas for Problem Knees

If knee issues limited your physical activity in some way, you are not alone. Knee concerns are a common issue that I encounter as a personal trainer, and the statistics back this up. Osteoarthritis (OA) is the leading cause of joint pain and disability, and OA is commonly found in the knees.

Unlike the hip, which is a ball and socket joint and can move in many directions, knees are designed to only flex and extend without side to side movement. When we play sports and participate in other physical activities, it is easy for the knees to be stressed to move in a way that causes injury. Past injuries, OA, sedentary lifestyle, and weight gain can all be factors leading to problem knees.

The good news is there are many ways to stay fit even with knee issues. There are numerous exercise modifications to reduce stress on the knee joint while still strengthening leg muscles. Certain activities will be less stressful on knees than others. Below are some ideas.

  1. Choose activities with less impact. Swimming and cycling are excellent choices to reduce impact on the knees. These activities provide cardiovascular fitness and can substitute for running and hiking. In the gym, choose the stationary bike or elliptical machine. If running is your passion, you may be able to modify running by using intervals. For example: walk for 3 minutes, run for 1 minute, and repeat 6 times.

  2. Use leg strengthening, knee friendly exercises. Traditional squats and lunges may quickly cause knee pain both during and after exercise, and can be damaging to the knee and discouraging. Here are some other exercises to try:

    Stability Ball Wall Squats: This is a variation to the traditional squat. Place a stability ball between your lower back and the wall. Slowly lower into a squat, just to the height that is still comfortable for your knees. Try slowly lowering and lifting your body. Or come down into a wall sit with the ball behind your back and hold here. Continue to breathe and hold for a count of ten. Lift and lower alternating heels while holding down in the wall sit position.

    One Leg Deadlift: Work on form before adding weights. Engage core, keep a soft bend in your supporting knee, and focus gaze on one spot. Keep toes pointing down as you lift one leg behind you. At the same time, hinge at your hips and bring the upper body forward. Back stays neutral without rounding, and your lifted leg and upper body make one straight line. Come back to starting position and repeat on the same side 8-10 times, then complete on the other side. When you are comfortable with your form, add holding dumbbells. This is an excellent exercise that incorporates leg strengthening, core work, back strength, and balance.

    One Leg Lifted Glute Bridge (pictured above): Lie on your back with knees bent, feet hip width apart on the floor. Arms are at your side, palms down. Pushing into the feet, lift hips toward the ceiling. Hold here, keep breathing. Extend one leg to the ceiling, and slowly lower and lift the extended leg 3-4 times. Bring the foot down, bring the hips down, and then repeat using the other leg.

    Stability Ball Hamstring Curls: Lie on your back and place feet on stability ball. Lift hips into bridge. Bending knees, roll ball into toward you, and then out again, maintaining lifted hips. Repeat 8-10 times.

    Side lying leg lifts: Lying on your side with hips stacked on top of each other, lift top leg slowly with control to ceiling, and lower. Repeat 8-10 times each side. Keep toes pointing forward and hips stacked, not rolling back. Support your head with your lower arm/hand. This is one of many exercises that targets gluteus medius and minimus, hip muscles that support knee alignment. Weakness in these muscles can translate into knee pain, so keep them strong!

  3. For all activities, make sure you have good supportive and well-fitted athletic shoes. Shoes should be replaced on a regular basis as cushioning will wear down giving less shock absorption to protect joints.

There are many more exercises that are knee-friendly and modifications that can alleviate knee discomfort. Exercises using equipment such as the TRX suspension system or a Bosu ball can be used to change forces on the body and enable modifications. Knee pain during exercise should not be endured. By choosing exercise options that strengthen while minimizing discomfort, improvements can be seen in function.