Top Exercises for Knee Pain

The knee is one of the largest and most complex joints in the body, so it's not surprising that knee pain is common. The activities of daily life can take a toll on your knees. Walking places stress equal to 261% of the body's weight on the knees. Going down stairs creates pressure equal to 346% of the body's weight. No wonder that knee pain triggers up to 40% of physical therapy visits. 

Much joint pain is a consequence of aging and osteoarthritis, but persons of all ages can experience knee pain. Weak muscles, tight muscles, or muscle imbalance may cause pain around and under the kneecap, often called anterior knee pain. Inflamed tendons can also cause the knees to hurt. 

Exercise is the best treatment for most arthritic knee pain. It can also help other types of knee pain. You should not try to correct your knee pain with exercise if you have experienced a pop in your knee. Other signs that you need to see a doctor include a knee that swells, buckles, or locks up. 

Top Exercises for Knee Pain

Low-impact exercises like stretching, swimming, and water aerobics are good for relieving knee pain. Using an exercise bike or elliptical trainer can help, too. In addition, try these therapeutic exercises that you can do at home:

Clamshells

This exercise is simple to do but can pay big dividends. As you get stronger, step up this exercise by using a resistance band just above the knees.

Step 1: Lie on your side with your hips stacked and knees comfortably bent.

Step 2: Keeping your feet together, lift the top knee up, mimicking the movement of a clamshell opening. 

Step 3: Hold the position for a few seconds, then slowly lower the knee back down. 

Try for 15-20 repetitions on each side. 

Straight-Leg Lift

Perform this exercise on the floor, not on a bed or other soft surface.

Step 1: Lie on your back with one leg bent at about a 90-degree angle and the other leg straight. 

Step 2: With thigh muscles tight, raise the straight leg about a foot off the ground and hold.

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Step 3: After a few seconds, slowly lower the leg back to the ground. 

Step 4: Do several repetitions with the same leg before switching to the other side. 

Your level of strength will influence how many repetitions you can do. Start with a few and work up gradually. 

Sit/Stands

Be sure to use a sturdy chair for this exercise.

Step 1: Sit slightly forward in a chair with your feet about shoulder-width apart.

Step 2: Slowly stand up without using your hands.

Step 3: Reverse the motion and sit down.

Step 4: Repeat as many times as you can.

Try for three sets of this exercise.

Step-Ups

This exercise requires something to step up on. You should start with a step of 6-8 inches. If you don't have a step platform, you can use a stair step. 

Step 1: Stand in front of the platform and put one foot securely on it.

Step 2: Step up on the platform and let the other foot come off the ground and dangle loosely. 

Step 3: Lower the hanging foot to the ground and step down.

Step 4: Repeat with the other foot, then alternate sides until you have completed the desired number of repetitions. 

When you can do this exercise easily, you can make it tougher by holding small hand weights. 

Glute Bridges

The glutes are a group of muscles in the buttocks that affect the movement of the knee. The glute bridge is a great exercise that targets them but also involves other muscles of the leg. 

Step 1: Lie on your back with knees bent and feet about shoulder-width apart. Relax your arms with palms up away from your body.  

Step 2:  Slowly pick your hips off the floor and push them up until your body forms a straight line from knees to shoulders. 

Step 3: Hold the position for a few seconds, and then slowly lower your hips down to the floor. 

Good form is important for this exercise. Don't arch or round your back. Keep your hips, knees, and feet in a line.

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Safety Considerations

These knee exercises are simple and safe for most people. Some other exercises, such as squats and lunges, can strengthen the knees but can also injure them if not done correctly. 

When doing knee exercises, start with a low number of reps and move up gradually. If you have pain with any movement, stop. If your exercise program makes you so sore that you have trouble moving the next day, you are overdoing it. Gentle stretching after you exercise will help keep muscles flexible.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 07, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: "Exercise for osteoarthritis of the knee."

Houston Methodist: "How to Relieve Knee Pain Through Stretches and Exercises You Can Do at Home."

Massachusetts General Hospital: "Exercises to Preserve, Strengthen Knees."

OrthoInfo: "Knee Exercises."

Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine: "Are Squats and Lunges Safe in the Rehabilitation of Patients with Patellofemoral Pain?"

Precision Physio: "5 Surprising Stats About Knee Pain."

Silver Sneakers: "The Best and Worst Exercises for Your Knees."

Versus Arthritis: "Osteoarthritis (OA) of the Knee."

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