Common leg exercises like lunges and squats offer a great leg workout, but they can cause knee pain even in people who don’t necessarily have bad knees. Some variations don’t put so much stress on the knee but still provide a great workout for the glutes, hamstrings, and other important lower-body muscle groups.
To make the most of the low-impact leg exercises in this guide, there are a few tools you’ll need. If you have bad balance, a chair or wall will be helpful. A resistance band, dumbbells, and a medicine ball can also help keep your heart rate up for a bit of cardio while you do some of the no and low-impact knee-friendly exercises below.
The degree to which you can complete these exercises depends on your range of motion, which can be impacted by past knee injuries or your bone structure. Don’t worry if there are some you aren’t able to do or can’t complete to the extreme. Continue with these exercises and you should see some improvement with time.
Here’s what we are about to cover:
- What Causes Knee Pain?
- Low-Impact Vs. High-Impact Leg Exercises
- 10 Best Exercises for Bad Knees
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What Causes Knee Pain?
There are many risk factors for knee pain, but it shouldn’t be too surprising that the overall amount of force put on the knee joint throughout one’s lifetime is positively correlated with the likelihood of knee pain. Knee injury also makes knee pain more likely as does a sedentary lifestyle where the knee joint is underemployed, thus making it weaker.
Note: Many of the exercises in our Hands-Free Home Workout Fitplan can be done without putting loads of pressure on the knee.
The best thing you can do to avoid knee pain is to give the knee joint enough of a workout that it has a wide range of movement and won’t sustain a knee injury if it’s suddenly overburdened. It might not look like low-impact exercises are doing much good, but they make the muscles that support the knee joint much stronger. Once you start trying them out, you’ll feel the burn and understand just how much of a workout they are.
Low-Impact vs High-Impact Leg Exercises
We’ve already discussed the main difference between low-impact and high-impact exercises, which is that low-impact exercises have only one foot on the ground while high-impact exercises require both feet to leave the ground at the same time. Some leg workouts mix the two, while other programs mimic the nonstop action of high-intensity interval training, also referred to as HIIT. Keeping your heart rate going can give you some of the benefits of cardio exercise even if you’re doing a low-impact leg workout.
High-impact exercises like jumping rope, lateral jumps, plyometric squats, side-to-side tucks, and burpees can all work the heck out of your glutes, quadriceps, and other important muscles like the hamstrings. However, they can cause lots of knee pain as well.
The worst thing you can do is overwork the knee joint and prevent yourself from working it out in the future. If you have a history of knee injuries or experience chronic knee pain, low-impact leg exercises are just what you need.
What You Need to Start
Balance can be an issue for many people no matter what style of exercise they’re undertaking. If you have bad knees, chances are you might experience a sudden bout of knee pain, and having something to steady yourself can prevent a fall and potential injury. That’s why the first thing we recommend for these low-impact leg exercises is a steady chair that you can lean on. If you don’t have a steady chair or you prefer to use something else, the wall is also a viable option.
Adding a resistance band will also help give your lower body an extra workout. Medicine balls and free weights can help give your upper body a workout and add an element of cardio into your exercises. Of course, that’ll only be feasible if you don’t have balance issues. If you’re unsure at all, the smartest way to go about it is to start without any additional tools and slowly add them in throughout the workout to make sure you don’t overdo it.
Note: If you don’t want to use additional weights or other tools, try out our Bodyweight Power Fitplan.
10 Best Exercises for Bad Knees
Some of these knee exercises can be easily converted to high-impact or even plyometric exercises with the addition of an explosive jump. If you work on them for an extended period and your knee pain vanishes, you might be able to continue using some of these leg exercises to build and sculpt lower-body muscle. However, always make sure you consult with a physical therapist or personal trainer for their expert opinion before upping the ante.
1. Quadricep Stretch
This is an easy stretch that doesn’t involve any additional tools except a chair or wall for balance if you need one. It’s also a great warm-up for people who have difficulty getting low to the ground or lying on their back.
All you need to do is lift one leg at a time behind you. In the starting position, you should have your legs about shoulder-width apart. Bend your right leg at the knee so that your right foot goes up behind you toward your glutes. Use your right hand to grab your right ankle to bring it up as high as you’re able to. Hold it in that highest position for about 30 seconds and return to the starting position.
Repeat on the left leg and do a few reps until your legs feel a bit more limber.
2. Straight Leg Raises
In the same starting position as the quadricep stretch, lift your right leg straight out in front of you. Your right foot should be parallel with your hip and your right leg parallel with the ground, but if you can’t get it that far then just stop at whatever point you start to feel your muscles stretching.
Leave your right leg at that highest point for as close to 30 seconds as you can stand it, then return to the starting position and repeat with your left leg. This warm-up stretch can be repeated as many times as you like, and you can also do it throughout the day to loosen up your knee joint. Make sure you maintain a straight leg without locking up the knee joint.
If you want to add some cardio or work on your upper body a little and have the balance to do so, you can add some free weights or a medicine ball. You can also hold your arms like a bodybuilder and extend the elbow as you lift your leg if you don’t want to use extra weight.
3. Calf Stretch
The calf stretch is a great exercise for opening up your knee joint. The hamstring and calf muscles are directly connected to your knee joint and if they’re loose, they can cause knee pain. This stretch will solve that problem.
You need to have a wall or a reliable flat surface in front of you to hold some of your body weight for this leg exercise. Face the wall with your feet shoulder-width apart. Put your right foot out in front of you a little bit further than a standard step. Both hands should be outstretched so that your palms are flat on the wall.
From this starting position, you can place weight on your right foot. This should cause your right knee to bend forward and your hips to move down and forward some. Your left leg should be straight but not locked up at the knee joint.
Note: Give your hamstrings a real workout with our 10 Pack Hamstrings Fitplan!
4. Hamstring Stretch
You’ve probably seen runners and soccer players do this stretch. Normally, it’s done while seated on the ground, but if a knee injury or lower back problems prevent you from getting down that low or getting back up again, you can also perform the hamstring stretch using two chairs of the same height that are facing each other.
If your legs are sore in addition to having knee pain, it could be your hamstrings. Stretching them out could relieve knee pain and sore leg muscles.
To get into the starting position for a hamstring stretch, sit with your feet out in front of you resting on their heels. Your knees shouldn’t be locked, you can relax them. Make sure your back isn’t curved. There should be a straight line through your neck down to your lower back. If you’re using two chairs, your non-active leg can be placed as you would normally have it when seated and your active leg should be straight running across both chairs.
Inhale before you start the stretch. While you exhale, lean your trunk forward without bending your neck or lower back. You can stretch out an arm to try and touch your foot, but it’s not essential to stretch your thigh and hamstrings with this exercise. When you’re as far forward as you can reach, hold the position for about 15 seconds, then return to the starting position. Switch legs and try to do about 3 reps on each one.
5. Hamstring Curl
The hamstring curl also stretches the knee joint and muscles attached to it. It’s one of the best exercises for knee pain because it’s incredibly versatile. You can do it standing up, sitting down, prone, or with additional weight like a kettlebell or free weights.
A standing hamstring curl is very similar to the quadricep stretch we mentioned earlier. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and move your right leg so that your right foot goes backward toward your glutes. Switch legs and repeat.
If you want to do a sitting hamstring curl, you can do so with just one chair. You’ll need a resistance band that’s attached to a heavy object or secured so that it won’t move. Place the free end of the resistance band around both of your ankles and sit far away enough so that there is almost no slack. Move your ankles together underneath the chair so that the resistance band is engaged. You should feel strain in your glutes and hamstrings.
To do a prone hamstring curl, lie face-down and loop a resistance band around your right leg. Practice doing the same motion as in the standing hamstring curl about 15 times. Switch legs and repeat. Use a medicine ball by lying on your back with the medicine ball underneath your heels. Move your feet so that the medicine ball rolls toward you until the bottoms of your feet are on the medicine ball, then repeat.
6. Standing Hip Extensions
Starting the heavier part of your lower-body workout with standing hip extensions is the perfect transition from the warm-up. From a starting position with your legs shoulder-width apart, extend your right leg back so that it goes behind your hip. This is not quite a lateral movement or a movement straight backward, but rather a movement somewhere in the middle. This diagonal movement opens up your hip flexors and improves your range of motion.
Once the right leg is behind your hip, raise it so that you feel your glutes and core engaged. Once you have your right foot as far up as you can get it, hold it for 5 – 10 seconds. Repeat several times and switch legs.
7. Glute Bridge
Another versatile lower-body exercise, the glute bridge will stretch your hip flexors and hamstrings in addition to your glutes. Some might have trouble with the glute bridge since it’s done lying flat on your back, but you can also perform a variation of this exercise while kneeling in front of a chair or couch for support.
To get into the starting position for a glute bridge, lie on your back and straighten out. With your feet hip-width apart, bend your knees so that they’re right above your ankles. That should bring your ankles just close enough so that you can slightly touch them with your fingertips. Next, bend both arms at the elbow so that they form a 90° angle.
Lift your glutes off the ground by powering through your heels and upper back. There should be a straight line from your chin to your knees. Make sure your torso doesn’t go convex. Hold this position as long as you can and repeat 3 – 5 times.
Note: Keep working on your glutes with our Bikini Body Challenge Fitplan.
8. Anterior Reach Lunge
One of the best exercises to shape legs with bad knees, the anterior reach lunge also increases your range of movement while working out the entire leg, including the knee joint. To begin, stand with both feet together. If you want to add weights, you can hold them in your hands. Beginners might want to start without additional weights until they have the proper form.
Take a step sightly larger than your usual stride and bend your right knee as you lean forward at the hip. Your front leg should be balancing you while the majority of your body weight is on the front leg. Make sure you maintain a straight line through your spine and neck and the heel of your front leg doesn’t move.
If you aren’t using weights, stretch your arms out as you lean forward. The further you lean, the harder this exercise will be, but don’t overdo it. The more you practice this exercise the further you will be able to lean.
9. Single-Leg Deadlift
The single-leg deadlift requires very good balance, so use a chair if you need to. It will be harder to use a wall for balance in this exercise. In the starting position for a single-leg deadlift, you should be standing on your right foot with your right knee slightly bent. Your left knee should be more bent than the right knee so that the left leg is off the ground.
Lean forward at the hip while you stretch your left leg so that your left foot goes out behind you. This should create a straight line running from your left heel to the top of your head. There should be no bending at all in your lower back or neck. Hold the final stance for 30 seconds and then return to the starting position. Switch legs after 3 or 4 reps.
To do this leg exercise, you’ll need a surface to step up onto. It should be high enough that stepping onto it cause your leg to bend at a 90° angle. Once you have that surface, stand in front of it with your feet shoulder-width apart. Place your right foot onto the elevated platform and raise yourself onto the platform so that your feet are together.
Reverse this procedure exactly to return to the starting position. Repeat for 20 reps and then switch legs so that your left foot is on the platform first. If you get good at step-ups, you can stop placing one foot on the platform. In that case, you would have one foot there and as you rise onto the platform, the other foot would keep moving. Pull it upward by bending that outside knee. This will take even more balance, so make sure you can pull it off.
Note: Kick your whole routine up a notch with our Step Up Strength Fitplan.
It’s super important to give your knee joint a workout even if you have problems like past knee injuries or osteoarthritis. Luckily, tons of low-impact leg exercises can help strengthen your knee joint or surrounding muscles like the glutes and hamstrings that will help support knee strength overall.
Knee pain has a wide range of intensity from person to person and many different potential causes. The natural alignment of the knee joint, past knee injuries, radial effects from the foot or ankle, and factors such as age and body mass index can all cause some degree of knee pain. In women over 50 with knee osteoarthritis, weakness in the quadriceps also makes increased knee pain much more likely.
Physical therapy and lower-body exercises can help reduce knee pain. That may seem like a Catch-22 if the knee pain makes lower-body exercises to painful to endure, but bear in mind that not all lower-body exercises put the same amount of stress on the knee.
Lower body workouts can be described as low-impact, no-impact, or high-impact. No-impact exercises don’t require either foot to leave the ground, while low-impact exercise requires one foot to leave the ground for at least part of the time and high-impact exercises involve both feet leaving the ground, usually in an explosive movement like you might find in plyometrics.
The type of lower body workout that will benefit you most depends on the amount of knee pain you experience, whether you have had a knee injury previously, and the extent to which your bad knees have stiffened or lost some range of motion. Low-impact leg exercises can help increase range of motion and strengthen the knee joint and tendons that support other parts of the body. You might even see improvement in other areas like the lower back.
Exercises to shape legs with bad knees have many variations that will allow you to do them if you have problems working out on the ground, or you can make them more challenging once you build up enough knee strength. The most important thing about a low-impact leg workout is that you take care to get the form correct when you’re at the basic level. That way, you can be sure to see maximum benefits with minimal knee pain.
Not everyone can do all of the lower body exercises we discussed in this article. If you have any doubt or any of them causes increased knee pain, stop the exercise immediately. If you have access to a physical therapist or personal trainer, they should be able to help decide which of the following lower body exercises are the best exercises for you.
(Note: If you want to build knee strength to avoid injury in the future, start your free Fitplan trial today!)