Best Exercises For Knee Pain

Knee pain can be a problem when you’re exercising or even just going about your daily activities.

Knee pain should be addressed right at the beginning, as it can be a sign of an injury or a muscle imbalance. It’s important to be patient and work on it instead of trying to push through it!

In this article, we will share the best exercises for knee pain to help you build up strength and alleviate your pain.

Causes of knee pain

Knee pain can be caused by a number of things. Common causes are:

Overuse

Overuse injuries of the knee occur from microtrauma that’s associated with performing a repetitive motion.

As someone continues to perform the repetitive motion, the exercise will eventually exceed the tolerance of the muscles, cartilage, tendons, and bones and this leads to an injury.

The most common overuse injuries of the knee are iliotibial band syndrome—IT Band Syndrome—Patellar tendinopathy and Patellofemoral pain syndrome—also known as runner’s knee.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis breaks down the cartilage under the kneecap and this causes the bones of the joint to rub against each other.

The surface of the bones becomes rough and the bones no longer move smoothly. This can cause irritation, inflammation, and pain. It can also cause the knee to become stiff.

Tendinitis

Patella tendinitis is caused by repetitive motion, like running and jumping.

It’s caused by inflammation of the tendon that connects your kneecap to your shinbone. Some people may start to notice pain or even tenderness at the base of the kneecap, either at the start of physical activity or just afterward.

If left untreated, the pain will worsen and start to interfere with daily movements, like getting up from a chair or climbing stairs.

Bursitis

Every joint has small fluid-filled sacs known as bursa, that cushion and reduce friction between the skin near your joints, tendons, bones, and muscles.

If one or more of the bursae in your knee are irritated or inflamed, this can lead to pain, as well as limit your range of motion and mobility.

Bursitis of the knee commonly occurs either on the inner knee just below the joint or over the knee cap.

Meniscus tears

Your knee has two bands of rubbery cartilage that act as shock absorbers between the thigh bone and shin bone, known as the meniscus.

This cartilage can be torn if you get up suddenly, or if there’s pressure put on the knee as it rotates or twists. It might also if you suddenly change direction.

You may hear a popping sound coming from the knee joint when the meniscus tears and may find that the knee is tender to the touch. There will be swelling and inflammation around the knee joint, and you may feel as though your knee is “locked” or catching when you try to move it.

It may be difficult for you to move your knee and it feels as though it’s going to give way when you try to bear weight on it.

Sprained knee ligaments

There are 4 main ligaments in the knee and they are also the ligaments that are most often sprained.

  • The Anterior Cruciate Ligament—ACL.
  • The Posterior Cruciate Ligament—PCL.
  • The Lateral Collateral Ligament—LCL.
  • The Medial Collateral Ligament—MCL.

Two of these ligaments stabilize the side-to-side movement, while the other two ligaments stabilize the front and back movement.

A sprained ligament is when the tissues that hold the bones together are either overstretched or torn.

Some people may experience tenderness around the knee, pain, stiffness, swelling, bruising and it may feel as though your knee is weak or that your knee may buckle under your body weight.

However, the symptoms can vary slightly depending on which ligament is injured. As an example, if you’re experiencing pain in the back of your knee, then it’s possible that you’ve sprained or torn the Posterior Cruciate Ligament.

How do you get rid of knee pain quickly?

The best thing that you can do as soon as possible after either a knee sprain or injury is to follow the R.I.C.E—Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation—principle.

Not only will this help reduce the swelling and inflammation, but it will also help to promote healing.

Rest

You’re going to need to give your knee some time to rest and this will mean taking a break from activities that can put the knee under pressure or cause further injury.

Ice

Apply an ice pack as soon as you can to the affected area, as this will help to reduce the swelling, inflammation, and pain. Wrap the ice pack in a towel and apply it to the affected area for 10 to 20 minutes, 3 to 4 times a day.

If the swelling has gone within the next 48 to 72 hours, then you can apply heat to the area where it hurts for 15 to 20 minutes, 3 to 4 times a day.

Compression

You can use a knee compression sleeve, compression brace, or an elastic bandage to apply compression to the affected area. This will reduce the swelling, promote healing and stabilize the joint.

Make sure to check that the compression isn’t too tight and if you experience any tingling, coolness, increase in pain or numbness then the compression is too tight and needs to be loosened.

Elevation

Anytime you are sitting or lying down, you want to make sure that you keep your knee elevated.

You can rest the sore area on pillows—even when you’re applying ice—but try to keep the sore knee at a level that’s above your heart to reduce the swelling.

Exercises to avoid if you have knee pain

If you’ve had a knee injury, are recovering from a knee injury, or experience knee pain, then there are exercises that you should avoid. This is due to the amount of strain that the movements place on knee joints which can lead to an injury or an increase in pain.

Avoid exercises like the full-arc knee extension—even the machine in the gym—hurdler’s stretches, full-deep lunges, and deep squats.

Even if you don’t have any knee problems, these exercises need to be done with proper form—knees stay in line with the toes during the movement—otherwise your risk of injury increases.

Before you start

It’s important to spend 5 to 10 minutes warming up, as this helps to prepare your body for the exercise. Your cardiovascular system will begin to increase the blood flow to the muscles and raise your body temperature.

This can reduce the risk of injury, as well as reduce muscle soreness and stiffness post-workout.

Use low-impact exercise equipment, like the stationary bike or the elliptical machine. You could also try walking on an even surface to warm up.

Exercises to do

Knee bends

Stand with your back against the wall and move your feet forward approximately a foot in front of you. Your knees should be hip-width apart, with your feet turned slightly outwards.

Then slide your back down the wall, slowly bending your knees and letting them go in the same direction as your toes. Make sure that your knees do not go past your toes.
As you come up, focus on tensing the quads and the glutes.

You’d want to do 10 to 15 reps for 3 sets.

As you progress and get stronger, you can place an exercise ball between your back and the wall. This will make the movement a little more challenging as well.

Straight leg raises

Sit in a chair, keeping your back straight, and then straighten and raise your right leg until your leg is parallel to the ground.

Now maintain the muscle contraction in the muscles above the knee, and then move your leg up and down—without letting your foot touch the ground—10 times.

Once you’ve completed the set, repeat the exercise on the left leg. You’ll complete 10 reps for 3 sets on both legs.

As your knee becomes stronger, you can make use of ankle weight, as this will make the workout more challenging.

Squats

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with your feet turned slightly outwards. You can either hold your hands out in front of you for balance or place them by your sides.

Lower yourself down until your knees are at a 90-degree angle—don’t exceed 90 degrees—and keep your back straight, making sure that your knees don’t go over your toes—knees stay in line with the toes during the movement.

Hold the position for 5 to 10 seconds before returning to the start position. Do 10 reps for 3 sets.

Step-Ups

For this exercise, you can use either a step bench, a step outside, or even the step inside your house.

Step up onto the step with your left foot, then bring your right foot up and tap the top of the step with your right foot. Then step back down, bring both feet back to the starting position.

For this exercise, you can either step up using the same leg for 10 reps or you can alternate between stepping up with both legs. As you step up, make sure that your knee is in line directly over your foot.

Do 10 reps on each leg for 3 sets.

Standing hamstring curls

For this exercise, you may want to hold onto a countertop or the back of a stable chair to help you maintain your balance.

Stand with feet hip-width apart and then shift your weight onto your right leg. Slowly bend your left leg towards your buttocks, until your knee bends at a 90-degree angle, and then hold that position for 5 seconds. Slowly lower your foot back to the ground.

Do 10 to 15 reps for 3 sets on each leg. You can alternate between them or you can complete one set per leg at a time.

Post-exercise stretching

It’s important to stretch after your workout and it’s important to stretch the muscles and tendons around the knee; especially the hamstrings, quads, hip flexors, calves, adductors, and the iliotibial band.

One of the biggest benefits of stretching post-exercise is that you’re more flexible because of the increased circulation to the muscles.

By stretching after your workout, you’ll be able to boost your flexibility, help to reduce lactic acid build-up, reduce your susceptibility to injuries and increase your range of motion.

Aaron Schwartz, MD, Jonathan N. Watson, MD, and Mark R. Hutchinson, MD. “Patellar Tendinopathy” Accessed September 2015. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4547110/

Marco Funiciello. “What Is a Bursa?” Last modified December 2019. https://www.arthritis-health.com/types/bursitis/what-bursa