This article about knee pain exercises and knee pain relief was written by Julie Hambleton, co-founder of The Taste Archives.
The knees are one of the most used and abused joints in our bodies. We need them to walk, run, lift, jump, and everything in between. Anyone who has ever experienced a knee injury can attest to how much we need our knees, and how inconvenient and limiting it can be when your knees in pain and not functioning optimally. Thankfully, there are several knee pain exercises that can be done to return your knees to proper health and provide knee pain relief.
What causes weak knees in the first place?
The knee joint has to withstand a great amount of force and pressure on a daily basis. The impact put on the joint can be as much as three times your body weight when walking, up to five and a half times while running, and astronomically higher when jumping (1). Even cycling, which has long been touted as a low-impact exercise for your knees, can cause problems. Improper bike fit, as well as muscle imbalances and the anatomy of the rider, can cause pulling on the patella and knee joint, strains, and tears (1).
Despite this, however, humans have been walking, running, hiking, climbing, biking, and jumping for thousands of years, and there are plenty of people who continue to participate in these activities with little to no problems, well into old age. So how do they do it? The simple answer: Maintaining a healthy weight and stable knees!
What causes the knees to become unstable?
Being overweight is a major potential cause of knee pain. If just walking can exert three times the force of your bodyweight on your knees, imagine the impact of being ten, twenty, or thirty pounds overweight on your knees. That’s a lot of pressure! This is why it is important, even for those experiencing knee pain, to continue to exercise, so as to lose weight and foster knee pain relief.
Aside from injuries resulting from twisting, turning, or sudden trauma, knee instability largely stems from weaknesses in other areas of the body. These areas can include:
- Hamstrings (back of the thigh)
- Quads (upper thigh)
Unfortunately, due to our largely sedentary lifestyles, most of us are weak in at least one, if not all, of these areas. When you sit for long periods of time, your hips, glutes, and hamstrings can become extremely tight, weak, and inactive. Your quads may also become tight, as they are forced to bear most of the load on your legs when you lack gluteal and hamstring strength. Your feet and ankles, too, may become weak and stiff because modern-day shoes and orthotics have taken away the need for them to do any of the work they were designed to do.
The muscles, ligaments, and tendons that run up from the feet to the knee – as well as those that run down from the hips and glutes to the knee – are responsible for keeping the patella (knee cap) in working order. When any of these parts weaken, the quad begins to pull on the patella, thereby causing grinding, inflammation, and pain in the knees. Your knees may then become more vulnerable to more serious injuries, such as tears and strains, as well.
Improve Knee Health with 11 Knee Pain Exercises
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The best way to achieve knee pain relief is through proper knee pain exercises that work on all of the aforementioned areas (hips, glutes, hamstrings, quads, ankles, and feet), and thus allow the knee to fix itself.
Most of us spend a large part of our day sitting. As a result, our hip flexors, as well as their muscles, ligaments, and tendons, may become shortened, tight, and weak. Proper stretching and movement through that area will help to increase the mobility of the hip joint, thereby bringing strength back to that area and fostering knee pain relief.
- The lunge stretch: The lunge stretch can be done with one knee on the ground, or in a full stand if you find the pressure on your knee uncomfortable.
Stand with your feet apart in the lunge position, back up tall, and with the same arm in the air as the hip that you are stretching. Gently lean into the stretch, pushing your hips forward, and turn up and towards the hip that you are stretching (e.g. if you are stretching your right hip, turn up and to the right). Hold for five seconds and relax, repeating this anywhere from five to ten times, each time gently stretching a little bit further.
- Leg lifts: Jane Fonda was right when she got you to do all those leg lifts for knee pain relief back in the 80s! Simply lie on your side with your legs stretched out so your body is one perfectly straight line, and bend your bottom knee to keep yourself balanced. Very slowly, squeeze your glute and lift your top leg upwards. Do not let your leg wobble back and forth, go extremely slowly, and if you need to, trace a straight line on the wall or a pole with your heel. Do ten to twenty reps per side or until you can’t do anymore. If the exercise becomes too easy, add ankle weights.
It only makes sense that if you sit on your glutes all day, they become weak and inactive. Luckily, there are plenty of knee pain exercises that you can do to encourage knee pain relief and strengthen your glutes, like squats and lunges. However, they may not be an option for those with serious knee problems. The following are a few knee pain exercises that even those with more severe knee pain may find beneficial. However, not all of these may be right for you, depending on the severity and cause of your knee pain.
Glute bridges: This is a low impact exercise that can be scaled to your personal abilities and the extent of knee pain relief needed. It can be done body weight, single leg, and with the addition of weight.
To perform a glute bridge, lie on your back with your hands across your chest, knees bent and hip-width apart, and feet flat on the ground. Pull your core in tight, squeeze your glutes, and lift your hips into the air. Keep your feet flat on the ground. Hold for three to five seconds, relax, and repeat.
Make sure that your knees are not caving inward at any point during the exercise. If this is an issue for you, place a somewhat tight band around both of your knees, and maintain pressure to keep the band taught throughout the entire movement. This will force you to keep your knees tracking properly.
Clamshells: This is an amazing exercise for your hips and glutes that is often done completely wrong. To perform a clamshell properly, lie on your side with your knees bent and tucked up slightly. Squeeze your glutes and open your top leg like the lid of a clamshell. If doing properly (i.e. using your glutes, not your quads) you should not be able to actually open up your legs very wide. To ensure you are using your glutes, place your hand on your glutes while doing the exercise to actually feel the muscle contracting.
Front foot elevated split squat: This is an incredible exercise for knee pain relief as it addresses several things at once: Tight hips, weak glutes, and immobile ankles. That being said, it may not be suitable for all types of knee conditions, so check with your doctor or physio, or stop if it causes knee pain.
To perform, place one foot on a step or bench and stand in a split stance. The higher the step, the easier the exercise is to perform. Make sure both feet are pointing straight forward and that your hips are squared to the front of the room. With your hands on your hips and core pulled in tight, shift your hips forward into a lunge-type movement. You will feel a big stretch in the extended hip. Your knee should track out over your third toe, and should go out past your toes. It is a misconception that this is bad for your knees; in fact, the most pressure on your knee joint is actually when you are at 90 degrees!
Go down for three slow counts, remain in the bottom position for one, and then – keeping your front foot flat on the bench – push through your heel using your glutes back to the top. Repeat ten to twelve times per side. Work your way down until you can do full repetitions with your front foot flat on the ground (no elevation), then consider adding weights.
Many people’s hamstrings are inactive, again due to the amount of sitting we do. Often, our knee-jerk reaction is to stretch our hamstrings because they feel “tight”. However, this doesn’t do anything to solve the problem and often makes it worse. Aside from the previously mentioned knee pain exercises that help hamstring strength (glute bridges and split squats), there is more you can do for knee pain relief.
Back plank: Lying on your back, prop yourself up on your elbows. Keeping your head back, squeeze your glutes and lift your hips upwards, balancing on your elbows and heels, keeping your body in a straight line. At the beginning, try holding for ten seconds at a time, for 6 repetitions. Eventually, you can work your up to holding for a full minute.
Romanian Deadlift: This is not suitable for those with back pain. Standing with your feet hip-width apart and your shoulders back, core tight, with your knees not bent but not locked. You can hold a lightweight bar or a couple of dumbbells in your hands. Keeping your shoulder blades squeezed together and core tight, tilt at the hips and extend your arms downward towards your feet, keeping your hands/the bar/the dumbbells close to your body. Do not bend your back. When you reach just past your knees, squeeze your glutes and stand back upwards.
For more of us, our quads have become tight due to their working to make up for our weak glutes and hamstrings. Here are some simple knee pain exercises that work the smaller, stabilizing muscles at the bottom of the quad, directly around the knee.
Peterson Step-Up: Standing on the edge of a bench or step with one leg off to the side, pull your core in tight, bend slightly at the knee and reach your free foot down towards the ground, keeping your hips level (do not let one hip drop below the other). Without actually putting your foot or any weight on the ground, push through the foot on the bench and stand back up. This is a small movement; your knee should be tracking out over your third toe. You may need to use a handrail for balance.
Step-Up Variations: You can do the same movement except facing forward and stepping forward off the bench, again with level hips, not actually putting your foot on the floor, and knee tracking out over the third toe. You can also do this movement facing up the stairs and stepping backwards; all rules still apply.
Ankles and feet
Many of the movements already mentioned are excellent for addressing ankle stiffness and immobility and foot weakness. Your feet and ankles are meant to stabilize the rest of your body through movement, so if you complete these knee pain exercises barefoot or in your socks, you will get even better ankle and foot strengthening effects, as well as better knee pain relief.
Calf raises: To start, you may want to perform these with both calves supporting your weight. However, once you have built up strength and mobility, switch to doing one leg at a time, and then adding light weights. To perform this exercise, stand on the edge of a step with a light hand on a railing for balance (do not grip the handrail, your ankles and feet should be doing most of the work). Drop your heels down off the back of the step, then while keeping your core tight, extend upwards by pushing up through your calves and feet until you are standing on your toes. Lower yourself slowly back down and repeat ten to twelve times.
- Footwork: You can work on foot strength by using your toes and foot to scrunch and gather a towel, repeating this until your feet feel tired. Alternatively, try picking up objects like marbles and transferring them from one bowl to another. Always leave your feet and ankle exercises to the end of your workouts.
Other Ways to Reduce Knee Pain
When you have some or all of the aforementioned muscle imbalances, knee grinding, and pain, you will experience severe inflammation in your joints. Knee pain exercises aside, reducing that inflammation through a proper diet full of anti-inflammatory foods is crucial for knee pain relief. Foods to include in your daily diet include:
- Probiotic and fermented foods
- Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, sardines, flax, walnuts), or omega-3 supplements
- Plenty of dark green leafy vegetables
- Spices like turmeric, garlic, and cinnamon
- Clean water, preferably filtered or spring water
- Healthy fats like coconut, olive, and avocado oil
- Green tea and matcha
- Whole carb sources, such as sweet potatoes, squashes, beets, etc.
Foods to avoid include:
- Processed food products
- Common allergens: Wheat, dairy, and soy
- Excessive alcohol intake
The Bottom Line
The knees are crucial joints in our body – and they can either enable or prevent us from participating in the activities we like, thereby greatly impacting our quality and enjoyment of life. Luckily, keeping our knees healthy is as simple as maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle, and keeping up with knee pain exercises.
As always, certain knee conditions, like tears and strains, need the kind of help only doctors, physiotherapists, and surgeons can offer. If your knee pain is acute, intense, or persistent, visit your doctor or physiotherapist to ensure there isn’t a more serious problem happening. But for all other kinds of knee pain, simply incorporate knee pain exercises into your routine to build up strength in your knees and provide knee pain relief.
- Weight & Knee Pressure When Walking, Running & Cycling. (n.d.). Retrieved October 19, 2017, from http://livehealthy.chron.com/weight-knee-pressure-walking-running-cycling-5043.html
- Kakarlapudi, T. K., & Bickerstaff, D. R. (2001, April). Knee instability: isolated and complex. Retrieved October 19, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1071355/
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