Best and Worst Exercises for Bad Knees

Exercise is beneficial for everyone, but for people with bad knees due to arthritis, injury, or weakness, exercising correctly, preventing further damage, and avoiding pain are essential.

Approximately 6.6 million patients present to the emergency department with knee injuries related to sports or recreational activities every year. Millions more—including an estimated 10% of men and 13% of women over age 60—have osteoarthritis of the knee caused by age, overuse, or injury. And close to 720,000 patients in the US undergo total knee replacement surgery every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Then there are those who suffer from knee pain associated with weak muscles surrounding the knee joint.

While knee pain is very common, there are also effective remedies available. And one of them, exercise, almost always helps the injured joint heal and remain flexible, while also increasing mobility and reducing pain.

3 Exercises for Better Knees

The golden rule for any exercise that involves your legs is to never bend them to a point where your knees stick out past your toes; that puts too much pressure on the kneecap. You should also consult a physical therapist or fitness instructor before you start a new exercise regimen to make sure your technique is correct.

Often, knee pain is caused by weak muscles that can be strengthened, according to Ben Greenfield, who holds an MA in Sports Science and Exercise Physiology and is a fitness coach, member of the Nutritional Magnesium Association and author of several fitness books. "A weak quadriceps muscle [covering the front and side of the thigh] can allow the knee to track improperly in its bony groove, which results in knee pain and soft tissue damage," Greenfield notes. "Often, the fix is as simple as doing exercises for a specific knee muscle called the vastus medialis, which is the teardrop-shaped muscle on the inside of the knee." Ben recommends "Kick Forwards" to strengthen your knee muscles:

  • Kick Forwards: Attach an elastic band to your ankles and kick forward while keeping your knee "locked out" straight and your toe pointed slightly out. If you find it difficult to keep your balance, simply sit on the ground, keep the leg as straight as possible and your toes pointed out and raise your leg on and off the ground until the knee muscles become fatigued. Do 3 to 4 sets of 15-20 repetitions per leg every other day.

Other exercises to try:

  • Partial Squats: With your feet hip-width apart and your toes pointed forward, stand about 12 inches in front of a chair. Bend at the hips, and lower halfway down to the chair. Make sure your knees stay behind your toes, your back is straight and your abdominal muscles are tight. Do 12 repetitions two or three times per week.
  • Calf Raises: With your feet hip-width apart and your toes straight forward, hold on to the back of a chair for balance. Slowly lift your heels off the floor, rising up onto your toes. Hold, then slowly lower. Repeat 12 times, two or three times per week.

3 Exercises to Avoid

The following exercises can further strain your knees:

  • Deep squats and lunges, because they may put too much pressure on your kneecaps.
  • Weight-lifting exercises that require your knee to move in a full arc (completely extended) position.
  • The seated leg extension weight machine, which can strain the tendons and ligaments surrounding your knee.
  • Also be wary of overusing the elliptical trainer. While it might provide a good cardio workout, it doesn’t actually mimic any natural body movements and may cause repetitive muscle, tendon, and ligament injury to your knee.

If you find that your knees are sore after any exercise activity, try rest, ice, elevation, and an ace bandage—and give your doctor a call.

Liesa Harte, MD, functional medicine, and founder, Elite Care, reviewed this article.


Ben Greenfield, MA, Sports Science and Exercise Physiology, member Nutritional Magnesium Association.

Gage BE, MN McIlvain, CL Collins, SK Fields, RD Comstock. "Epidemiology of 6.6 Million Knee Injuries Presenting to United States Emergency Departments from 1999 Through 2008." Acad Emerg Med 2012 19(4):378-85. doi: 10.1111/j.1553-2712.2012.01315.x.

"FastStats: Inpatient Surgery.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Page last updated May 14, 2014.

Yuqing Zhang and Joanne M. Jordan. "Epidemiology of Osteoarthritis." Clin Geriatr Med 2010 26(3): 355-369.