Working your legs is essential for your overall fitness! After all, your legs not only move you, but as the largest muscles in your body they help you perform those big calorie-burning exercises which bump up your metabolism.
The problem is that bad knees can get in the way—and they’re a common problem. One study from Gallup-Healthways found that 26% of the adult population in the United States suffers from knee pain. Injuries, surgeries, arthritis and runner’s knee—there are many reasons you might be experiencing knee pain, but it should never cause you to skip leg day.
We’re here to show you the best exercises for bad knees so you can strengthen your legs without putting stress on your knees. Learn the leg exercises for bad knees below and then we’ll show you both strength and cardio options so you can get a full-length workout done that won’t hurt your joints.
5 Exercise Modifications For Bad Knees
Most leg joint pain actually stems from a lack of strength in your legs. How’s that for ironic? Yes, strengthening the muscles around your knee joint is one of the best ways to protect you from knee pain. There are all kinds of ways you can work your legs by either modifying traditional leg moves and choosing moves that are effective but more gentle on your knees.
Follow along with this video as we show you the five great exercise modifications for bad knees, including glute bridges, squat alternatives for bad knees, and more.
1. Squat Alternatives for Bad Knees
The big daddy of all leg moves, squats are a must-do! But you’re right to wonder – can I still do squats with bad knees? If you have knee pain you might have taken squats totally out of your routine.
Don’t worry, there are many squat alternatives for bad knees. First up, we love these stability ball wall squats.
Try: Stability Ball Wall Squats
Instead of a traditional squat, grab a stability ball, place it between your mid-back and the wall. These squats for bad knees will still help you work your lower body without putting pressure on your joints.
- Lean slightly back against the ball with your feet shoulder-width apart in front of you and begin your squat.
- Not only will this take some pressure off your knees, but you’ll also be able to adjust the move on the fly to suit your own strengths and weaknesses.
- Get a feel for this and then add some dumbbells in your hand to make it harder.
Tip: Choose your range of motion—go lower if you can, but stay higher if your knee pain kicks in. The key is to sit back as you squat, keep legs hip width apart, and focus your weight in your heels!
2. Reverse Your Lunges
Another essential move for toned legs, lunges work not only your leg muscles but, when done properly, they also help you fire up your glutes. The lunge that tends to hit your knees hardest is the forward lunge. So…
Try: Reverse Lunges
You definitely want to practice them without any added weight, but once you get the motion down and concentrate on keeping the weight in your front foot, you’ll likely find these lunges are much easier on your knees. Add weight once you’re confident in the move.
Tip: Pay attention to your glutes. You should feel this move in your rear end and put very little weight into the leg that goes behind you.
3. Come Alive With Deadlifts
If you want to give your booty a little lift and your knees are bugging you, deadlifts might be your new best friend. This is a classic strength training move especially if you have bad knees.
Deadlifts are one of the most potent and overall best strength exercises one can perform. Not only are you going to target your glutes and hamstrings, but also your low back, middle back, traps, calves, forearms and core. Whew! That’s packin’ a whole lot of punch. The whole move centers around your center, and you work the entire back side of your body. Plus, when you keep your knees slightly bent, you won’t aggravate sore knees.
Tip: Use heavy weights—either barbells or dumbbells—since you have many muscles recruited to do this lift. Keep your knees slightly bent and legs hip width apart – but do all the work in your abs and glutes.
4. Bridge The Gap With Bridges
Yes, you are lying on your back. No, you are not getting a break. A Glute Bridge is like a laser beam for your butt! If your knees keep you from squats or lunges, or you just need some variety in your lower body moves, the glute bridge is a killer. So…
Try: Glute Bridges
Glute bridges target and strengthen the glutes, hamstrings, core, lower back and hip muscles and uses your stabilizers to keep your body strong. Performing a glute bridge will give you amazing results for lifting the backside, without all the consequences to your joints.
Tip: Try single leg glute bridges too! Isolating one leg will target the hamstrings and give you an extra challenge once you’ve mastered traditional glute bridges.
5. Roll With A Stability Hamstring Roll-In
Hamstrings are notoriously weak. They are a tricky muscle to target and often overpowered by the quads. We’ve got a move that will tackle those hamstrings along with your glutes and core. So…
Stronger hamstrings, along with stronger quads and glutes all work together to protect your knee joint. The Stability Ball Hamstring Roll-In is one of the most intense and effective ways to target those hamstrings and build strength in a very necessary spot. Yes, it requires a stability ball.
Tip: Start by lifting and lowering your hips with your feet on the ball. One you have the strength to do that, you can progress to the roll-in. Also, expect cramps! It happens during this move, primarily due to the weakness of the hamstring muscle. Hang in there. It will get better!
A Low-Impact Workout For Bad Knees
If you have bad knees, exercise can become your nemesis. So often cardio workouts involve jumping, bouncing or lunging in ways that can trigger knee pain or further injury. The good news is that there are a bunch of exercises for bad knees that can help you burn fat, get strong and stay fit without causing you pain. To show you it can be done, we’ve come up with a complete workout plan just for you that will knock off both cardio and strength in one session! Best part? You can do this workout right at home! There is no equipment needed for the cardio portion and for the strength workout just a simple resistance band is all you’ll need to tone your legs and sculpt your upper body.
The workout below shows cardio first which will get you warmed up and prepared for the strength session that follows. You can definitely switch the two around if it works better for your body!
Low Impact Cardio
Do each of the following moves for 45 seconds, then rest 15 seconds while you transition to the next move. Once you get through the list, go back and do the whole sequence one more time.
*(note: if you aren’t able to sit back into a squat, just skip this move! Tip: don’t jump forward and backward from this; step one foot at a time back to plank and forward to chair. Sit back on your heels to avoid putting pressure on your knees.!)
Now repeat each exercise one more time!
Low Impact Strength
Many of the knee problems people own come about due to weaknesses in the muscles and connective tissue surrounding the knees. In particular, people often fail to work the adductor and abductors—inner and outer thighs—which work together with the hamstrings and quadriceps in keeping the leg muscles in balance and strong all the way around. This balanced approach to training your legs protects the knees and helps them stay healthy.
So that’s where the resistance band comes in! Dumbbells are a great strength training tool, but the resistance band can give you moves for the outer and inner thighs that you can’t achieve in other ways. Below is a full body strength workout that will zero in on the muscles surrounding the knees and give you a full body workout along the way! Try each move for 12-15 repetitions and then go directly to the next move without resting.
- Resistance Band Chest Press
- Resistance Band Tick-Tock
- Balancing Single Arm Row
- Resistance Band Outer Thigh Press
- Resistance Band Shoulder Press
- Resistance Band Butt Blaster
- Resistance Band Tricep Extension
- Oblique Crunch
- Forearm Plank