5 Exercise Modifications For Bad Knees and A Low-Impact Workout Plan

By: Chris Freytag, CPT // February 2, 2022

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.

What Is Low-Impact Exercise?

Before we dive into the exercise modifications, let’s discuss low-impact exercise. A low-impact workout is a workout that puts less stress on your joints.

What are some examples of low-impact workouts? Low-impact cardio exercises include cycling, walking, or swimming. Low-impact strength workouts include the use of resistance bands and limit the use of weights which can harm the joints.

The main purpose of low-impact workouts is to keep the pressure off your knees and other joints while still allowing you to exercise.

What is Low-Impact Cardio?

One type of low-impact workout is low-impact cardio. Low-impact cardio is a form of exercise that increases your heart rate while minimizing the amount of stress or impact you put on your joints. 

Cardio workouts will cause your heart rate to increase as you work harder and require more oxygen, meaning you’ll need to breathe faster and deeper. Low-impact exercises still allow for the benefits of cardio without placing stress on your joints or spine.

Low-impact cardio doesn’t mean low intensity, though. Low-impact cardio workouts can still allow you to break a sweat and elevate your heart rate, just like traditional high-impact cardio.

What is Low-Impact Strength?

Strength training exercises that involve minimal joint impact are considered low-impact exercises. Low-impact strength workouts are often done by using machines, as they reduce the risk of injury and take away some of the strain on your joints.

Another way to achieve low-impact strength training is by incorporating exercise bands into your workout routine to get a full-body strength training experience that doesn’t put pressure on any one joint in particular.

Exercise bands allow you to perform movements like push-ups or squats without putting weight on your spine, knees, and other crucial joints. Research shows that exercise programs utilizing resistance bands and tubing produce equivalent results to free weight training.

Weight Loss With Low-Impact Workouts

Can you lose weight with a low-impact exercise? Low-impact exercises can be modified to make them more intense by involving your entire body. Some tips for making low-impact workouts more intense are:

Incorporate upper body

Exercising with bad knees can be challenging, but there are steps that you can take to have a good workout.

Upper body moves like swinging your arms when walking and raising the arms overhead during step or aerobics can help increase the intensity of your workout without causing too much discomfort for your knees.

Machines at the gym that offer exercises for upper body muscles like an elliptical trainer or cross-country ski machine, may also serve as a helpful workout option if you’re suffering from painful knees.

Exaggerate your movements

Add intensity to your exercises by using big, exaggerated movements. For example, if you were marching in place, making the movement harder by bringing the knees up high and circling the arms overhead.

Sure, you might look a little silly, but it’s worth it!

Increase speed

When it comes to your low-intensity workout routine, adding speed is one way to increase the intensity and get your heart rate up.

Always be careful when increasing your speed. Pay attention to how your knees, hips, and joints feel. 

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.

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 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.
Demonstration of a stability ball wall squat alternative for bad knees
Stability ball wall squat

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.

Do reverse lunges as a modification for bad knees.
Reverse lunges

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.

Related: 10 Lower Body Exercises To Combat Knee Pain

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.

Try: Deadlifts

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.

Try glute bridges to work your legs without putting pressure on your knees.
Glute bridges

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…

Try: Stability Ball Hamstring Roll-Ins

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 Workout

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.

cardio workout for bad knees
Low impact cardio workout

*(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 Workout

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.

use this low impact strength workout
Low impact strength workout

READ THIS NEXT: 12-Minute HIIT Workout For Bad Knees

Fitness, Low-Impact Workouts, Lower Body Workouts, Pain + Recovery, Strength Workouts, Training Advice, Workouts, Workouts for Seniors

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