5 Best Exercises for Knee Pain [with Graphics]


Knee pain typically comes from one of these three things; a previous injury, a lower limb surgery surgery or lack of general strength around the knee. Something most people don’t know is that knee pain can actually come from something that is not the knee joint. Our leg muscled and joints all work together, and pain typically starts low and can work it’s way up. So knee pain can also come from a foot or ankle issue as well. Either way, the best way to reduce knee pain of any kind is to strengthen the muscles surrounding the knee. These 5 exercises are a great place to start with strengthening, and they can then be built on further down the road when strength is built up.

Knee Strengthening Exercises

The knee is a hinge joint. Which means the two movements it does are flexion and extension (we can bend the leg and we can straighten the leg). The knee needs a lot of supporting muscles, ligaments and tendons to help it move in certain directions, and stop it from moving in others. In order to have knees that are fully functioning with no pain, we need all the surrounding soft tissue to work together and be strong enough to hold us up, and allow us to run, jump and twist.

Leg Lifts

leg lift

This movement is going to strengthen the top of the leg, the quadricep.

1. Start lying on your back. One leg bent with foot on the floor and the other leg straight preparing to lift.

2. Flex the foot of the straight leg, engage your core, squeeze the front of your leg and lift up. You want to come only even with the knee and back down, no higher.

I would work to perform 3 sets of 10 reps on reach leg. So – 10 on the right, 10 on the left…3 times.

To make these more challenging – you can add an ankle weight, or a band attached to something and wrapped around your ankle.

Hamstring curls

leg curl

Hamstring curls work the back of the legs, the hamstrings. And can also work the glutes (butt) as well. There are a few ways to complete this one, so I will include different variations.

1. Lay flat on your back (on a hard surface) and bend one leg so your foot is on the floor and the other leg is straight out.

2. Grab a towel or wear socks. Press the heel of the straight leg into the floor and pull it in towards your butt. You will feel the back of your leg!

I would perform 3 sets of 10-12 reps on each leg.

Other options – you can put your legs on a swiss ball (picking your glutes up and rolling the ball in towards your butt), lay on your stomach with a dumbbell between your feet pulling it in towards your butt.

leg curl

Step ups

step up

You will need some kind of box, chair, stool, bench to step up on and these are going to work all the muscles of the leg.

1. Place one foot up on your box and make sure your entire foot is on it.

2. Drive into your heel as you step up and place the other foot on top.

3. Step back down with the leg that trailed the step up, focusing on stepping down slow and sticking your butt out. Still keeping the weight in your heel.

4. Complete 10 reps on one leg before switching – and repeat 3-4 rounds.

The lower the box, the easier it is. The higher the box, the harder it is.

Clam Shells

This exercise is going to work your glute muscles as well as the muscles down the outside of the leg.

1. Lay on your side with your knees bent and stacked on top of each other.

2. Keeping your feet together, open just the knees and then close the knees.

Aim for 30 reps on each side.

To make it harder you can add a mini band around the knees.

mini band

Lateral raise

hip abduction

Another exercise to work the outside of the leg.

1. Standing (likely holding onto something) keeping 1 leg soft (slightly bent) and keeping the other leg straight – kick the straight leg out to the side.

2. Keep the foot flexed of the leg kicking to the side and make sure you resist it out to the side and then resist it back in.

Complete 15 reps on reach leg before switching to the other side.

To make things harder, add a small band around the ankles to add resistance.

Bonus: Ball Squeezes

ball squeeze

This is a great exercise that works the inside of the thighs. This one is great because most people tend to have a valgus knee (knee caving in during squatting) and that can be caused by a weakened abductor muscle.

1. Lay flat on back with knees bent and feet on floor with ball between the knees.

2. Press your low back into the floor and squeeze knees together.

3. Hold for 10 seconds and then release. Repeat 30 times.

All of these exercises are done with minimal equipment and can easily be scaled back to be easier or modified to be made more difficult. Remember to start where you are and work your way up. Make sure you can complete all sets and reps of each exercise (maybe more) before moving up to the next level of difficulty.

Evaluate your Knee Pain

You have to remember that knee pain doesn’t always mean there is something wrong. Yes, it could be because of an injury or past surgery, but it could also be from lack of conditioning as well as a foot/ankle problems.

A few things to ask yourself or check into before writing your knee pain off as something you cannot fix:

• Check your shoes – if you are wearing poor shoes or worn out shoes regularly it can cause knee pain.

• Check your form- when you are walking, running, stepping etc.

• Check your movement – are you walking and moving regularly or are you spending the most of your time sitting and therefore are just de-conditioned.

If you feel it is because of an injury or something wrong you should seriously consider checking with a doctor or physical therapist.

I hope these exercises help strengthen and relieve some knee pain to get you moving and feeling your best. I am not a doctor or a physical therapist and am therefore not diagnosing or giving medical advice.

Get your mini bands here if you want to work on these exercises, or have them for at home workouts!

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Haley Rowe February 1, 2020