As we get older, our joints feel the impact of exercise more than they did in the past, and the knees can be of particular concern. They are, after all, essential to so many of our daily activities from walking to kneeling to taking the stairs. It’s no wonder we hear the phrase “I have bad knees” so frequently—knee pain can inhibit the most basic activities. That’s why it’s important to maintain physical fitness and do exercises that strengthen the knees and ease unnecessary pressure on them to avoid strain or injury long term.
Your knees are like shock absorbers, cushioning about one and a half times your body weight every time you move. Pads of cartilage (called minisci) help absorb the pressure caused by each movement as well as prevent your bones from rubbing together. When these pads wear out, your knees start to feel stiff, swollen, and sore—which can often result in limiting your activities due to your “bad knees.”
The best exercises for bad knees help protect this cartilage by strengthening muscles in your hamstrings, calves, and quadriceps. When strong, these muscles can better absorb the weight of your movements, giving your joints—and knees—a break.
Knee-friendly exercises both strengthen and protect your joints, helping you stay active and pain-free at any age. Here are some of the best exercises for bad knees to add to your workout routine, as well as some to avoid. Keep in mind that these are recommendations only. You should always take your doctor’s advice when starting any new exercise program.
Best exercises to improve knee strength
What is the best exercise for bad knees? One that is low impact, strengthens muscle, and avoids putting strain on your joints. While this may mean avoiding high impact sports (you may have to say no to that senior’s basketball league), the good news is there are plenty of other options to try.
Best quad exercises for bad knees
You use your quadriceps more than you probably realize. Whether you’re riding a bike, waiting in line at the grocery store, or taking a walk on the beach, you’re using those quads. This large muscle group is crucial for protecting the cartilage in your knees, preventing osteoarthritis, and creating stability in your lower body. Here are some exercises that strengthen these muscles:
1. Knee extensions
Knee extensions are an easy and gentle way to strengthen quads.
- Sit upright in a chair with your feet flat on the floor.
- While seated, lift one leg and extend it out in front of you, keeping the leg straight and level with your body.
- Hold this for a few seconds (or longer depending on your doctor’s recommended level of activity), then lower your leg to the floor.
- Repeat with the other leg, alternating for 10 counts each.
Tip: For those who like a challenge, try adding a set of ankle weights!
2. Short arcs
Physical therapists suggest using short arcs to strengthen the muscles in your upper leg, especially if you find knee extensions (long arcs) too difficult.
- Lie on your back and place a rolled blanket or towel under one knee.
- Slowly lift your foot up and off of the mat or floor until your knee is straight and your toes are pulled towards you.
- Hold this for a few seconds, then lower your leg. Repeat the movement for 10 counts, then switch legs.
3. Wall squats
Wall squats minimize pressure on your knees by using the wall to balance your weight.
- Stand with your back against the wall and your feet shoulder width apart.
- Lower yourself to the floor like you’re sitting on an invisible chair, keeping your hips against the wall and your knees in line with your heels. Make sure your knees stay behind your feet, and your buttocks don’t sink any lower than your knees—this can put pressure on the knee and may lead to pain or injury.
- Tighten your abdominal muscles and hold for five to seven seconds.
- Use the heel of your foot to push yourself back up to a standing position, before repeating the exercise.
Tip: Placingan exercise ball behind your back can make getting up and down easier.
Best leg exercises for bad knees
While strengthening your quads goes a long way towards preventing knee injury and pain, they’re not the only muscle group worth focusing on. Working out your hamstrings and calves strengthens your legs and takes pressure off of your knees. Target them with these exercises:
4. Standing hamstring curls
The standing hamstring curl strengthens the muscles at the back of the thigh.
- Find something to hold onto for balance (like the back of a chair) and stand with your feet hip width apart.
- Shift your weight to one leg and bend your other leg at the knee, bringing the heel of your foot up towards your buttocks.
- Hold your foot as close to your body as you can for five to seven seconds. Make sure your thighs stay parallel.
- Release and lower your foot, then repeat with the other leg.
5. Calf raises
Calf raises are simple to do just about anytime and anywhere, making them an easy way to strengthen the muscles in the lower back of your leg.
- Find something to hold onto for balance and stand with your feet shoulder width apart.
- Lift your heels off the ground and rise up to your toes.
- Slowly lower yourself back down, repeating the exercise about 10 times.
Tip: Try holding small weights to increase the intensity!
6. Heel slides
Heel slides are a physiotherapist favorite for strengthening the muscles around your knee. The purpose of this exercise is to increase your knee’s range of motion, strengthen leg muscles, and prevent injuries.
- Lie down on your back.
- Bend one knee and slowly slide your foot toward your buttocks.
- Hold this position for five to seven seconds.
- Repeat with the other leg.
Exercises to avoid
If you’re concerned about your knees you should consider skipping the high impact sports, along with any exercises that put extra pressure on the joint, including:
- Traditional squats
- Deep lunges
- Running, especially on hard soil or concrete
- Repetitive jumping
Workouts such as chair classes, pilates, or dance can be good alternatives for those looking for some knee-friendly strength and cardio.
Stay active without straining your knees
While there are some aspects of aging that are inevitable, knee pain isn’t one of them. Adding simple knee-strengthening exercises to your fitness routine can help protect your joints from injury and pain for years to come. Always check with your doctor to help determine what’s best for you and your unique health needs. A good workout routine is also a safe one, and taking good care of your knees will help ensure you enjoy a future filled with walks, hikes or afternoons spent chasing grandkids around your yard!
Online classes can help you exercise your knees at home
Older adults can improve their physical health by taking online classes. There are many online classes that focus on improving physical health, practicing a better mindset and enjoying a happier lifestyle. Take a look at some of our upcoming low-impact exercises for inspiration, these courses can teach you a variety of exercises to strengthen your knees.
Learn more about Boomerang and our online exercise classes for seniors.