If you can tell whether it’s going to rain by the pain in your knees, you’re in good company.
Knee discomfort is second only to low back pain as the most commonly reported pain among adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). When done regularly, exercises that strengthen muscles that support the knee joint can help to significantly reduce pain.
“Many exercises and activities can help strengthen the muscles around the knee joint,” says Kristoffer Monzon, a physical therapist with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, Calif. “It’s most important to find those that work for your lifestyle and level of fitness and do not create more pain.” Isometric exercises, stretching, balance exercises and those for the hip, foot and ankle work best.
Ditch the Deep Knee Bends
You want to stay away from any exercises that increase knee pain,” says Monzon. Deep squats, stairs and high-impact activities should be avoided if you have a history of arthritis. “These tend to cause more wear and tear on the cartilage within the joint, which leads to degenerative changes and inflammation,” he says.
Focus on exercises that strengthen the quadriceps (muscles in front of the thighs) and hamstrings (muscles in backs of the thighs). “The stronger you can get both these muscles the better job they do at reducing strain around the knee and at providing greater shock absorption,” says Monzon.
When done regularly, exercises that strengthen muscles that support the knee joint can help to significantly reduce pain.
Do Try These at Home
Simple, at-home exercises to get you started include the list below. (Be sure to check with your health care provider before attempting these or any other new exercise routine.)
Mini or partial squats with a chair or at a counter (quadriceps):
Holding on to a chair or stable surface, with knees about shoulder width apart and pointing forward, slightly bend hips and knees as if sitting down onto a chair, and then slowly stand back up. Repeat 10 to 12 times.
Standing hamstring curls (hamstrings):
Holding on to the back of a chair or stationary surface, without moving hip, bend knee as far as possible, bringing your heel up towards your buttocks. Do 10 to 12 reps on each leg.
Marching in place (hip flexors and a good balance exercise):
On your own or while holding on to the back of a chair or stationary object, take alternating steps in place, bringing knee up to a comfortable height. Strive for 60 seconds of marching.
Heel raises (calf muscle):
Holding on to back of a chair or stable surface, rise up on toes, lifting heels off ground and then slowly lower back down. Do 10 to 12 reps.
In addition, Dr. C. David Geier, Jr., an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in South Carolina, recommends the following exercises:
This simple exercise may be done on the floor with or without a pillow under your knee. Sit with your legs out in front of you and your knees completely straight (lean against a wall or back on your hands). Focus on contracting your quadriceps muscle and holding it as tight as possible for several seconds; relax and repeat 10 times. Repeat several times a day if your knees actively ache.
Straight leg raises:
In the same starting position as the quad sets, sit with your right leg (do one at a time) straight in front of you with your toes pulled towards the knee. (If this is too difficult you may also do these lying on your back to start.) Keep your left leg bent with your foot on the floor. Contract your quads on your right leg, lift your foot about 12 inches off the ground and hold it up for 5 seconds; slowly lower it back down and repeat 10 times. Switch legs.
Wall slides with ball squeeze:
Stand with your back against the wall and your feet shoulder width apart. Hold a small (soccer ball size) inflated ball between your knees. Slowly slide down the wall by bending your knees and lowering yourself (knees should form a right angle with quads parallel to the floor and shins perpendicular to the floor). Hold 5 to 10 seconds and slowly return to starting position. Repeat 10 or more times.
Christopher Hasfal of the Manhattan Athletic Club in Brooklyn recommends adding clams and glute bridges to your routine. “Clams strengthen the glutes, which reduces forces going to the knee,” says Hasfal. “And bridges strengthen hamstrings.”
Lie on your side with your hip and knee bent to approximately a 90-degree angle, with feet together. While keeping your ankles together, raise your top knee up about 12 inches from the other in a clamshell type motion. Repeat 10 to 25 times and switch sides.
Lie on your back with both knees bent at about a 90-degree angle with your feet on the floor. Tighten your buttocks as you lift your bottom off the floor as high as you can without arching your back; shoulders, hips and knees should align. Hold this position as you extend one leg up while keeping knees aligned; hold 3 to 5 seconds and lower. Repeat on the opposite side. Perform 10 to 25 reps per side.
Include one or more of these exercises along with or instead of your usual leg routine two to three times a week for stronger legs and healthier, pain-free knees.