Strengthen Sore Knees With Low-Impact Exercises
Knee strengthening exercises are an important addition to any workout plan — especially when you have sore knees.
Whether it’s during a high-intensity workout or day-to-day activities, sore knees can be a common complaint — while limiting knee movement might seem like the best approach to managing sore knees, keeping the knees and surrounding muscles mobile with knee strengthening exercises can help support them and reduce any strain.
Find out about the best low-impact exercises for sore knees, why they’re effective and how to incorporate them into your next leg workout — and remember, if you are suffering from severe pain or injury it’s always best to speak to your health professional prior to starting a new exercise regimen to ensure it will be suitable for you.
Why it’s important to look after your knees
Good knee health is important, as it’s one of the largest joints in the body! Your knees can absorb up to three times your body weight during various activities, making them extremely vulnerable to wear and tear over time.
While some knee pain can occur due to injury while playing sports (and if that’s the case you should see a doctor or relevant health professional immediately or before continuing to exercise), sore knees can also occur or worsen because of tight or weak hips, glutes, hamstrings, calves and quads — these muscles and tendons all work together and connect to the knee, so when one is compromised it will usually affect the others.
With constant use, your muscles and ligaments eventually become weakened and the shock-absorbing cartilage can deteriorate, which is why knee strengthening exercises are important — building up the muscles surrounding the knee with low-impact exercises can provide additional stability and support.
Common causes of sore knees in women
Robert H. Shmerling, MD from Harvard Health Publishing says women are more prone to joint injuries “due to basic differences between the bodies of men and women...”. That’s because women typically have wider hips and are slightly knock-kneed which can create added strain on the joints.
Another medical condition called patellofemoral syndrome — or “runner’s knee” — is common in women and feels like a dull achy pain in the kneecap when running uphill, sitting for long periods of time or going downstairs.
It’s important that women take extra care and ensure good form when performing any type of physical activity. Wearing proper training shoes that are well-cushioned and supportive can also help to reduce any impact on the knees. If you’re looking for a knee-friendly fitness routine, or are ready to start your health and fitness journey but suffer from persistently painful knees, as opposed to occasional soreness, it’s important to know the cause before exercising — and that will be best determined by your healthcare professional.
The best knee exercises and stretches
Sore knees can benefit from gentle stretching and strengthening exercises of surrounding musculature that act on the knee. This will help improve flexibility and range of motion by engaging muscles that support the knee joint.
Studies have also shown that having a mix of both low-impact weight-bearing (activity that works directly on the bones using the force of gravity like squats or walking) and non-weight bearing exercises (think movements that don’t require you to support your whole body weight like swimming or flutters) are effective for joint rehabilitation.
Here are some examples of the best knee strengthening exercises and stretches. Always spend time warming-up — even before stretches — with low-impact cardio like cycling on a stationary bike, walking or using the elliptical machine.
8 knee-strengthening exercises for home and gym
By regularly working the muscles around your knee like your hamstrings, quads, glutes and hips, you can help to reduce pressure on your knee joint.
Gentle stretches after knee strengthening exercises can help to reduce muscles soreness and keep your muscles flexible.
The half squat only requires you to go halfway down compared to a traditional squat, so you’re naturally going to place less pressure on your knee joints.
You’ll feel this exercise at the front and back of your thighs and your buttocks — strengthening your quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.
- Plant both feet on the floor shoulder-width apart. Gently draw your pubic bone to your belly button (engage your pelvic floor). This is your starting position.
- Bend at both the hips and knees, until you feel tension in your glutes and hamstrings. Ensure that you maintain a proud chest, keep your knees aligned with your toes and weight through your heels.
- Push through your heels to extend your legs to return to the starting position. You should feel the weight going through your glutes and quads.
The straight-leg raise strengthens the muscles on the front of your body, including the quadriceps, low ab muscles and hip flexors helping to improve full range of motion. A strong core also helps to prevent low back pain and strong quads and hips will help to support lower body joints.
- Lie on your back on a yoga mat. Extend both legs and engage your abdominal muscles by drawing your belly button in towards your spine. This is your starting position.
- While keeping your legs extended, slowly raise your legs upwards until they form a 90-degree angle with your hips.
- Slowly lower your legs to return to the starting position, but without lowering your feet to the floor.
Single-leg hamstring curl with fitball
The hamstring curl targets your hamstrings and glutes at the back of your legs, but also requires core strength to keep your hips steady as you lift into the movement.
Single-leg work can help build strength in one hip at a time, which can help support any strength imbalances.
- Start by lying flat on your back on a yoga mat with your feet elevated on a fitball. Allow your arms to rest by your sides on the mat.
- Using your glutes and hamstrings, gently raise your hips off the floor so that you are resting on your upper back and your body forms one straight line from head to toe. Extend your left leg towards the ceiling, bending your knee if required. This is your starting position.
- While keeping your hips elevated and your left foot elevated, bend your right knee to bring your foot in towards your glutes. This movement will cause the fitball to roll in towards you.
- Extend your right knee to return to the starting position, ensuring that your hips remain elevated. This movement will cause the fitball to roll away from you.
- Complete half of the specified amount of time on the same side before completing the remaining time on the other side.
This exercise strengthens the calf muscles at the back of your lower legs which help improve balance and stability, agility and decreases the risk of ankle and knee injuries.
- Plant both feet on the floor, slightly further than shoulder-width apart. This is your starting position.
- Keeping your weight on the balls of your feet, raise your heels so that they are approximately 5cm to 10cm higher than the floor.
- Lower your heels to return to the starting position.
When performing the leg press, you’ll feel it in your hips and the front and back of your thigh, targeting your quads and hamstrings. The stability of the machine allows you to perform a great lower body strength exercise with less need of stabilisation at the knee.
- Sit in the leg press and plant your feet on the foot plate, slightly further than shoulder-width apart. Press the foot plate away from your torso and release the leg press from its locked position. This is your starting position.
- Bend your knees and lower the foot plate towards your torso until your knees almost touch your chest.
- Extend your knees and press the foot plate away to return to the starting position, ensuring that your knees remain in line with your toes at all times.
- Repeat for the specified number of repetitions before returning the leg press to its locked position.
Side-lying hip abduction with resistance band
Hip abduction is the lateral (sideways) movement of the leg away from the body, such as when you step out of the car or out of bed — and your hip abductors allow you to do this. The hip abductors also help to rotate the leg at the hip joint and assist with balance and stability when on one leg.
Weakness in the hip abductors, particularly the gluteus medius (one of three glute muscles that runs along the side of your butt, in your posterior hip), can result in knee pain from overcompensation.
Hip abduction exercises help strengthen your glutes — which is a major aid to hip and knee alignment to prevent and manage pain in the hips and knees.
- Begin lying on your left side on a yoga mat with a resistance band looped around your lower thighs, left arm either bent or extended and your head relaxed on your arm. Extend both legs, ensuring that your hips are stacked and that you maintain a small gap between your waist and the floor. This is your starting position.
- Gently draw your ribs to your hips to engage your core.
- Activating your right glute, elevate your right foot towards the ceiling. You should feel tension in your glutes as you do this.
- Lower your right leg to return to the starting position.
Clam with resistance band
This exercise is named after the way your legs and hips are positioned (resembling a clamshell)! The clam is a great exercise for strengthening the hips and glutes, and stabilising through your pelvis to prevent injury.
Using a resistance band will make the movement challenging, working the glutes and hamstrings more — but the clam is still an effective bodyweight movement on its own.
- With a resistance band looped around your lower thighs, lay on your left side with your arm extended along the mat and your head relaxed on your arm. Bend both knees and draw them forward slightly to bring your feet in line with your glutes, ensuring that your hips are stacked and that you maintain a small gap between your waist and the floor. This is your starting position.
- Keeping your feet together, activate your right glute to elevate your right knee towards the ceiling, ensuring that you maintain the gap between your waist and the floor.
- Lower your right knee to return to the starting position.
- Complete half of the repetitions on the same side before completing the remaining repetitions on the other side.
While you’ll really feel your abs burn during flutters they also strengthen your hip flexors as they work to keep your legs off the floor while you kick.
- Start by lying on your back on a yoga mat. Engage your abdominal muscles by drawing your belly button in towards your spine and raise both legs off the floor. This is your starting position.
- At the same time, slightly raise your right leg and slightly lower your left leg, ensuring that neither of your legs touch the floor.
- At the same time, slightly raise your left leg and slightly lower your right leg, ensuring that neither of your legs touch the floor. This should create a “scissor-like” motion.
- Continue alternating between right and left.
6 stretches to ease sore knees
Lower body stretching exercises can help to improve your flexibility and range of motion in the knee joint, and prevent injury.
Hip flexors and quads
This stretch focuses on the front of the hip. Using a bench will deepen the stretch in your quad to create more balance between each leg and prevent strain in your back and knees.
- Place a bench horizontally behind you. Begin in a kneeling position on a yoga mat with the top of your right foot resting on or against the bench. This is your starting position.
- Release your left leg and take one large step forwards so that you are in a low-lunge position, ensuring that your left knee is not further forward than your toes.
- Keeping your torso upright, push your hips forwards so that you feel a stretch along the front of your right leg. Hold this position for the specified amount of time, breathing deeply throughout.
- Repeat this stretch on the other side.
Stretching your calves (the two muscles that run down the back of your lower leg) will help improve flexibility. Straightening and bending your leg in this calf stretch will help to relieve any knee pain and prevent injury.
- Place both hands on the mat slightly further than shoulder-width apart, feet together on the mat behind you while resting on the balls of your feet in a push-up position. While maintaining a neutral spine and stabilising through your abdominals, elevate your hips to create an inverted ‘V-shape’. With knees slightly bent, press your heels into the mat and tilt your tailbone upwards.
- Bend your left knee to elevate your heel slightly and press your right heel into the mat, stretching your right calf.
- Hold this position for half of the specified amount of time before completing the remaining time on the other side, breathing deeply throughout.
Adductor stretch — butterfly
If you sit all day at work — the butterfly stretch is for you! It helps open up tight hips and improve flexibility of the inner thigh adductor muscles to support stability and balance.
- While seated on a yoga mat, extend both legs out in front of you. Release and turn out both legs to bring the soles of your feet together directly in front of you, Place your hands on your feet, resting your forearms on your thighs.
- Bending from the hips, lower your torso towards the mat and gently use your forearms to press your thighs towards the mat.
- Hold this position, breathing deeply throughout. Each time that you exhale, lower your torso further towards the floor and use your forearms to press your thighs further towards the mat.
This stretch helps to improve flexibility and loosen your quadriceps, the muscles at the front of your thighs, as well as your hip flexors. It will also challenge your balance.
- Plant both feet on the floor slightly further shoulder width apart.
- Bend your right knee and bring your foot back directly behind you so that you can hold it with both hands. You should feel a stretch in the front of your right leg.
- Hold this position. If you’re struggling to balance, focus on a spot directly ahead of you or extend your left arm.
- Repeat this stretch with your left leg.
Half Pigeon Pose
This glute stretch will help to improve flexibility and loosen through your glutes and hip flexor muscles. To ease tension on the knee during the half pigeon stretch, you can bend your back leg out to the side of your body.
- Bend your left knee and place it behind and to the left of your left wrist. Rest your left shin on the mat, ensuring that your foot remains flexed. At the same time, place your right knee on the mat, untuck your toes and lower your hips towards the floor.
- Lengthen your spine to maintain an upright position, resting your fingertips on the mat. Continue to sink into your hips, ensuring that they remain level.
- Hold this position, continuously breathing in and out through your nose.
Your quads can compensate for tight glutes, consequently putting more pressure on your knees. If you have tightness in your glutes, the figure four stretch will help to stretch them out.
- Start by lying flat on your back on a yoga mat. Bend your knees and position your feet firmly on the mat, ensuring that they are hip-width apart and your spine is in a neutral position.
- Release and turn out your right leg so that your ankle is resting on your left leg just above your knee.
- Draw your left knee in towards your torso, resting both hands on the back of your left thigh.
- Hold this position, breathing deeply throughout.
- Each time that you exhale, draw your knee further into your chest and press your right elbow into your right knee to increase the stretch, ensuring that your spine remains in a neutral position and your tailbone on the floor.
- Repeat this stretch on the other side.
Remember knee exercises on your next leg day
Knee pain doesn’t mean giving up on an active lifestyle. With the right low-impact knee exercises, you can still get a good workout on leg day and take care of your joints.
Remember, most exercises can be modified to lessen any impact — such as removing plyometrics and keeping the movements stationary — so it’s always worth asking an expert if you’re unsure. You can also try yoga, Pilates or barre in the Sweat app if you’re looking for low-impact workout programs.
If you have any concerns or are experiencing chronic or even mild knee pain, always seek advice from your health professional.
* Results may vary. Strict adherence to the nutrition and exercise guide are required for best results.