6 Training Hacks for Bad Knees

Exercises to fix knee pain
Eliminate your knee pain. Toby Maudsley / Getty Images

“Bad knees” is an easy crutch many lean on when explaining why they don’t squat, jog, lunge, or basically do anything else that’s leg-related. In truth, it shouldn’t stop anyone from performing lower body movements. If you have knee pain when you workout, follow these steps to successfully rehab the joint.

Strengthen the posterior chain.

The hamstrings and glutes play a huge role in alleviating knee stress. Performing exercises for the posterior muscles, like deadlifts and kettlebell swings, will help bolster the knees and reduce or prevent pain.

Use a full range of motion.

Half-squats and partial lunges may actually make matters worse. A full range of motion allows the joint to be properly exercised and the corresponding muscles to contribute evenly. Partial ranges can overload the quads, which are a common culprit of overuse, especially where knee stress is concerned. Worse yet, getting strong in a small range of motion simply exposes a more stilted and blatant imbalance as soon as you pass out of these small ranges. That could mean further injury.

Take care of your hips.

The knee joint is beholden to the hips. So if the hip joint is in poor condition, the knees will be too. The hip musculature is usually tight and weak, with poor mobility due to desk jobs and general underuse. To restore mobility to the hip structure, make a habit of performing cradle walks, spiderman walks, and high knee walks on a regular basis — especially before you train.

Change your cardio.

Running, cycling, and rowing may feel pain-free when you do them, but they’re contributing to the muscle imbalances that result in the joint pain you experience day to day. All of these exercises involve repetitive actions that only jack up the quads and hip flexors or cause impact to the same joints (the knee and hip). The small range of motion the knee joint travels through while cycling and running lends to the point mentioned above in worsening an already present muscle imbalance. And sitting on a seat to perform rows immediately shuts down the posterior chain from being involved in the movement. To replace these, try lowering your rest interval between sets of a strength workout to keep your heart rate. Or, go for a swim. Swimming is impact-free, and works the whole body.

Keep a vertical shin position.

As much as possible, keep a vertical shin during moves like squats and lunges. The further forward your knees pass over your toes, the more quad-dominant a lift is going to be. In an ideal world, a knee shifting forward over the toes is fine, as long as the entire feet are planted firmly on the ground. However, in the case of chronic pain, it could cause aggravation. Using reverse lunges, deadlifts, and box squats as the hub of your lower body training can instill a very vertical shin position and target the quads, hamstrings, and glutes without aggravation.

Avoid isolation

Movements that isolate one muscle group at a time (think hamstring curls, leg extensions) can cause shearing forces that can damage the knee joint. Focus your workouts on compound movements like squats and deadlifts that allow all the muscles surrounding the joint to contract and stabilizing the joint.