11 Effective Exercises For Knee Pain (With Pictures) | Tips And Hacks To Boost Results

Written By on September 18, 2022 — Medically Reviewed By Kris Ceniza (PT)

Written by on — Medically Reviewed By: Kris Ceniza (PT)

There are thousands of exercises for knee pain available out there. This makes sense – the stronger your lower leg and thigh muscles, the less risk of knee pain. But the truth is that so many of them don’t work, or can be harmful without the right guidance. (1)

So, our team of physical therapists made this list of easy and effective exercises, with written and visual instructions. They included pro tips on each movement to boost its effect and help you troubleshoot, too.

These are the topics covered, tap on any of them to easily navigate through the sections:

11 exercises to reduce knee joint pain

1) Straight leg raises

Lateral view of a woman in exercise clothes, in an outdoor setting, performing a straight leg raise for knee pain

This simple exercise is an easy way to work your quadriceps, a key muscle for knee health. Strengthening it can help reduce knee pain and protect it from wear and tear. (2)



To do it:

  • Lie down.
  • Bend one knee, keeping the foot flat.
  • Slowly lift one leg while keeping the other straight.
  • Raise it to the height of the opposite knee. 

Repeat 5-15 times for up to 3 sets. To increase difficulty, hold the leg up for a few seconds.

Pro tips:

Try it before leaving your bed in the morning – it will prepare your knee for the day.

Also, leave the knee you’re not working on bent. This reduces the effort on your lumbar area.

2) Side straight leg raise

View of a woman in exercise clothes, in an outdoor setting, lying on her side performing a lateral side raise for knee pain

This exercise targets your lateral hip muscles. Strengthening them, along with other hip muscles, helps keep your knee stable and can reduce pain as well. Give it a shot if you have a wobbly knee! (3)

To do it:

  • Lie on your side.
  • Bend the lower knee. 
  • With the other leg straight, raise it up until it’s aligned with your hip. 

Repeat 5-15 times for up to 3 sets. To increase difficulty, hold the leg up for a few seconds.

Pro tips:

Place the hand of your upper arm flat on the floor for extra stability.

Also, if you have lateral knee pain that worsens with this exercise, it’s best to stop and move on to another movement the next.

You may want to get your knee checked, as 7 potential issues may be causing pain on the outside of the knee

3) Calf raise

Lateral view of a man with gray clothes and blue shoes, in a gym setting, performing calf raises for knee pain

This exercise strengthens your calves, so they get better at absorbing impact from the ground up. It ultimately protects your meniscus, cartilage, and ligaments from unnecessary strain.

To do it:

  • Stand on a flat surface, close to a wall or chair.
  • Grabbing the wall/chair, stand on your tiptoes while squeezing your calf muscles.
  • Slowly go back to starting position.

Repeat 5-30 times for up to 3 sets. To increase difficulty, try it while standing on one foot. Or do it with your eyes closed.

Pro tips:

Try one set with legs straight and the other with a bent knee. This will target different calf muscles to maximize your effort. Doing it barefoot can improve your foot flexibility as well.

4) Hip bridge

Lateral view of a woman in exercise clothes, in an outdoor setting, performing a hip bridge exercise for knee pain

This glute exercise helps improve your knee stability and your hip strength – two birds with one stone!

To do it:

  • Lie down, knees bent and feet flat on the ground.
  • Push your hips up to the ceiling by squeezing your glutes.
  • Slowly return to starting position.

Repeat 10-15 times for up to 3 sets. To increase difficulty, cross your arms on your chest and close your eyes – this will test your stability.

Pro tips:

If it’s uncomfortable on your knees, you may be pushing through your feet too much. Try moving your feet a little closer or further from your butt to fix this.

5) Single-leg hip bridge

Lateral view of a woman in exercise clothes, in an outdoor setting, performing a single-leg hip bridge for knee pain

This bridge variation kicks it up a notch, by including your core and quadriceps muscles. It’s a well-rounded movement to target your entire lower body. 

To do it:

  • Lie down, knees bent and feet flat. 
  • Push your hips up to the ceiling by squeezing your glutes.
  • Raise one foot off the floor toward the ceiling, and straighten that knee.
  • Bend the knee again and slowly return to the starting position.

Repeat 5-15 times for up to 3 sets.

Pro tips:

If your hips drop a bit down as you straighten your leg, this movement is too advanced for you at the moment. So, start by just raising the left or right foot off the floor. Build up from there.

6) Fire hydrant

Lateral view of a woman in exercise clothes, in an outdoor setting, performing the fire hydrant exercise for knee pain

This exercise strengthens the lateral muscles on your thigh, which are key for knee stability. But it can worsen certain types of bursitis, so skip this one if you have that injury.

To do it:

  • Get on your hands and knees.
  • Keep your knees hip-width apart and hands shoulder-width apart.
  • Lift one knee to your side, with the leg bent at a 90° angle. 
  • Slowly raise it until reaching hip height, then go back to starting position.

Repeat 5-15 times for up to 3 sets. To increase difficulty, hold the leg up for a few seconds. Or, draw circles with your raised knee.

Pro tips:

If it’s uncomfortable on your knees, try kneeling on a pillow to reduce the pressure.

7) Wall squat hold

Lateral view of a man with gray clothes and blue shoes, in a gym setting, performing an wall squat hold for knee pain

Although it looks simple, this exercise is an effective way to strengthen your quads and promote stability. 

To do it:

  • Slide your back down the wall with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Keep your feet aligned with your knees.
  • Hold for 20-30 seconds.
  • Slowly return to starting position.

Repeat 5 times. To increase difficulty, hold the position for longer.

Pro tips:

It’s normal to feel some pressure on the knees. But if it’s too uncomfortable, try adjusting the position of your feet – turn them a bit outwards/inwards or closer/further to the wall.

8) Air squat

Front and lateral view of a man with gray clothes and blue shoes, in a gym setting, performing an air squat

This is a staple for knee strengthening exercises because it’s easy, effective, and doesn’t need equipment. 

To do it:

  • Place your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width, with your toes pointing a bit out.
  • Get into a sitting position by pushing your butt back, while keeping your torso straight. 
  • Slowly lower yourself until your thighs are parallel to the floor. 
  • Stand up by squeezing your quad muscles.

Repeat 5-15 times for up to 3 sets. To increase difficulty, hold the bottom position for a few seconds.

Pro tips:

It takes some trial and error to find YOUR ideal foot positioning in a squat.

Try pointing your toes a bit more out/in, or placing your feet a bit closer/further from each other. Keep the combination that feels best on your knee.

Also, you may have ankle mobility issues if:

  • You tend to fall back while doing this exercise.
  • If your ankle inevitably raises up when you’re at the bottom of the movement.

If that’s you, do 3 sets of 10 reps of this exercise before squatting to help with your form.



9) Deadlift

Two images over a blue background, showing a lateral view of a man with gray clothes and blue shoes, in a gym setting, performing a deadlift for knee pain

This exercise strengthens the posterior muscles of your leg, the hamstring muscles. They’re often neglected but are key for knee health. (4)

Now, this movement is mostly focused on the hips – your knees and ankles shouldn’t do much, unlike the squat.

Do it without weights first to nail down the movement pattern. Once you’re confident about it, try adding weights.

To do it:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointing a bit out.
  • Bend the knees a little.
  • Keeping your torso straight and chest up, lean over as far as you can by hinging at the hips. 
  • Keep the shins vertical and your lower back flat throughout the entire movement.
  • Push yourself back up by driving your heels into the ground.

Repeat 5-15 times for up to 3 sets. To increase difficulty, add weights – a bottle of water or a bag of flour in each hand, for example. 

Pro tips:

This movement may seem complex at first, but it’s crucial for managing knee pain. If you’re not sure if you’re doing it right, this demonstration will help you out. 

10) Lunges

Lateral view of a man with gray clothes and blue shoes, in a gym setting, performing an front lunge for knee pain

This exercise is a bit more advanced, as you work on strength and dynamic stability at the same time. It will test not only your legs but your abdominal muscles as well.

To do it:

  • Stand with feet hip-width apart.
  • Take a step forward, around twice the length of a walking stride. 
  • Keeping your front foot flat, slowly bend both knees to 90º as you lower yourself. The rear knee shouldn’t touch the floor.
  • Keep your trunk straight throughout the entire movement. 
  • Get back to starting position by pushing yourself up with your front leg.
  • Once you’re done with one side, switch legs.

Repeat 5-15 times for up to 3 sets. To increase difficulty, hold the bottom position for a few seconds.

Pro tips:

If this movement causes knee pain, try the reverse variation – take the step backwards and do the motion with the rear leg instead.

Alternatively, try doing it next to a wall or chair to help you keep balance.

11) Standing quad stretch

Lateral view of a man with gray clothes and blue shoes, in a gym setting, performing a standing quadriceps stretch for knee pain

This stretch is the best way to finish your session (or your day!). It can reduce the tension on the quadriceps -if any -, reducing it on your knee as well. 

To do it:

  • Grab onto a wall or a chair to help you keep stability.
  • Standing up tall, pull one foot toward your butt until you feel the stretch on your quadriceps.
  • Hold for 30-60 seconds and repeat with the other leg.

Repeat 3-5 times with each leg. To increase the stretching sensation, squeeze the glute of the same side as you hold the stretch.

Pro tips:

You can also do it while lying on your bed, whether lying on your belly or on your side.



Try these: 7 best stretches for knee pain

3 things to keep in mind before starting

These tips will increase your chances of successfully managing knee pain with exercise:

1) Try a few reps of each exercise and keep the 3 easiest ones

Then, do them 2-3 times per week, for 4-6 weeks. This will give your knee enough time to adapt and get stronger while minimizing problems down the road.

After that period, change at least one of the exercises. Switching things up every month or so makes sure you don’t overdo it with any movement and prevents injury.

2) Don’t. Push. Through. The. Pain.

More pain isn’t more gain. See, if you have existing knee pain, pushing through it can make it worse. It can delay your progress or even set you back if you force things.

And, this can be a bit hard to notice if you’re used to pushing through the pain daily.

So, if any exercise causes pain, stop and honestly ask yourself: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how intense is my pain?”. Here’s what to do next depending on your answer:

If the pain is 4/10 or less:

Take a 5-minute break, move on to another exercise, and/or try an easier variation.

Be mindful of the pain but keep exercising, as long as it doesn’t get worse.

If it’s 5/10 or more:

Stop exercising, take a mental note of what happened, and rest until your next session. Also, try to use it as a learning opportunity.

See, there are a few things that may cause knee pain while exercising. From doing too much too soon to lack of sleep – even being in a bad mood could contribute to this.

Trying to identify what happened is extremely valuable – you’ll learn from it and improve for future sessions.

But if the symptoms increase or persist for more than 24 hours, please get your joint checked by a physical therapist or doctor.

Learn more: 5 common reasons why the knee hurts while exercising.

3) Play the long game.

There’s one thing nobody tells you about eliminating knee pain for good – you have to play the long game.

Exercise has a cumulative effect, so the more you do it, the better your knee will be. That’s why it’s key to start slowly and build up over time. 

It’s normal to have some degree of discomfort if you’re not used to exercising, but it should get better after a few sessions.

Natural hacks to maximize your results 

Exercise is the cornerstone of recovering from knee pain. But there are some things you can do to make sure that process happens smoothly:

And, don’t underestimate the value of doing the basics consistently – proper sleep, healthy nutrition, and stress management. These are key to recovering from knee pain.

What if these knee exercises aren’t enough?

Knee exercises can relieve pain. But their effectiveness largely depends on the cause of knee pain, among other factors such as:

  • Your age and lifestyle.
  • Previous injuries.
  • Having symptoms in other areas, like hip pain or ankle problems.
  • Living with chronic health conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis or diabetes.

So, if strengthening your knee isn’t giving you results, please check with your doctor or physical therapist. They will help you figure out what’s going on and determine the best treatment plan for you.

This may help: What doctor can help with knee pain?

FAQs

Can knee pain be cured by exercise?

Some types of knee pain can be cured by exercise, like patellofemoral pain syndrome. This entirely depends on the cause of pain, as some injuries need medications or surgery to resolve.

Is walking good for knee pain?

Yes, walking is good for knee pain. It’s an easy exercise to promote joint health and can protect your knees from limitations due to osteoarthritis. (5)

What are 3 exercises to strengthen your knee?

3 exercises to strengthen your knee are squats, deadlifts, and hip thrusts. They are simple, can be done without equipment, and offer a big bang for your buck.

Conclusion: Best strengthening and stretching exercises for knee pain

These knee exercises will help you get strong muscles on your legs, ultimately reducing or even eliminating pain for good.

Be smart, though – don’t push through the pain as you risk making things worse. Play the long game, and talk to your physician or therapist if in doubt.

You got this!

Resources

  1. Lee, Ji Yeon et al. “Lower leg muscle mass relates to knee pain in patients with knee osteoarthritis.” International journal of rheumatic diseases vol. 21,1 (2018): 126-133. doi:10.1111/1756-185X.12896
  2. Muraki, Shigeyuki et al. “Quadriceps muscle strength, radiographic knee osteoarthritis and knee pain: the ROAD study.” BMC musculoskeletal disorders vol. 16 305. 16 Oct. 2015, doi:10.1186/s12891-015-0737-5
  3. Ferber, Reed et al. “Strengthening of the hip and core versus knee muscles for the treatment of patellofemoral pain: a multicenter randomized controlled trial.” Journal of athletic training vol. 50,4 (2015): 366-77. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-49.3.70
  4. Hafez, Ashraf Ramadan et al. “Treatment of knee osteoarthritis in relation to hamstring and quadriceps strength.” Journal of physical therapy science vol. 25,11 (2013): 1401-5. doi:10.1589/jpts.25.1401
  5. White, Daniel K et al. “Daily walking and the risk of incident functional limitation in knee osteoarthritis: an observational study.” Arthritis care & research vol. 66,9 (2014): 1328-36. doi:10.1002/acr.22362

Author
Mich Torres (PT)
Mitch is a physical therapist, personal trainer, and nutrition coach. Fascinated with the knee joint, Mitch poured that passion into writing about knee pain and how to overcome it with movement. His goal is to teach you how to apply this knowledge into your daily life, so you can keep knee pain away for good.

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