Looking Up | Seven Best Knee Strengthening Exercises

Seven Best Exercises for Knee Pain

The Clearing Team
The Clearing Team

If you have knee pain, you’re not alone: one in four people who are 50 or older in the United States live with knee pain.

This is partially because muscles that are integral to the knee, such as the hamstrings, calves, and quads, tend to weaken with age. Loss of muscle tone makes your knees less stable and increases the amount of work your knees have to do with every step. A lack of exercise can also contribute to a higher BMI, which puts you at a higher risk for developing knee pain. 

To strengthen muscles and overall health, therapeutic exercise is often recommended as a first-line treatment for people with knee pain. The type of exercise that’s right for you may vary, depending on your age and your health. 

To get you going, we put together a list of some of the best exercises for knee pain. These exercises include: 

  • Side leg raises 
  • Calf raises 
  • Hamstring curls
  • Chair yoga 
  • Elliptical machine 
  • Cycling 
  • Walking

Side leg raises 

At least one study has shown that hip strengthening exercises can work for knee pain. This could be because when your hips, thighs, and knees aren’t in a solid alignment, your knees end up compensating for that and take the brunt of the pressure. Side leg raises can help you bring focus to the knee muscles, strengthening the quads and hamstrings to bring relief. 

How to do it

Using an exercise mat, lie on your side with your legs stretched straight out. Rest your head on one arm and place your free arm on the floor to stabilize your body. Slowly, and with control, lift up your top leg toward the ceiling. Once you’ve reached a point that feels challenging, hold the position before slowly lowering your knee back down again. Do thirty repetitions before switching sides and doing the other leg. If you’d like to add some difficulty, use a resistance band. 

Calf raises 

The calf muscles attach to the back of your knees. When these muscles lack strength, they can put stress on the knee joint. Calf raises use gravity and your own body weight to create natural resistance, which can strengthen the calf muscles. 

How to do it

Do this exercise standing up, using a chair or the wall for balance. Put your feet hip-width apart, and point your toes toward the chair or wall. Once you’re stable, lift both heels off the floor at the same time. Then slowly return your heels to the floor. Repeat 30 times, if it feels doable (and if it doesn’t, aim for 10 reps as a start.). 

Hamstring curls 

Strengthening your hamstring muscles relieves some of the stress on your knees when you do just about any of your daily activities. Hamstring curls have the added benefit of strengthening your quads, too. In a 2013 study of people who had osteoarthritis, those who specifically trained their hamstrings and glutes for 12 weeks perceived less pain and had an increased range of motion. 

How to do it

You may want to start with a standing hamstring curl, which doesn’t require any equipment at all. Stand straight with your feet hip-width apart, and use a chair for balance if you need one. Shift your weight to your right foot, and raise your left leg up and back, curling toward your glute muscles. Bring your heel up slowly as far as you can, then lower it back to the floor. Repeat for 15 to 30 repetitions, then shift your weight and repeat on the opposite leg. 

Chair yoga 

Yoga is great exercise for people with osteoarthritis and other chronic pain conditions. It can feel intimidating to give yoga a try, especially if you have knee pain. Doing yoga poses while seated is a way that you can get some of the benefits of yoga (including stress reduction) without putting any strain on your knees. 

How to do it

You can easily find chair yoga flow classes on the internet, and you may even be able to find a chair yoga class at a nearby gym. If you’d like to try chair yoga for knees in the comfort of your home, start with simple poses that stretch and strengthen your lower body. Pigeon pose is an easy one -- start with your back straight up against the chair, and raise your heel so that it’s over your knee. Breathe in deeply and lean into the stretch for thirty seconds to a full minute. Repeat on the opposite side. 

Elliptical machine 

The elliptical machine is considered a low-impact form of cardiovascular exercise. It enables you to burn lots of calories in a short span of time without putting a lot of stress on your knee joints. 

If you’re not within the recommended weight range, using an elliptical can be one way to help you shed pounds without making knee pain worse. As an added bonus, the elliptical can strengthen the muscles that surround your knee and increase blood circulation to the knee region.

How to do it

If you’re coming back from an injury or haven’t worked out in awhile, start small: Try for ten-minute sessions on the elliptical and set the resistance down to its lowest setting. For an added challenge, you can safely do the exercise backwards by pressing your heels back and following through with your back leg muscles. This will work a whole different set of muscles while avoiding any strain on your knees. If you feel up to it, aim for a 30 minute session at a resistance level that feels challenging but also doable.

Cycling

Whether you choose a stationary bike, spin class, or biking outside, cycling is a great way to get some cardio in without stressing out tired knees. In 2021, a meta-analysis of 11 studies of a total of 724 participants found that regular exercise on a stationary bike relieved pain and improved performance for people with knee osteoarthritis. Cycling also strengthens your hamstrings and glute muscles to help stabilize your knees. 

How to do it

If you have access to a stationary bike, start there! If you prefer adventures outside on a road bike, you can get a dose of vitamin D while you’re at it. Start with flat roads and short biking sessions of 20 minutes, three times per week. Make sure that you have the right shoes for biking and keep your knees straight while you pedal.

Walking

Believe it or not, simply taking an evening stroll around your neighborhood may be enough to help resolve some symptoms of knee pain. By adding intentional, gentle walking rhythms into your daily routine, you are strengthening your knees and the surrounding muscles. What’s more, studies show that older adults prefer moderate exercise that doesn't trigger memories of a bad or painful experience. The best exercise is exercise that you will actually do, so something simple like walking is a good option. 

How to do it

Start slow, simple, and small when it comes to walking for joint health. Thirty minutes of walking per day, along with eating a healthy diet, is enough to be extremely beneficial for your bones, your muscles, and your weight. For best results, enlist the help of a friend or family member to walk with you. After spending a few minutes chatting and taking in the local view, you might find that a half hour has sped by. 

Other treatments for knee pain 

In addition to regular exercise, there are some other treatments you might want to consider for knee pain. 

Nutritional supplements 

Some people have success with nutritional supplements for inflammatory conditions like osteoarthritis. Oral supplements that contain collagen, natural eggshell membrane, green-lipped mussel extract, and glucosamine may be able to help reduce pain levels. Oral hyaluronan may also help with knee pain. 

Over-the-counter pain relief 

You may be able to get temporary relief from knee pain by using an anti-inflammatory or a topical pain relief cream. NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like naproxen and ibuprofen are some of the most commonly recommended treatments for knee pain caused by arthritis. 

Physical therapy 

If your knee pain is caused by an injury or a chronic condition, physical therapy might help. During physical therapy, your provider may guide you through some of the exercises mentioned above. You may also get heat therapy, deep tissue massage, TENs unit therapy, or some combination of the three to help you recover from an injury or break up any scar tissue that’s contributing to your  pain. 

Lifestyle changes 

Losing weight, changing how you eat and lowering your stress can all be part of your treatment plan for knee pain. By reducing your overall BMI, for example, you’re taking stress off your knees and may be able to better enjoy the activities that are currently causing you pain. 

Surgery 

In some cases, knee pain won’t resolve on its own. In these instances, your doctor may recommend surgical treatment, such as knee replacement surgery

How Clearing can help relieve knee pain

It’s tough to live your best life when your knees hurt. That’s why we’re here, so the journey to better knees doesn’t have to feel quite so long or lonely. At Clearing, we’ve assembled knee-improvement exercises you can do at home. You can also find products (including CBD creams) aimed at offering relief, nutraceuticals to help your joints get healthier and access to guidance from doctors who specialize in treating pain. 

Our services start with a medical intake to understand your needs and expand from there to give you comprehensive support at your own pace. Take a step toward stronger and less painful knees by clicking below.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your individual needs and medical conditions.