If exercises like lunges and squats hurt your knees, you might be quick to blame the knees themselves. But just because that’s the joint that’s speaking up during your workout doesn’t mean it deserves to take all the heat.
Brad Whitley, D.P.T., a physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments Physical Therapy in Seattle, says that when he sees clients complaining about knee pain during these exercises, it’s often caused by lack of mobility or strength in the hips or ankles. These body parts sort of “bookend” the knee, so when they can’t work at their full capacity, you may end up putting more stress/strain on the knee than it can handle.
But really, any imbalance in muscles of the lower extremity—quads, hamstrings, hip adductors, calves—can impact how your knees feel. They all support the two knee joints, the tibiofemoral joint and the patellofemoral joint, so it’s important to make sure they’re pulling their weight if you want your knees to feel OK. Of course, if you experience a sharp or sudden pain, hear a tear or popping noise, or have pain or swelling that doesn’t get better after a few days, it’s a good idea to check with a doctor to make sure you aren’t injured.
If what you’re feeling, though, is a more general achiness and discomfort that’s exacerbated by lower-body exercises, building up the surrounding muscles may make a big difference in your knee pain. Until you build up the surrounding muscles and start to feel better, avoid movements that feel painful or hard on your knees, and anything that’s high-impact, suggests Lori Karchinski, D.P.T., clinical director of Professional Physical Therapy in Copiague, New York. “Such activities [you should avoid] include sudden starts and stops, and anything involving jumping and landing. Try to pick ‘knee-friendly’ activities, like a bicycle over a treadmill, in order to minimize the weight you’re putting on a painful joint,” Karchinski says.
She also adds that if lunges and squats do cause discomfort, it might be a sign you’re doing them improperly. “These exercises should always be done with no extra loading until form is perfected,” she says. Here’s some info on how to do a lunge the right way, and details on squat form.
Below, check out a few lower-body exercises that will help you work the all-important knee-supporting muscles in a low-impact way. Modeling the moves is Andrew Ahn, a fitness enthusiast who enjoys weight training, powerlifting, and trying new forms of exercise that will help him set and work toward new goals.
Banded Lateral Walk
Stepping laterally with a band looped around your legs targets the butt and hip muscles, including the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and hip external rotators, Whitley says. “While both glutes will be working throughout this exercise, you’ll feel more muscle activity in trailing leg as it must stabilize the moving leg,” he adds.
- Start in a quarter-squat position (a shallower squat) with a looped resistance band just above your knees.
- Take a giant step to your right with your right foot, then follow with your left. Take 10 steps in this direction (or as many as your space allows).
- Step back in the reverse direction, starting each step with your left and then your right, until you return to starting position.
“Knee pain can be tricky, but for many it may stem from a weakness or imbalances in other areas of the body, particularly the glutes and hamstrings,” Jacque Crockford, M.S., C.S.C.S., exercise physiology content manager at American Council on Exercise, reiterates. The kettlebell swing is a great exercise to target the glutes and hamstrings.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, gripping the top of the kettlebell handle with both hands.
- Bend your knees into a half squat, then hinge forward at the hips to drop the kettlebell between your legs.
- Stand back up and as you do, thrust from your hips and use the momentum to swing the weight to chest height.
Another great butt and hamstring move? The almighty deadlift. By effectively activating the glutes and hamstrings, this move will help to “provide stability to the knee joint through promoting strength in the hips,” says Crockford.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of your legs.
- Hinge at your hips, bend your knees slightly, and push your butt back to perform a deadlift, slowly lowering the weights down toward the ground.
- Pause at bottom, then slowly stand back up to return to starting position. Squeeze your glutes at the top.
This is a great warm-up stretch to get your hips and butt primed for movement. It also lets you stretch your back a bit without rotating too far.
- Begin in a high plank with your hands flat on the floor, wrists stacked under your shoulders, and your core, quads, and butt engaged.
- Step your left leg to the outside of your left hand so that you’re in a runner’s lunge.
- Lift your left arm and rotate and reach up toward to the ceiling, following with your eyes.
- Think about rotating through your pelvis, upper back, shoulder, and neck.
- Switch legs and repeat.
This deadlift variation adds an extra stability challenge—which means everything from your core to your hips to your hamstrings needs to work a tiny bit harder to maintain balance as you move.
- Stand with your feet together, holding a weight in each hand in front of your legs.
- Shift your weight to your left leg and while keeping a slight bend in your left knee, raise your right leg straight behind your body, hinging at the hips to bring your torso parallel to the floor, and lower the weight toward the floor.
- Keep your back flat. At the bottom of the movement, your torso and right leg should be almost parallel to the floor, with the weight a few inches off the ground. (If your hamstrings are tight, you may not be able to lift your leg as high.)
- Keeping your core tight, push through your left heel to stand up straight and pull the weight back up to starting position. Bring your right leg back down to meet your left, but just let your toes tap the floor lightly—don’t put any weight on your right foot.
- Pause at the top and squeeze your butt.
Crockford also suggests doing glute bridges to activate the entire hip and butt area without putting any impact on the knees. Adding a resistance band above your knees will help you target your glute medius (the muscle on the side of your butt that helps keep the thigh stabilized) a little more.
- Lie on your back with your hands at your sides, knees bent, and feet flat on floor hip-width apart. Loop a light- to medium-weight resistance band around your thighs, just above the knees.
- Squeeze your glutes and abs and push through your heels to lift your hips a few inches off the floor until your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Press out on the band so that your knees don’t cave in.
- Pause and squeeze your glutes at the top, then slowly lower your hips to return to start.
Monster walks are similar to lateral walks—they just work your glute medius from a slightly different angle. They also target your hip flexors and extensors a bit more.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, a mini looped resistance band just above your knees, and your knees bent into a half squat.
- Take a diagonal step forward and to the right with your right foot, then follow with your left.
- Reverse the movement, stepping diagonally behind your body with each step, to return to start.
- Repeat this movement, switching the leg you start with, each time.
This is one of the best and simplest exercises for your glutes and hamstrings. You can also switch it up with one of these variations: straighten the leg as you lift it up, lift the knee to hip height and pulse it an inch up and down (instead of bringing it all the way back to the floor each time), or hold a small exercise ball in the crease of the knee of your moving leg for extra hamstring activation.
- Start on all fours with your knees under your hips and hands under your shoulders.
- Flex your left foot and lift it off the floor as you kick your leg straight up, like you’re going to put the sole of your shoe on the ceiling. Keep your knee bent.
- Think about using your glutes to lift your leg. If you start to feel any tension in your lower back, don’t lift your leg as high.
- Do all your reps on one side, and then repeat with the other leg.