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6 Leg Strengthening Exercises For Guys With Weak Knees

These six exercises build strength and stability in your legs while going easy on your joints.

Life with a baby or toddler is hard on the knees — hell, the first year alone makes you crouch as much as an MLB catcher. Add in a decade or two of forceful, high-impact activities like basketball or Crossfit and you’re a potential candidate for arthritis. “You’re predisposed to arthritis based on how your body is designed, your past injuries, your genetic build, and the sports you’ve played,” says Ran Schwarzkopf, a knee surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center. “And there is no cure.”

But just because your knees aren’t feeling what they used to doesn’t mean you should hang up the gym shorts. “Think of your knees like the tires of a car,” Schwarzkopf says. “If you drive on a smooth, well-maintained road rather than off-road, your tires will last longer. They’ll continue to deteriorate but maybe you can complete your life without having to replace them.”

Obviously, low-impact, low-load activities like cycling, swimming, and elliptical machining are safe for your knees. But they’re also low-intensity and boring. Here, instead, are 6 leg exercises that favor weak or painful knees from Mark Demchak, a trainer with the Northwestern Medicine Athletic Training and Sports Performance Clinic.

Lateral Lunge To Post

Areas worked: Quads, glutes, core

How to:

  • From a standing position, step out into a side lunge.
  • Now, push yourself back up to standing but bring your knee up without returning your foot to the floor
  • Step your foot back out to the side to repeat.
  • Switch sides and repeat.
  • Perform three sets of 8-10 reps per side.

Tips: Don’t let your lunging knee dive in—your bent knee should be over your toes—and make sure your whole body is situated over your leg, rather than performing a split and leaning to one side. “Your shoulder, knee, hip, and ankle should all be aligned when you go down,” Demchak says. “People lose balance or overcompensate with some acrobatics. Shift your weight back (in the lunge) so you’re using your glutes and quads.”

Tall kneeling step out

Muscles worked: Quads, glutes, hamstrings

How to:

  • Begin by kneeling on a pad or folded mat with your arms raised overhead.
  • Step one foot out in front, bringing your knee into a 90-degree angle.
  • Push yourself into a one-legged stand by stepping up with your back leg, lifting your foot up and bringing your knee up to parallel with your hips.
  • Step back with the raised foot to kneel on one knee.
  • Step back with the front foot.
  • Repeat, then switch sides and repeat.
  • Perform three sets of 8-10 reps

Tip:  Protect your knees by keeping them to 90 degrees. And try to avoid dipping to the side that is unsupported and keep your back flat—not bent with your butt in the air. “You should be a rod from head to toes in the plank,” Demchak says.

Swiss Ball bridge matrix

Muscles worked: Glutes, hips, quads, and core strength

How to:

  • With your upper back and shoulder blades supported by an exercise ball, walk your feet out so your knees are in line with your heels.
  • Lower your butt so your body is in a ‘V’ position at the bottom of the movement.
  • Return to top of bridge by raising your hips and pushing into your heels.
  • Extend one leg out straight and lower yourself down again.
  • Return to top of bridge.
  • Extend the other leg and lower yourself down.
  • Return to top of bridge.
  • Repeat lowering yourself down with both feet on the floor.
  • Return to top of bridge.

Tip: Keep your knees in the same position you would if you were bridging on the floor without the ball. “If you walk out too far, you’ll put too much pressure on your hamstrings,” Demchak says. “If your feet are too far in, you’ll hurt your knees.”

Single leg contralateral reach

Muscles worked: Glutes and quads as well as full-body stabilization.

How to: 

  • Stand with feet close together, one arm extended in front of you.
  • Pivot at the waist and reach the leg of the extended arm back, bending forward to 45-90 degrees.
  • Reach the extended arm forward than across diagonally.
  • Stand back up, keeping arm extended and repeat.
  • Switch sides and repeat.

Tip: Make sure your standing leg is bent so your knee is at approximately 20 degrees. “Don’t overbend or lock the knee,” Demchak says. And avoid opening up at the hip — you want to stay square to the ground.

Eccentric pistol squat onto box

Muscles worked: Glutes, quads, core.

  • Stand on one leg in front of a box or bench.
  • Slowly lower yourself down onto the box by pushing your hips back and extending your raised leg.
  • When your butt touches the box, put your raised foot down and stand up with both legs.
  • Repeat, then switch sides and repeat.
  • Perform three sets of 8-10 reps.

Tip: “ Keep your knee from diving in by allowing it to go straight over where your foot is pointing. Do not arch your back or bend forward. “You want to stay at a 45-degree angle or more with your upper body rather than hunching over to complete the movement,” Demchak says. “If you lose control of your balance, use a TRX band to help get the movement down and then progress out of it.”

Reverse clam

Muscles worked: glutes, abductors, pelvic muscles

  • Lay on your side with your knees bent and touching with either a resistance band around your ankles or an ankle weight on.
  • Keeping your knees touching, bring your top foot up and slightly forward.
  • Lower your foot back down and repeat, then switch sides.

Tip: Don’t arch your back or move your leg straight up when you kick out. “This isn’t about getting your leg up as high as you can,” Demchak says. “It’s meant to work your end range, so do not go past the point where your lumbar has to sacrifice stability.”