Injury Prevention

8 Workout Moves To Prevent Knee Pain

The key to protecting the biggest joint in your body starts with building strong quads.

Originally Published: 
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Call it the curse of the weekend warrior, the scourge of growing older, or just lousy genetics your parents passed on. Whatever the reason, you’re prone to knee pain. This is a bummer as knee pain affects just about every activity, limiting one’s ability to run, bike, or chase the kid around the jungle gym.

The solution isn’t exactly simple, but it’s straightforward: You need an exercise routine that builds strength. Your knees — the largest joint in your body — are actually a weak link in the kinetic chain, due to the opposing forces of your lower legs. “The body alternates between joints that provide stability and mobility,” says Raphael Konforti, the senior director of fitness at YouFit Gyms in San Diego, CA. “The ankle is a mobile joint, the knee is a stable joint, and the hips are another mobile joint. The ankles and hips can move in many directions whereas the knee can only move one way. So if the ankles or hips have poor mobility, that places extra stress on the knees.”

Exactly how can you injure your knees? Common issues include patellofemoral pain syndrome (a.k.a. runner’s knee), tendonitis, ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) surgery, and meniscus tears and repairs, says Dan Jonhenry, a fitness expert and personal trainer at Retro Fitness in Tuckerton, NJ. “Depending on the demographic, knee issues can range from arthritis to total knee replacements,” he adds.

The good news (you were waiting for that): There are exercises you can do to help prehab your knee pain. Yes, that’s a thing. It means doing this workout today will build up your leg strength and stability, so that tomorrow when you go to play tennis, there’s none of the drama that leaves you hobbling off the court with a grimace.

The key to a great knee-pain prevention workout? Moving your legs in multiple planes, so you build mobility along with stability, Konforti stresses. Start with this sequence of eight moves and do just one set each on your first day, rest one to three days, aim for two sets on your second workout, and three sets in subsequent sessions.

The Move: Quad Set

What it works: Quads, knees

Why it matters: This very basic warm-up exercise fires up your quads and the areas where muscles attach to tendons around your knees.

How to do it: Sit on the floor, legs stretched out in front of you. Contract your right quadriceps muscles and imagine that you are pressing the back of your knee down into the floor. Hold for 3-5 counts, then relax.

How many: 10 on each side

The Move: Squat Twists

What it works: Quads, glutes, and hips

Why it matters: This move provides strength and stability for your knees. “Weak quads can contribute to knee pain as they play a major role in the stabilization of the knee,” says Jonhenry. “By strengthening your quads, you will stabilize the knee which will create less wear and tear on the joint.”

How to do it: Stand with feet together, arms out to the sides. Step widely to the left and sink down into a squat, knees directly over your feet. Twist your torso to the left. From this twisted position, push off with your left foot, return your torso to facing front, straighten your legs, and return to the starting position. Repeat on right side.

How many: 10 per side

The Move: Reverse Lunges

What it works: Hamstrings, calves, and ankles

Why it matters: Working the hamstrings is key, Jonhenry notes, in order to balance the forces on your knee. “The antagonistic muscle group to the quadriceps are the hamstrings, which are not as strong as the quadriceps,” he notes. For injury prevention, you’re looking for a minimum strength ratio of 3:5 (hamstrings to quads), according to Jonhenry. This move also strengthens your ankles, which help stabilize your knees, and your gastrocnemius, the calf muscle that controls how well your knee absorbs forces when you hit the ground while running.

How to do it: Stand with feet together, arms by your sides. Bend right knee and take a step backward with your left foot. Plant left toes on the ground, keeping left leg straight. Push off with your right foot and swing your right leg behind you, bending your left knee as you reach back and plant your right toes in the floor.

How many: Repeat right/left lunges 10 times

The Move: Lateral Squats

What it works: Hips, quads, glutes, and ankles.

Why it matters: Your hips and ankles play a bigger role in knee pain than you may realize. Your knee flexes and extends in two-dimensional space, but your hips and ankles determine the direction it flexes and extends in. If your hips are weak, it may allow your knees to point inward as you move; over time, this misalignment can lead to pain.

How to do it: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart arms relaxed. Take a wide step sideways with your right foot, toes pointed out. “Make sure you keep equal weight on the ball and heel of the right foot when you shift to the right, allowing the knee to move forward in line with the foot,” says Konforti. Bend your right knee, keeping your weight shifted to your right side. Sink deeper into a squat, left leg straight. Push off your right foot and return to standing. Repeat on left side.

How many: 8 on each side

The Move: Squat Jumps

What it works: Quads, glutes, and calves

Why it matters: This explosive movement is a double-edged sword. It develops control over the ligaments that support your knee joint, but the crossover between eccentric (lengthening your muscles as you squat) and concentric (contracting your muscles when you spring back up) movement leaves your knees vulnerable to injury, so take it slow. “High-impact exercises should be avoided if knee pain is already present,” says Jonhenry. “If knee pain is not present, it is important to work your way up to explosive movements to ensure the knee joint is stabilized when the movement is performed.”

How to do it: Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes slightly turned out. Bend your knees and sink back as if you’re sitting until knees are directly over your feet. Press through the balls of your feet to spring up into the air, straightening your legs as you jump. Land with soft knees and return to squat.

How many: 8 reps

The Move: Bavarian Split Squats

What it works: Quads, glutes

Why it matters: Weak quads can lead to knee pain since your knees are forced to absorb the shock that your quads can’t handle. A study in the Journal of Rheumatology found that people with weak quadriceps reported greater knee pain than those with stronger quad muscles. But even more important than strength is stability, says Konforti. “Most people have quadriceps that can’t provide stability and lack muscular endurance,” he explains. “Stability is required to have mobility. So if the knees can’t provide stability, then it affects the ankles and hips ability to provide mobility and vice versa.”

How to do it: Stand with your back to a bench about two feet away. Raise your right leg behind you and rest the top of your right foot on the bench. Holding light weights in both hands, bend your left leg into a squat, using the bench for stability. Straighten and repeat.

How many: 10 reps, switch sides and repeat

The Move: Single Leg Hamstring Curl

What it works: Hamstrings, glutes

Why it matters: This ultimate builder of leg strength helps counterbalance your quads to stabilize the knees.

How to do it: Lie on your back, feet on top of a large exercise ball. Squeeze your glutes and engage your hamstrings to lift hips into the air into a bridge. Take your right leg off the ball and extend it in front of you. (“You will have to work on your balance,” notes Konforti.) Keeping your hips off the ground, bend left knee to bring the ball towards your body, keeping your heel on the body, then extend back to the starting position.

How many: 10 reps, switch sides and repeat

The Move: Negative Step-Ups

What it works: Quads, hips, and knees

Why it matters: This move develops stability in the ligaments around the knee while building quad strength. “Focus on keeping the knee in line with the foot so the knee doesn’t collapse inward or lean outward,” says Konforti.

How to do it: Place your right foot onto a box or bench so that your right shin is vertical, and your right knee is at 90 degrees. Push through the ball and heel of your left foot and step up. Pause at the top and raise left knee to hip height. Slowly lower back left foot back to the ground to the starting position, keeping the hips even and shin perpendicular.

How many: 10 step-ups on the right; 10 on the left

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