What's the Best Workout for Bad Knees?

The Short Answer:

“Bad knees” is a broad term, but in general, the more you can work your knees without jarring them, the stronger they will become and the less pain you will feel.

When it comes to your workouts, that usually means eliminating plyometric (i.e., jumping) exercises and performing non-plyometric exercises with better form (e.g., sitting back into your squat instead of pushing your knees forward).

Of course, that advice assumes that your knees aren’t too far gone. Before you continue to exercise, consult your doctor to make sure that your knees are healthy enough for vigorous physical activity.

If he or she gives you rehab exercises, do them. If you’re referred to a physical therapist (PT), work with that person. Then, when you’re ready, return to your regularly scheduled workouts, following the advice of your PT.

The Long Answer:

If your knees ache, you’re not alone. Knee pain affects around 18 percent of adults in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Here’s a five-step rehabilitation plan to help you banish it for good.

Step 1 – Talk to your doctor. Some doctors, whether because of laziness or fear of liability, shell out advice akin to “if it hurts, don’t do it.” But oftentimes, if you don’t work through it, the situation not only gets worse but your progress toward your fitness goals can also be derailed.

Regardless of your doc’s optimism, your rehabilitation begins with a diagnosis. That’s why you need a doctor. Whether your knee pain is debilitating or just nagging, it’s well worth your time to find out exactly what is going on. The alternative solution is trial and error — and that can make your knees worse.

Step 2 – Do your rehab. No matter what your problem is, your doctor will recommend some physical therapy. Like doctors, some PTs are better than others, but do what they say regardless. Even archaic protocols shouldn’t hurt you.

A good PT will just push you harder and take you further. Either way, you must do your physical therapy before moving on. I know, it’s boring (everyone says this), but if you’re serious about fixing your knee issues, you need to take this step seriously. It’s the foundation for everything else!

Step 3 – Think holistically. Chronic knee pain doesn’t always originate in the knees. Unless you’ve had an acute injury, or you’re exercising in a way that directly increases the strain on your knees (more on that in a bit), knee (and back) pain can often be traced to imbalances in the pelvic girdle (i.e., the hips).

Step 4 – Assess your doctor’s clearance advice. This is where the steps diverge, as all knee issues are not the same. Eliminating knee pain follows a “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” rationale, meaning that the more you’re able to handle training-wise, the quicker and more effective your comeback will be.

Along with that advice, however, is the more important logic that you don’t want to reinjure your knee. That is first and foremost and should dictate all of your actions.

For simplicity’s sake, we’ll use the two most common diagnoses: 1) You are cleared for any activity and 2) you are cleared for limited activity.

Step 5, part A – If you are “cleared for any activity,” congrats! Go start exercising!

A word of caution: If you’re seriously overweight, disregard this advice and skip to the following step. Excess body fat places a huge amount of strain on the joints, especially the knees. So even if you’re cleared for any activity, if you have a lot of weight to lose, proceed as if you’re only cleared for limited activity.

Step 5, part B – If you are “cleared for limited activity,” congratulations as well! (sort of) This diagnosis usually happens after an acute injury or for those who’ve ignored pain for years and lost knee cartilage. You still have the same biomechanical goal of stabilizing your body, but you have to be more careful about how you do it.

How to Work Out With Bad Knees

First and foremost, don’t skip your warm-up. Failing to get your heart pumping, your blood flowing, and your muscles and nervous system primed for action before working out is a bit like asking impatiently to become injured.

Indeed, the result is similar to repeatedly driving your car in the dead of winter without warming the engine first — sooner or later, the stress on the system will cause a vital part to fail. In the human body, that failure usually occurs at a joint.

Also, make proper form a priority. If a weight is too heavy to allow you to execute an exercise with perfect technique, grab a lighter one. If you lack the mobility to execute an exercise through a complete range of motion, modify it until you build that mobility.

Many people push their knees too far forward when they squat, increasing the strain on their knees. If that sounds like you, do the box squat instead. As its name implies, it requires you sit back onto a box or bench as you squat. In doing so, it conditions you to master the “hip hinge” movement required to execute the traditional squat perfectly.

Sometimes, however, an exercise can cause knee pain even if you perform it flawlessly. And you should avoid those exercises entirely.

The Worst Exercises for Bad Knees

Running and plyometric (i.e., jumping) exercises, both of which are extremely high-impact. The list is literally that short, but you’d be surprised how many workouts contain the latter.

But don’t let that dissuade you from trying them. As mentioned previously, almost any exercise can be modified to make it easier on the knees. In the case of a plyometric exercise, the key is to perform the movement explosively, but do not let your feet leave the ground. In short, don’t jump.

Almost any entry-level fitness program can be right for building knee strength, depending on the severity of your condition. The rule to think on is this: Whatever you do that doesn’t make you worse makes you better.

So every time you finish a workout without pain, or with less pain than you previously experienced, you’re improving your ability to eliminate the pain altogether. Also, every pound you lose is less stress on your knees, which will help lessen strain, and, thus, pain. So watch your diet, and move as much as you can. Your body will respond in kind.