How to strengthen legs without knee pain
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Knee injuries account for 15-30% of all sports injuries, so if you have knee pain, you’re not alone. Knee pain can be caused by weak muscles and/or muscle imbalances. If the muscles on the front of the leg, like the vastus lateralis or the vastus medialis is weakened, the kneecap can move outside the knee joint, causing pain (1).
Exercising should not be about weight loss, or looking a certain way, it’s main purpose is to keep you strong enough to do daily tasks with ease and without injury. For these reasons, I tell my clients to do leg specific exercises at least twice a week.
Form is key when it comes to strengthening. I see valgus knees at the gym all the time, where the knees go inwards; this is not only poor form, but makes knee pain worse. You want to push your knees outwards, also known as external rotation, when doing squats and lunges. You can place a soft yoga block in between your thighs to prevent your knees from collapsing inwards (see video at the bottom of this post).
Here’s exercises you should do, in order from easiest to hardest, to strengthen the front of the legs and stop knee pain. If you’re rehabilitating, try one set of 10 box squats daily. You eventually want to do three sets of ten, which is 30 repetitions with a break in between each set, twice a week. You can then add another type of lunge or a squat, but it’s not necessary to do more than three different types of exercises that target the quads (front leg muscles) three times a week. Take a day or two off “leg day” for rest and recovery:
Exercises to strengthen the front of the legs to stop knee pain
- box squats
- TRX squats
- bodyweight squats
- TRX static lunges
- TRX reverse lunges
- static lunges
- reverse lunges
- weighted squats
- weighted static lunges
- weighted reverse lunges
If your legs are strong, your knee pain might be from tight muscles. Tight muscles decrease flexibility and cause pain because the kneecap presses harder into the femur bone 🦴(1). Tight muscles hurt, so I stretch the muscles I’ve put through a workout, at the end of every session. Flexibility is important because you want to have full ROM (range of motion) to be able to move about freely and easily. Stretch muscles at least 30 seconds and up to two minutes, but make sure to stretch muscles that have thoroughly warmed up; cold muscles that are stretched can be torn. You don’t need to do a full leg workout if your objective is to do a quick stretch. Try twenty-five split squats in a row, on each leg, and you’ll be plenty warm.
Here’s a follow-along stretch workout that I created, just for the legs and glutes.
If stretching isn’t doing the trick, foam rolling might be what you need. Sometimes the fascia, the cheesecloth-like material that covers our muscles gets tight and bound up, so a deep tissue massage, or foam rolling is what’s needed to release it. Below is a follow-along foam roller workout for the entire body.
The exercises you don’t want to do, because they can cause knee pain, are heavy leg extensions and plyometrics (when you’re jumping).
Something that a lot of people don’t think about, is how they walk and step; you shouldn’t hear your footsteps when you’re walking, or going up or down stairs. Climbing stairs is not bad for the knees, unless you’re landing too hard, or stomping, where you’re constantly putting undue pressure onto your knees; you want to land softly.
For balanced strength, you want to strengthen all of your muscles. From working with clients, the most neglected were the posterior chain muscles (the ones on the back of the body: rear shoulders, upper back, butt, and hamstrings). Any imbalances will eventually cause pain and injuries. Below is a video that specifically targets the butt (glutes), back of the legs and the core. Click the play button to workout with me in this YouTube video.
The more weight you carry, the more pressure you’re putting on your joints, so losing weight, or lifting less weight may be all that you need to do to get rid of your knee pain.
Try these suggestions, along with cold-therapy and an anti-inflammatory, and your knee pain will improve.
To watch the exercises and hear me explain what to do and why, with additional form tips, play the YouTube video below.
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- Source: Fahey, EdD, Thomas. Strength and Conditioning. Carpinteria: International Sports Sciences Association. 9th ed., 2018. Print. Pg. 584, 586-589.