If you have knee pain, it can be difficult to exercise. Not only are you unable to do certain exercises, but some movements may cause pain, which makes skipping the gym an easier choice. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Understand your knee pain and what you can do about it in order to have decades of healthy movement ahead of you.
What Causes Knee Pain?
Osteoarthritis (OA) is something most of us who are going to live a long life will either learn to live with or learn how to take some preventative measures to delay it. Excess weight, prior joint injuries or trauma like high impact, poor mechanics from weakness in the hips, and/or poor alignment at the ankle contribute to OA. Women are more vulnerable to knee issues thanks to wider hips that cause alignment issues or what’s known as a greater Q angle.
The knees absorb a lot of weight and they are also in a precarious position. They’re trapped, in essence between the hip and the ankle. They primarily flex and extend. If the hip or the ankle either lacks the mobility they’re supposed to have, the knee who’s role is stability gets compromised.
The natural aging process can result in arthritis. Right along with other hormonal changes, collagen production is slowed so the cushion at your joints is less than it used to be. This can result in more friction and thus pain and the loss of movement.
You may be compensating for one knee without realizing it too. That can contribute to more pain in the other knee.
Why Knees Are So Sensitive?
Relative to the amount of weight they bear, knee joints are actually very small. As mentioned above, they are not designed to twist and rotate as are the hip joints, for example. Yet, if you think about the amount of time we all sit today, you’re bound to have lost some flexibility in the hips. Age-related changes at the angle reduce mobility there. During a movement – even as slight as a golf swing – your body is going to beg, borrow, and steal that mobility from somewhere. It’s often the knee. It will be the first joint to compensate if anything goes wrong upstairs (hip) or downstairs (ankle).
What to Avoid if You Have Knee Pain
High-impact activities probably don’t even sound appealing if you have knee pain. Sports like tennis with multi-directional changes and lots of acceleration and deceleration can be tough on knees too. Things like plyometric (jumping) exercises and running on hard surfaces should be avoided. Walking up stairs and especially down, squatting, or even kneeling might bother you or not. Every individual and knee pain is slightly different. Stick with lower-impact exercises is the best option. Let pain be your guide is often the best advice.
You do, after all, want to stay active, to optimize your weight, and to keep the muscles surrounding your knee strong.
Exercises to Strengthen Painful or Touchy Knees
The exercises below are those that I’ve used with clients as “pre-hab” before knee replacement, post-rehab after knee replacement or other surgery, and for those just beginning to feel the twinge of knee pain. They can be done at home as frequently as daily.
1. Seated Contract and Release
Sit on the ground with your back against the wall for support, left leg extended, right knee bent with foot flat on the ground next to the right knee. Just focus on contracting or tensing the quadriceps muscles in your upper thighs. Repeat 15 to 20 times, then switch legs. Work your way up to doing 3 or 4 sets.
2. Straight-Leg Lifts
Sit on the ground with your back against the wall for support, left leg extended, right knee bent with foot flat on the ground next to the right knee. Adding on to exercise #1 you will tighten, lift, lower, release. Intentionally tighten the muscle, lift the left leg off the ground 6 to 8 inches. Slowly lower leg, then release the muscle contraction. Repeat 15 to 20 times, then switch legs. Work your way up to doing 3 or 4 sets.
3. Knee Extension
Again, sitting on the floor, this time, with a pillow, a ball, or a foam roller under your knee. Straighten the knee, keep the tension at the quadriceps (top of the thigh) as you pause briefly then slowly lower down. Release the muscle and repeat 15 to 20 times. Switch legs.
4. Single leg squat with limited range of motion
Stand on your left leg. Lift your right leg so it’s out of the way. Perform a small squat by flexing the left knee keeping the weight on your heel. Consciously shift your hips backward. You want to feel the work in your glutes. Do 15-20 repetitions. Switch legs. Work your way up to 3 or 4 sets.
Pro Tip: It may help to imagine the toes on your standing leg side are against a wall. You can’t take the knee into the wall so you’ll have to move the hip back instead.
5. Squat with a ball behind you at the wall
Position yourself with a ball in the middle of your back between you and a wall. Keep your weight on your heels. You may need to move your feet further away from the wall than feels intuitive to maintain that weight on your heels. Lower your body 3 or 4 inches, pause, then return to a standing position. Maintain your back straight. Do 15-20 repetitions.
This is a closed chain exercise. Although you can also do this exercise at a gym with a leg press, this is an excellent at-home exercise.
A small range of motion and very focused exercise is your goal with each of these exercises. You can perform them daily. You may not know you’re making progress until you realize you’re no longer in pain or holding onto the railing so tight going up and downstairs.
Other ways to keep moving with knee pain
Our 5-Minute Barre series on YouTube can help you build strength in your knees. Watch below and subscribe to our YouTube channel for more fitness videos.
Everyone is put together uniquely. So while an elliptical works for someone with knee issues, it won’t for others. A few things in addition to the elliptical to try, are a stationary bike (try both upright and recumbent), water running/classes or swimming, and rebounding.
Don’t stop with exercise! Tend to your diet and look into taking out foods that cause inflammation and adding naturally anti-inflammatory foods to help too.
Shopping for fitness-related gifts this holiday season? Don’t miss our gift guide for fitness enthusiasts (and newbies)!