Knee injury? 7 workout ideas to try while you recover

Sore, achy and injured knees top the list of reasons why my clients and class participants can’t give it their all while working out.

knee injury

Habitual high heel wearing, too much tension in spin class, excessive pounding of the pavement, failure to stabilize during heavy lifts and plain old extra weight are all common reasons for a knee injury.

What’s particularly frustrating is that the movements we usually associate with losing fat, gaining strength and elevating our heart rates frequently involve the knees.

Squats, lunges, dead lifts, jumping jacks, burpees, stair running, high impact, plyometric movements. All are difficult to impossible to perform with knees that are less than healthy.

Assuming that you’re dealing with whatever’s causing your pain (you’re still doing those physio exercises, right?), here are 7 knee injury workout options that will keep you moving toward your ‘lean and strong’ goals!

Note that I’ve listed them from lowest to highest knee involvement; the healthier your knees, the farther down the list you’ll be able to progress.

  • Ergometer. You’ve probably seen people using this and wondered what type of workout they could possibly be getting by sitting on their butts and cycling with their hands. The answer? Probably not much. But push the seat away and crank up the resistance and you can get a very decent metabolic strength workout. The secret? Maintain a fast-paced, steady rhythm and make sure you’re pushing AND pulling on the handles. That’s right. Use the arms and the BACK to up your calorie burn.
  • Cybex ARC Trainer. I introduce all of my ‘pain in the knee’ clients to this cardio machine and they all report the same thing; no knee pain as long as the resistance stays under 70 (it scales from 0 to 100). Even my heaviest clients happily (?) use the ARC trainer, claiming that it’s gentle gliding motion is more similar to their natural stride than an elliptical’s. Try the pre-set interval programs for some heart rate-elevating HIIT!

knee injury

  • Incline treadmill walking. Unlike trail walking, with it’s hard and uneven surfaces, treadmill walking usually causes very little knee pain. Increase the incline to ensure that your workout is more than a walk in the park. Higher inclines not only elevate your heart rate, they also target the muscles on the backside of your body. The very same muscles the squats and dead lifts sculpt!
  • Kettle bell or dumbbell swings. Done properly and with a heavy enough weight (try 15-20 pounds to start), kettle bell hip swings are a fantastic metabolic strength exercise. Start by standing with feet slightly wider than hips, toes turned out to 11 and 1. Holding the kettle bell (or dumbbell, if you don’t have a kettle bell) in one hand (or in both hands, for variety) with arm long, push hips back and down as you reach the weight between your legs. Forcefully push your hips forward to raise the weight up to chin height. Make sure to tighten your glutes and engage your abs. Try 10-20 then rest and repeat.

  • Med ball floor slams. Grab a heavy med ball. I like at least 16 pounds for this exercise. Start by standing with feet slightly wider than hips and toes turned out (as for the kettle bell swings, above). Holding the ball in both hands, at chest height, slam ball towards floor by pushing down with the arms and chest and bending knees slightly to assist. Catch the ball just under your chin (don’t let it hit your!) and immediately repeat. I find that a series of 20-30 med ball floor slams is a great way to elevate my heart rate (and work out some frustrations at the same time!)

  • Power push ups. A great, near-whole body metabolic strength move. These can be done from both knees and toes, although the full on toe version is a much better heart rate accelerator than the short lever version. I like to use a cushioned bench, not only to reduce the impact on my wrists (exercises for sore, achy wrists is another post :) ), but also because it allows me to catch a bit more ‘air’ on the way up! Try 5 or 6 in a row, catch your breath and repeat.

  • Jumping pull ups: Although this move requires jumping, the impact to knees is still fairly minimal when compared to a full on squat jump or split lunge jump. To do it, you’ll need a fixed, horizontal bar at a height that you can just reach when standing tall, arms over head. I like to use the Smith squat rack when I’m doing jumping pull ups. Grab the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you). Bend knees a smidgeon (that’s a very small amount….), push through your heels, spring up, transferring the work from legs to arms and back, as your chin reaches the bar. Drop immediately to floor and repeat. Aim for a fast tempo here; momentum will help if your muscles aren’t strong enough to do a regular, dead hang pull up. Aim for a set of 15-20 in 30-40 seconds.

Remember that you still need to strengthen the muscles associated with your knee injury; they will not get stronger on their own! Persistent knee pain should always be diagnosed and treated by a health care professional.

Can you think of any other workout options for someone with a knee injury?

Are there exercises that you don’t do because of joint pain?

Comments

  1. Crazy….I just upped my weights during squats in body pump…and I had some funny pain (nothing major of course) on the outside of my left knee…I figured it was from running …which also may be but I didn’t even consider the weight effect from the squats.

    I may scale back during the next class..thanks!
    Kathy recently posted…Even Rudy is trying to stay warm..My Profile

    • Could definitely have been caused by the squats. Watch your squat form in a mirror. Does your knee tend to buckle inwards or dip outwards as you’re pushing up out of the squat? If yes, you need to strengthen the muscles and ligaments around the knee. Try light leg extension (see EmergeFitness comment above), or band work (lateral walks against the resistance of the band; band around knees, trying to keep tension on the band).

  2. (SHARING!! with my sister….)
    Miz recently posted…“I’m TERRIFIED of gluten.”My Profile

  3. “Incline treadmill walking. Unlike trail walking, with it’s hard and uneven surfaces, treadmill walking usually causes very little knee pain. Increase the incline to ensure that your workout is more than a walk in the park. Higher inclines not only elevate your heart rate, they also target the muscles on the backside of your body. The very same muscles the squats and dead lifts sculpt!”

    I utter this almost every day of my life to somebody. I’ll speak, not as trainer, but as someone with a degree in exercise physiology on this: Not only is what you said very true, but a treadmill at a higher grade significantly reduces the impact of every stride, and forces the individual to be more of a heel striker, thus reducing impact on the knees.

    I might also add the the much maligned leg extensions, done slowly, and properly, with lighter to more moderate weight, are a great way to enhance and strengthen the knees, despite that most Ortho MDs and physical therapists advice against leg extensions.
    Emergefit recently posted…Never mind. Always mind…My Profile

    • You’re right. This is one time that the leg extension IS appropriate! I like to encourage my clients to use it with one leg at a time; that way the weaker side gets a chance to do it’s share of the work too.

  4. Such a great post Tamara!!!! I think many people say to themselves well the knee hurts so I just can’t do anything & there are plenty of options as you wrote above!!! Videos too!!!

    I have had knee twinges in my far past & I just avoided the particular movements that started them & kept with the strengthening & all was/is good. Same with my hips.

    With age, some of it is just 30+++ years of working out so I have learned to modify, work around certain things that cause issues & take my joint supplements! :)
    Jody – Fit at 55 recently posted…Cardio CrazinessMy Profile

    • Thanks Jody. There are always ways to work around injuries if you’re willing to get creative, right? And yes, joint supplements are a god-send!

    • Hi I just read your post..You seem to have lots of experience ive injured my left knee 6 weeks ago lifting weights pain was olmost gone went back to the gym got on the eliptical now it hurts like hell I don’t want to stop working out! is there a type of exercise I can do to strengthen my knee without getting inured?

      • Candy, I’m sorry to hear about your knee injury. I take it you’ve read my post and seen the suggestions I offer for working around a knee injury? Unfortunately, I can’t prescribe any exercise for your specific condition, as it’s not been diagnosed by a professional (and doing the wrong thing could make it worse). I suggest you see a physiotherapist and get some recommendations for how to heal!

  5. Great tips! I usually don’t have knee problems unless I am running really long distance (like marathon training) which I plan on doing soon so I will definitely keep this in mind!
    Melanie @ Nutritious Eats recently posted…Healthy Snack Ideas and Frozen Banana PopsMy Profile

    • Melanie, happy to help! I very frequently hear my clients complain about knee twinges once they hit the 15 mile mark in the marathon training. Make sure to do some knee strengthening exercises as you’re building up mileage. Leg extension, very slowly can help strengthen this area. Good luck!

  6. I’ve never actually seen the swings until I went to the hotel gym on Monday and saw someone do them :)
    Kierston recently posted…I Can’t Wait…My Profile

    • Really? After all the time you’ve spent in the gym ;)
      Some gyms (mine included) don’t have KB’s. I wish we’d get some!

  7. we do a lot of single squats with the ball as well. Great for knee! all these are super too!
    lindsay recently posted…Benefits of the BARREMy Profile

    • Oh yes, those are great too! I like to place my back foot on the ball and lean forward as I squat down. Great for medial glutes too!

  8. Great post Tamara! I wish I wasn’t so familiar with knee pain and problems. Like Lindsay said, lots of single leg squats. Funny because I have a post and video going up tomorrow on exercises to help strengthen and support your knee! Good timing. I’ll link to your post.
    Christine @ Love, Life, Surf recently posted…How Content Brew saved my blogMy Profile

    • Oh great (not about your sore knees, about tomorrow’s post!). I’ll look forward to it; I love seeing you on video!

  9. Super good topic and an organizing principle that appeals to my orderly mind. Aaaaand, I can say that the last few options are in my knees’ past. However, I do like treadmill inclines for sure! I predict that the big interest in the next decade will be how and what people (ie BOOMERS) can do with joints that are not cooperating. So many injuries; so many exercises out there still to do!
    KymberlyFunFit recently posted…Abs and Core Exercises Safe for the Lower BackMy Profile

    • Totally agree. As fitness professionals, I think that we owe it to our clients to be actively searching out fun and challenging alternatives for this next age!

  10. My last two spin classes I had knee pain. Since I use it as cross training for running, that doesn’t make me happy. Do you think the arc trainer is better cross training, or would inline skating be better? My knee doesn’t hurt running/ wt lifting/ zumba– just after spin!
    Blond duck recently posted…Life as an InchwormMy Profile

    • Ah spinning. You know that I’m a spin instructor, right? I have seen participants with previously healthy knees complain about pain and soreness when (1) they spin too frequently (3-5 days per week) and (2) after high tension hill climbs or (3) low tension sprints.

      My recommendation is to limit the number of classes you take per week, back off on the hill climb tension (particularly if those climbs are done standing) and make sure you have a bit of ‘push to your pedal’ when you’re sprinting.

      I LOVE the ARC trainer. Not only is it easier on the knee joint (less torque when your knee is at it’s most vulnerable position), but also because it engages more muscles than the elliptical or bike (= greater potential for calorie burn).

      Good luck! Come back and tell me how it’s going, please!

      • I only take one or two classes a week, usually on Saturday, and the past two Saturdays my knees felt like someone took a sledgehammer to them. I’ve taken that class for months– same bike, tension,etc. That makes complete sense when you said hill climbs– the past two classes she had a ton of standing hill climbs followed by sprints. I do the Precor EMPT trainer twice a week between my three weekly runs, but I’ve never tried the arc trainer. I may try it this Saturday! Thanks!
        Blond duck recently posted…Recipe and Review: Sacred.My Profile

    • My suggestion: make sure the seat is in the right position on the spin bike. Too tall = back pain. Too low = knee pain.
      Lisa Eirene (@LisaEirene) recently posted…Cats, Not the MusicalMy Profile

  11. I have been sidelined by knee pain so I appreciate your tips.
    Kareen recently posted…Flu Fighting Foods!My Profile

    • Sorry to hear that Kareen. Do you know what’s caused it? Are you seeing a physiotherapist and doing your exercises?

  12. You must’ve heard I had knee pain starting yesterday. Haha. Thanks for this post!
    Julie recently posted…WIAW: New & returningMy Profile

  13. Thanks for this! Someone was just asking me on my FB page if I knew any exercises they could do while recovering from a knee injury. I’m sharing! :)

    Lea
    Lea recently posted…"I’m Afraid to Post this Blog" Blogger ChallengeMy Profile

  14. Found you via TheLeanGreenBean…. I’m a distance runner, and struggle with cross-training. I’ve never had any luck w/ eliipticals – either my legs are too weak (which seems odd, given I run 2+ hrs at a time) or they’re just not a fit for me – my elliptical record is 30 min. I was wondering if the Arc might be a better fit for me as XT – can you write more about the differences in the muscles worked?

    Right now my cardio XT is light spin on a stationary bike (I also do some strength and yoga). Can’t do tough bike w/o because my legs are then “dead” for running at least the next day or so (if I run a mile right after ez spin it helps, but not after tough). I’m not a triathlete so I’m not interested in doing anything that doesn’t help (or at least not hurt) my running.

    I’m also interested b/c my DH has a bone spur in his knee and osteoarthritis there (past injury/surgery) and so can’t run much, can’t bike much, mostly getting his exercise by walking. Would love to find a good cardio w/o that wouldn’t hurt him.

    Thanks!

  15. I’m on my second knee injury. The first was IT Band, now it’s runner’s knee in both. I’m doing PT for it.

    The first injury sent me spinning in fear. I’d gain weight, I can’t exercise, etc. But it actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I started lifting weights and learned to LOVE it. It helped make me stronger and I lost some weight doing it, too.

    There are always SOME activities you can do around an injury. Sometimes you just have to get creative.
    Lisa Eirene (@LisaEirene) recently posted…Cats, Not the MusicalMy Profile

  16. I injured my knee more than a year ago climbing stairs. Limping and protecting my knee from being banged around has become a habit which is really holding me back now. I’m trying to expand the number and variety of exercises I do for my knee in order to get my confidence back. These exercises should help me a lot. Thank you!
    Cindy recently posted…Spring is Here!My Profile

    • I forgot to mention. One thing that made a huge difference for me was that I started doing big flutter kicks in the pool with scuba fins on. My pain was reduced dramatically and I gained much more movement in my knee. I have been recovering from a torn medial ligament.

    • Cindy, let me know which ones you try and how you find them!

  17. Ronnie Shon says:

    I must repost it to my friend, she has similar problem with her knees
    Ronnie Shon recently posted…operante opinieMy Profile

  18. Awesome advice! The Cybex Trainer exercises especially resonated with me. I recently tried one at my local gym and after 5 minutes, noticed a significant reduction in knee pain/tension compared to my typical elliptical routine. Too bad they’re so expensive, would love to have one at home. :)

    • I too suffer from knee pain and I know it’s from wear and tear, I’m 51 and have been working out since in my early 20s. Today the pain was a bit severe, got on the elliptical and that did not work (pain was bad) was about to head back to work and decided to go on the threadmill and take it slow, so I gradually elevated it to 11 with a speed of 3.0 and guess what, had a great workout and felt the burn. I’m glad I stayed. Question though, I also use the leg extensions (one leg at a time), no added weight, I however, keep the leg extended and lift up just a bit to feel a slight burn, i know it’s working as my legs feel firm now. I’ve been doing this since the begging of the year and like how my legs look. My routine is to do for one minute duration three times alternating legs. Is the way I’m doing the leg extensions good for my knees?

  19. very useful piece of information.Would be helpful for me in many ways.Thanks!! :D

  20. Hi there, I enjoy reading all of your article post.

    I like to write a little comment to support you.

  21. Hi Tamara,
    A couple of years ago I managed to loose a lot of weight through at home workouts. Unfortunately I managed to damage my knees by doing squats and lunges incorrectly. I have a brain injury that affects my balance and co-ordination and the only way I could not fall over while doing these exercises was to do them in a way that ended up causing the damage. Can you suggest some at home exercises (I don’t have access to a gym) that are alternatives to these and don’t agrivate the injuries? Thank you.

Trackbacks

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