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.
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!
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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!
- 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?