Working Out With Knee Problems: Everything You Need to Know

working out with knee problems

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Knee problems can feel deliberating, especially if you are trying to meet specific fitness goals. The good news is you don’t have to give up exercising completely. With knee problems, modifying your workouts so that you are comfortable and have less pain is essential. (Of course, if you are injured, you’ll need to rest and rehabilitate first before jumping back into exercise.) 

Keep reading for what top experts say about how to best work out with knee problems so you can continue to stay fit without the pain. 

Meet the Expert

  • Larissa Vassos is a physical therapist in Ontario, Canada.
  • Ava Williams, MD, is a primary care doctor and internal medicine specialist at DoctorSpring.
  • Chris Higgins is an ACSM-certified personal trainer.

Knee Problems: A Common Occurrence

If your knees act up every time you go for a run or hop on a spin bike, you aren’t alone. Larissa Vassos, a physical therapist in Ontario, Canada, is used to treating patients with chronic knee problems. “Common knee problems I have treated in my clinical practice include many repetitive strain injuries such as iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) and patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS), usually caused by incorrect movement patterns repeated over a period of time,” she says. Runners are particularly susceptible to knee pain for that reason.

Another common knee issue Vassos sees is knee osteoarthritis, caused by degeneration or ‘wear-and-tear’ of the knee joint over time. 

If you’ve injured your knee in the past, you may notice the pain come back after you start workout out again, too. That’s why it’s essential to modify your routine and avoid exercises that cause you to have a flair-up. 

Best Exercises for Knee Problems 

There’s no reason to stay sedentary if you suffer from knee problems, notes Ava Williams, MD, a primary care doctor and internal medicine specialist at DoctorSpring. In fact, you’ll benefit more from exercising regularly. “You may be in pain or discomfort with your knee problems, but exercise is still the best way to address this without going through surgery,” she says. 

Williams recommends trying swimming and walking instead of other high-impact cardio exercises. “With swimming, you use less force on your knee caps because you no longer carry your weight as you move. You can easily glide through the water, and you will use your upper body strength to support you,” she says. 

She also recommends using the treadmill for walking as the sidewalk may irritate your knees.  “The moving belt on the treadmill can serve as a cushion between your feet, putting less force on your leg as opposed to walking on hard surfaces on roads and sidewalks,” she says. 

Combine your swimming and walking with regular weight and core exercises. Try to focus on seated exercises that won’t irritate your knees. 

You can also try strengthening exercises to help with your knee problems, notes ACSM-certified personal trainer Chris Higgins. (Make sure to get your doctor’s approval first and stop if you have any more pain.) He especially recommends the following strengthening exercises for runner’s knee or knee pain from overuse.’These knee conditioning exercises are great for managing and preventing a runner's knee from flaring up as it employs dynamic training for other parts of the lower body to condition the knees and alleviates muscle imbalances and tightness,” he says. 

Quadriceps and Hip-Flexors Roll

Note: This can effectively condition your knees by improving quad flexibility (which is a culprit for knee pain) and upping your hip strength.

  1. Lie facedown on the floor with a foam roller positioned above your knee. 
  2. Roll your body back and forth up to the top of your thigh. This can effectively condition your knees by improving quad flexibility (which is a culprit for knee pain) and upping your hip strength.

Prisoner Squat

Note: This squat exercise helps you work on your body mechanics and helps improve your form to better perform running later on. Start slowly by doing 5-10 reps, stopping if you experience pain. You can work up as you get stronger. 

  1. Stand tall with your feet spread shoulder-width apart. Place your fingers on the back of your head and stick out your chest. 
  2. Lower your body as far as you can by pushing your hips back and bending your knees. 
  3. Pause, then slowly push yourself back to the starting position. 

What to Avoid With Knee Problems 

It’s important to take care not to irritate your needs more. Unfortunately, even stretching improperly can be problematic with knee issues. “Full-arc knee extensions, lunges, and hurdler's stretches are some of the worst exercises for people suffering knee problems as they further put great amounts of strain and pressure on the knees,” Higgins says. “These exercises integrate the knee as the focal point of the form, and therefore, utilize the knees more, which will be detrimental for any chronic knee pain.” 

Vassos says to take care in the weight room, too. “It’s best to avoid exercises that place additional load on the joint,” she says. “For example, any exercise performed in a standing position or a weighted position (i.e., leg press machine) should be avoided.” 

If you do experience more knee pain or a flare-up while exercising, Vassos says you should stop and rest. If the pain continues, stop exercise for the day and ice for a minimum of 10-to-15 minutes. "The R.I.C.E. principle (rest, ice, compression, elevation) can be applied to the affected knee, too,” she says, “If pain continues beyond 24 hours or worsens, you should seek medical attention.” 

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