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How To Exercise With Knee Pain

May 1, 2020
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen
Additions/comments provided by Matthew Russo, MD – Orthopedic Surgeon

If you have recently developed knee pain, you might not be able to perform your usual workout routine–especially if it involves leg exercises like running. But fear not, there are ways to get moving that don’t involve strain on the knees. Before we get started, it’s always wise to talk to your doctor about exercising with knee pain. 


It’s a common myth that you should refrain from exercising as long as your knees hurt. Some say you should rest until your pain disappears completely. That’s simply not true. There are many ways you can stay fit despite your knee pain. In fact, most recent physical therapy protocols after soft tissue injury to the knee or even surgery involve rapid recovery protocols focusing on maintaining mobility and range of motion of the knee immediately. Here are some general guidelines:


High-impact activities such as basketball, soccer, football, and tennis are no good. They’re hard on the knees because they involve lots of running around and jumping. It’s better to stay off the court until your knee pain subsides.


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Knee Pain Overview

Knee Pain Overview

The same goes for exercises that primarily involve bending the knees, like squats or leg presses. Although it is important to maintain your range of motion, the unnecessary stress of placing significant weight through the joint with squats is not recommended. They may make your knee pain even worse. If you do want to squat, try doing a quarter-leg or half-leg squat where your knee only bends a little bit.


Moderate exercise like walking is a good choice. It’s considered a low-impact activity and helps with stiff joints or aching knees. A slow walk around the block may be just the thing you need to ease your knee pain.

Matthew Russo, MD

Cycling is an excellent choice to help strengthen your quadriceps muscle as well. A strong quadriceps muscle spans both your hip and your knee joints helping to offload the joint from impact allowing dynamic stabilization and injury prevention.

Even running can be fine. Just stay off hard surfaces like asphalt, and try running on a forest trail or path. If your pain is too severe for running, then just do some jogging or walking. Many patients who enjoy running may find an elliptical offers many of the same cardiovascular benefits without the high impact on their joints.


Swimming is another exercise that is OK to do. It’s another low-impact activity that allows you to stretch out your body without hurting your knees.


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Joint Replacement Candidates

Joint Replacement Candidates

Cycling can be a good choice as well. If you have a stationary bike, you can work your legs and get your heart pumping without putting too much stress on your knees. Cycling is an excellent choice to help strengthen your quadriceps muscle as well. A strong quadriceps muscle spans both your hip and your knee joints helping to offload the joint from impact allowing dynamic stabilization and injury prevention. For added benefit, cycling shoes that lock in to the bicycle also allow hamstring strengthening to balance the muscular support of the knee by pulling up on one side as the other pushes down.  


If you are a fan of lifting weights, that’s fine, as far as your knees are concerned. Just make sure not to do any deadlifts, of course. Bodyweight exercises like pull-ups or dips are also fine.


Besides the above exercises, you can also establish a specialized routine that strengthens your knees. Start with some leg lifts, which target the quadriceps and abs. Then move on to chair dips, which build up your quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, and gluteal muscles. Another knee strengthening exercise is step-ups, for which you only need a staircase. Place one foot on the first step, then the other foot, then step back down and repeat. If you want to target your lower-leg muscles, do calf raises. 


It’s important to note that if you are exercising and your knee pain gets worse, do not continue. See a doctor if it persists or changes.

Doctor Profile

Dr. Matthew Russo

Orthopedic Surgeon

Dr. Russo is a third-generation orthopedic surgeon in Scottsdale, AZ specializing in total hip and knee replacement surgery. He feels very grateful to have the opportunity to serve the Phoenix community as an orthopedic surgeon, just as his father and grandfather have done, for over 30 years.

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