3 Ways to Train Your Legs with Bad Knees
First and foremost, I have to start with the following disclaimer: I am not a physical therapist. Or doctor. Or wizard of magic and great power. This is in no way at all intended to help you treat chronic knee injury, train around a serious injury, or rehab a recovering knee. If you have any serious pains, concerns, anything at all – go see a professional physical therapist.
Good, that’s out of the way. So if we can’t train around serious injuries that need medical attention, who is this article for? Anyone who says they have “bad knees” (but they aren’t bothering them right now), people who are scared of squats for some reason or who don’t like them, or someone who just wants some ideas to hit the legs without putting a ton of pressure on the knee.
One of the most common complaints I see when talking with people is they tell me their knees hurt, or they have a bad knee. I ALWAYS follow this up by asking if they have received a thorough examination by a qualified medical professional. Half the time they say no – so exercises involving heavy knee flexion/extension go out the window.
(If you haven’t seen a professional, please do so. Don’t try to be tough and push through the pain.)
The other half, I hear this: “Oh, yeah. It’s an old injury I got doing (insert activity) a few years back. Doctor said it’s fine, just a strain, and that I’m good to go and should in fact continue to use my legs on a regular basis – I just don’t want to squat or do any heavy leg work, because that will probably irritate it.”
Okay, so we have a bad knee, or, fear of re-injuring an old knee, but full medical clearance to workout. I’m going to list a few great exercises I’ve used with great success below, that create a good lower body training effect, while minimizing or eliminating stress on the knee.
I discovered many of these while training around my own knee and ankle limitations (6 years of playing basketball year-round in tight high top sneakers does wonders for ankle mobility). Countless ankle and knee sprains mean that I always worry a bit about straining them, so these exercises started with some self-experimenting, and have since helped many clients, friends, and myself out.
Now, this is not going to be very anatomy-heavy (sorry fellow anatomy nerds). I have a degree in Kinesiology, and I like to think I have a pretty decent understanding of the knee joint, however I don’t claim to be the best, or even an expert on it, so you won’t find much of a functional anatomy lesson here – just exercises that work.
Walk into a meathead gym and tell them you can’t squat because your knees hurt,; try not to let the door hit you in the ass as the big heavy lifters chase you out. Sure you’ll hear people say to man up and just squat, but sometimes you just don’t want to, and that’s okay. I get cranky knees sometimes, especially after a period of heavy lifting, lots of sports, or cold weather, so I understand.
I also have to say, I love back squats, front squats, single-leg squats, step-ups, and lunges. Love them. But I realize every exercise is not for everyone, so these are just some alternatives – not saying they are better or worse than anything else. Just ideas. Got it? Good. Here we go.
For each exercise, you will see a basic description, why I like it, and “2.0” – the challenging version for all you sadistic lifters.
Exercise 1: The Reverse Lunge
Let’s start with a simple one. This one may seem like common knowledge, but a surprising number of people in my gym never do this. Lunges are great, but they can put quite a bit of pressure on the anterior part of your knee.
I have found that reverse lunges alleviate a TON of this pressure. If I do a few sets of walking lunges, or even worse, stationary lunges, where I push back off the front leg, my knees ache for days. With reverse lunges though, I feel awesome, and it’s just as challenging.
Reverse Lunge 2.0: Lunge back off a step or platform a few inches off the ground. The added ROM will increase difficulty while giving you a nice hip flexor stretch.
Exercise 2: The Hip Thrust
Everyone here should know about this exercise, thanks to one Bret Contreras. I don’t feel the need to go in-depth on why this works, it just does. And it feels pretty good on the knees. Now if you have a fresh sprain, or do this incorrectly, it might bother you a little.
Just make sure to drive through the heels, keep your feet far enough away that your glues and hamstring do all the work, and thrust away. Doesn’t matter if you use a barbell, chains, bands, with shoulders on a bench or on the ground, just thrust.
Hip Thrust 2.0: Do one-and-a-half reps on a single leg, with chains (either on a barbell, or draped over your hips if not strong enough). This means thrust up, come only halfway back down, and re-thrust to the lockout position again. That’s one rep.
Exercise 3: Hamstring Curls on Sliders or Stability Ball
This is one is great, because it will absolutely smoke your hamstrings, and it shouldn’t hurt your knees too much. I prefer sliders over a stability ball, but if you don’t have those, use a ball, a TRX, or a towel on a hard surface (needs to be able to slide).
Hamstring Curls 2.0: Throw a 25lb plate on top of your sliders and use this. Or do single-leg curls with very slow eccentric. Thank me later when it feels like your hamstrings are ripping off of your bones.
There it is folks – 3 simple exercises that will allow you to get a great lower-body training effect without killing your knees! Try them out, and if you can think of any other great exercises, please let me know by leaving a comment!