Nobody likes knee pain, and I mean nobody.
Growing up, I always heard my parents complaining about their bad knees and I always thought “it can’t be that bad!”. Oh boy, how wrong I was.
There are a lot of leg exercises that can hurt your knees. (and understandably so, you probably don’t want to do them.)
So, I reached out to a ton of experts in the fitness industry (trainers, doctors of physical therapy, etc) and asked them for some of the best quad exercises for bad knees.
Here are 10 Quad Exercises for Bad Knees, I hope this helps!
First Rule: ALWAYS WARM UP!
I had to toss this in before we get to our list of 10 quad exercises for bad knees.
You need to ALWAYS WARM UP when doing this.
Trust me, I am a guy that HATES warming up in the gym. In fact, I personally never warm up before a work out.
But, when it comes to anything like trying to rehabilitate your knee pain or anything like that- even I warm up.
You see, these tendons/ligaments/whatever you have damaged are already in a weak spot and you’re at a higher risk for injury.
Doing some slight warm-ups can seriously reduce your risk of reinjuring what is broken, and improve your recovery.
Even a few minutes of walking or a few minutes of stretching can go a long way.
TRX Assisted Squats / Bench Squats (Best for Weightbearing Knee Pain)
Knee Pain is very difficult to figure out, and there can be different types of pain. So, what happens if your pain happens whenever you put weight on your knees?
Dr. of Physical Therapy Jerry Yoo, who works with cross-fitters and the sports & orthopedic active population said this:
Generally, if there’s pain during weight-bearing activities, then a TRX assisted chair or bench squat is a great exercise to strengthen the quads with less stress on the knees.
What’s great about this type of assisted squat is that a TRX can be done at home using a very simple door mount to set up.
The goal is to work in a pain-free range of motion, using your arms to assist the movement as needed as you sit on a chair or a bench, then slowly increase the range of movement as tolerated.
The more you can tolerate, the less assistance you need from your arms.”
This is one of the best quad exercises for bad knees out there. Plus, you can do this straight from home. Here’s a video of it in action!
Reverse Nordic Curls (Incredible for your knees!)
The reverse nordic curl is a very unique exercise that isn’t too commonly well known. However, it is one of the best quad exercises for bad knees out there.
In fact, according to Innersport, ‘Nordic hamstring curls only strengthen across the knee joint, as the hip is held in a fixed position”.
Joseph Rayner IV, a certified physical therapist said, “The reverse nordic curl is a great accessory eccentric exercise to use to maximize strength and hypertrophy of your quads, as well as to decrease the risk of quad strains.”
So, how is it performed?
Rayner says, “Start in a tall kneeling position, and ideally place a soft surface under your knees like a pillow or foam pad.
With the top of your feet on the ground, or bottom of toes on the ground, keep your core tight and trunk straight.
Perform the exercise by leaning backwards as far as you can, then push your shins into the ground to return to the starting position and repeat.
If this version is too challenging, you can also modify this exercise by using a towel or heavy resistance band that is tied up against a vertical surface, and pull yourself up with the assistance of your upper body.
The reverse nordic curls are one of the best quad exercises for bad knees. I think you’ll get a lot out of them!
Terminal Knee Extensions
Terminal Knee Extensions are pretty easy to do and are also one of the best quad exercises for bad knees.
Jeff Parke, the owner of Top Fitness Magazine said:
“If you have bad knees, you’ll want to start with strengthening exercises for your quads.
To do terminal knee extensions, you’ll need a band that’s in good shape (it won’t break) and a stationary object.
Attach the band to the stationary object and place it around the top of your calf muscle and below your knee joint.
You will alternate flexing the knee forward and extending the knee backward against the resistance band.
You want to squeeze your quad and try to straighten your knee. Keep the focus on your muscle and not your joints. This is going to be true for any strengthening exercise you do.”
Here’s a video of it:
Terminal knee extensions are one of the easiest and simplest ways to build your quads while avoiding the knee pain.
Plus, this is one of the best exercises in general for flexibility and joint/tendon safety. I remember doing a lot of these after my ACL got slightly damaged (thankfully not torn) and it helped me rehabilitate and stop limping quickly.
The Straight Leg Raise
Dr of Physical Therapy Nick Salinas, who owns Functional Movement Therapy PLLC said, “typically, the inside of the knee joint breaks down most often”.
So, how can we try and fix this?
Nick Salinas said, “In my professional opinion, one of the best and most commonly incorrectly performed exercises for the quadriceps is the straight leg raise.
In this exercise, the athlete engages the inner thigh quad muscle (the VMO to rectus femoris), engages the deep core muscle (TA), and lifts the leg against gravity to approximately 30-40 degrees.
The most challenging aspect of this exercise is not using everything else.
Be sure not to flex the toes back towards the nose, do not push down with the opposite leg, do not allow the pelvis to tip or rotate, and do not hold your breath as you engage the muscle and lift the leg up.”
Here’s a video of it being demonstrated:
This truly is one of the best quad exercises for bad knees.
Just make sure you’re doing it right, as Dr.Salinas said earlier, it’s performed incorrectly often- and this can lead to more bad than good.
Short Arcs are a lesser known, but extremely effective way to grow your quadricep muscles with very little pain.
In fact, most people that experience a severe leg injury will end up getting prescribed short arcs as they are so effective. They truly are one of the best quad exercises for bad knees.
According to Kieran Knight, the fitness trainer and writer behind fitnesshomehq.com. “I believe that the best quad exercises for bad knees are Short Arcs.
When you stretch and flex your knees, the quads assist in controlling the speed of movement. Short arcs are quad strengthening exercises for bad knees that don’t require much knee movement.”
With this reduced knee movement, you will thankfully be able to experience less pain.
But, how do you do short arcs? This is what Knight said:
“Lie flat on your back or sit upon a flat surface, such as a bed, with your leg horizontal.
Place a folded towel under your knee and clench your thigh muscles while pulling your toes towards you.
Lift your foot off the bed slowly until your knee is straight. Hold for 3-5 seconds before lowering slowly. 10 to 20 times a day, repeat the movement. Reverse the process on your left leg.”
Here’s a video showing you how to perform a Short Arc:
Wall squats are actually one of the best quad exercises for bad knees, which was honestly surprising to me when I first read it.
You’d think that squatting just isn’t the best idea, but because the wall is supporting you, it actually takes a ton of tension off of your knees while still allowing you to grow your quadriceps.
But, how do we do a wall squat safely and effectively?
Here’s what certified personal trainer Tyler Read, CEO of Pt Pioneer said,
“Keep your feet on the floor and stand with your back against a wall.
Your feet should be shoulder-width apart. Start by pushing your hips backward before lowering them toward the floor to avoid the knee’s premature forward movement.
Maintain contact with the wall against your head, thoracic spine, and sacrum. Then start slowly bending your knees.
Hold the squat for 5-7 seconds without bending too deeply.
If you feel discomfort in your knees, adjust your position."
Isometric Quad Holds
Isometric quad holds are a relatively simple exercise, plus, there is virtually no chance you’d feel heavy knee pain when doing this. This is probably the safest exercise to start with on this list.
Even though it’s a simple exercise, it is still one of the best quad exercises for bad knees.
Sometimes when you have this knee pain, it may be best to start off small.
Here’s what Phung D. Tran, an ACSM certified exercise physiologist who is the founder of Be Active is Easy said:
“If you have bad knees, you should have more isometric exercises to ensure safety and maximize gains.”
And she’s exactly right. There’s no point in risking severe injury, just start small and work your way up.
So, how do we do isometric quad holds? Here’s what Phung Tran said:
“To start, lie face-up on a hard surface. Relax and put your hands down on both sides. Breathe in and lift your head and legs up, just a little bit.
Your eyes should be able to look at your feet and your feet are around 5 inches off the ground. Hold this position for at least 30 seconds.
Then relax and lower your feet and head. Repeat for as many times as you are able to.”
Here’s a video demonstrating this:
Sit to Stand with Resistance Bands
Dr.Eni Kadar, a doctor of Physical Therapy said, “When I see patients with bad knees, there are two quad-specific exercises I like to start with.
Of course, everybody is different and every knee is different. Some people may need more hip strength or more muscle stretching, but as a starting point, these two exercises are my go-to’s: Standing Knee Extensions and Sit to Stands”
Dr.Kadar recommends the Standing Knee Extension as one of the best quad exercises for bad knees, but we covered that earlier.
Her second recommendation is the “Sit to stand with Resistance Bands” exercise. Here’s what she said:
SETUP – Begin sitting at the edge of a chair with your knees hip-width apart and your feet parallel with your hands out in front of you. The resistance band should be slightly above your knees.
EXECUTION – Push through your heels to stand up then slowly lower down to sit again.
REASON – A squatting pattern with control – the chair helps control your descent. If you want to make it less challenging, you can stack some pillows or cushions on the chair to make the surface higher. Squatting is very functional (getting up off a toilet, getting in or out of a car) and this is a great way to do it with less pressure through your knees.”
Here’s a video of it in action:
Eccentric Step Downs
Eccentric step downs are incredibly simple to perform and are actually one of the best quad exercises for bad knees.
I’m a big fan of simple exercises. I don’t like complicating my recovery. I remember when my ACL had gotten damaged a few years ago, the pain is so immense sometimes that you can’t really think. There’s no point in complicating things.
Thankfully, this is a pretty simple one to do.
Dr. Michelle Botsford, a physical therapist said,
“Eccentric Step Downs Eccentric step-downs are a fantastic exercise to build both quad strength and control in people with knee pain.
Equally appealing is the functionality of this exercise. You’re building up strength and control in a specific movement that many of us do every day- going down the stairs!
To perform the eccentric step down you will want to stand at the edge of a small-medium size step so one of your legs is hanging off the side.
You will begin to slowly lower the hanging leg toward the floor by bending the knee of the leg you’re standing on. You will just barely tap your heel on the ground, and then return to starting position.
This exercise trains your quads to be increasingly active during daily movements to limit the amount of stress being placed on the joint itself. It’s protective, effective, and functional!”
Here’s a video demonstrating it:
The Spanish Squat
Okay, squatting may be the LAST thing you want to do on this list. But I promise you, the spanish squat is much different, and you may find yourself actually enjoying it.
According to Coach Chris Cooper, “The benefit of this exercise is that it allows your lower leg to stay vertical as you sit into the squat. This decreases the stress on your knees. Relying on the band, you can sit back more, loading the quads more and stressing the knees less.”
And the exercise can be pretty simple, as Cooper went on to say, “For the Spanish squat, you need a band, a pole or bar to attach it to, and yourself”.
Here’s a video of it being demonstrated.
Conclusion of 10 Best Quad Exercises for Bad Knees
Hopefully this list of the 10 best quad exercises for bad knees helps you out!
If you have a movement that you like or you recommend, tell me in the comments below and I will add it to this article!
Good luck, and I hope your pain goes away.