Best Low Impact Workouts for Knee Strength

By Belinda Kirkland DPT CHT ATC

Why would You need to do Low Impact Workouts?

Low impact workouts are a great option for people who currently suffer from knee pain. Knee pain is a common issue and some people may think that the only way to help relieve pain is to stop all physical activity. When one stops all physical activity due to pain, this can lead to weakness of the knee. Staying active with gentle low impact workouts can help reduce pain, restore mobility, and provide stability and strength around the knee joint.
running with knee pain

Man with Knee Pain

Getting Warmed up for your Low Impact Workouts

It is important to warm up prior to performing your low impact workouts. This can be done passively with a heating pad, hot tub, or hot shower for those with a considerable amount of pain. For those with less pain, an active warm-up using a stationary bicycle, elliptical machine, or walking on land or in a pool is recommended.

7 Best Low Impact Workouts to Improve Knee Strength

  1. Partial Squat
  2. Calf Raise
  3. Hamstring Curl
  4. Knee Extension
  5. Straight Leg Raise
  6. Side Leg Raise
  7. Glute Bridge
According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS), you can help reduce the stress on your knee joint by regularly working the muscles around your knee. To help strengthen your knee, focus on exercises that work the hamstrings, quadriceps, gluteal (glutes), and hip muscles.

1. Partial Squat

The first exercise is a partial squat. This exercise is an excellent way to strengthen your quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings in a functional way without overly stressing the knee joint. To perform this exercise, you will need to be in a standing position and you may hold onto a chair back or kitchen countertop for balance. Your feet should be hip-width apart. Look straight ahead and while keeping your back straight and erect, perform a small squat to about 6-8 inches deep and pause for a few seconds, and then stand up by pushing through the knees. The level to which you squat down should be in a pain-free range. Perform 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions. As the exercise becomes easier, you may progress to holding light dumbbells’.
Elderly man doing partial squats. JOI Rehab

Elderly man doing Assisted Squats

2. Calf Raise

The calf raise exercises are helpful to improve ankle mobility which is important in balance, as well as to strengthen the back of your lower legs, the gastrocnemius muscle. To perform this exercise, stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold onto a chair back or countertop for balance. Lift both heels off the ground so that you are standing on the balls of your feet and pause for 2-3 seconds. Then slowly lower your heels to the starting position. Control is important for this exercise. Perform 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions and as this exercise becomes easier, you can progress to holding dumbbells’ or to single-leg calf raises.
raised calf stretch

Man doing Calf Raises

 3. Hamstring Curl

The next exercise strengthens the back of the thigh and knee and is called a hamstring curl. To perform this exercise, stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold onto a chair back or countertop. Lift the foot up on the same side of the affected knee and raise the heel towards the ceiling. Stay in a pain-free range while keeping your upper body and hips pointing forward. Hold for 2-3 seconds and return the lower leg in a controlled fashion to the starting position. Do 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions. You can progress the exercise by adding a light ankle weight.
Image of Hamstring Curl Meniscus Tear Exercise

Hamstring Curl Exercise

 4. Knee Extension

In the sitting position, the knee extension exercise can be performed to strengthen the quadricep muscle on the front of the thigh. To perform this exercise, sit up tall in a chair, and Put your feet flat on the floor hip-width apart. Look straight ahead and contract your thigh muscle and extend the involved leg without raising your bottom off the chair. Pause for 2-3 seconds and then lower the leg to the starting position. The range can be modified if fully extending the leg is painful. One can kick 1/2 way up to modify. As one masters the exercise, you can add a light ankle weight and perform either to full extension or halfway extended. Do 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions.
Patient doing a straight knee extension seated. JOI Rehab

Patient Performing a Knee Extension

 5. Straight Leg Raises

Straight leg raises are performed lying on your back and strengthen the quadriceps and hip flexors. You can use a mat to cushion your back. With one leg bent and the involved leg straight, contract the front of the thigh and lift the leg off the floor to the height of the other knee. Pause at the top for 5 seconds keeping the leg straight and then lower to the starting position. Do 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions. You may add a light ankle weight to progress the exercise.
JOI Rehab Straight Leg Raise

Image of a guy doing a Straight Leg Raise

 6. Side Leg Raise

After performing the straight leg raise exercise on your back as mentioned above, one can roll over onto your side with the involved knee on top and perform a side leg raise. This leg raise strengthens the muscles on the outside of the hip which are important for stability with walking. Strengthening these muscles can also aid with hip pain and weakness. To perform this exercise, have your hips stacked on top of the other and place the top hand on the floor in front of you. Lift the top leg (keeping the knee straight) out to the side while keeping the toes facing forward. Do not rotate the toes facing upward. The top hip should not roll forward or backward during the exercise but should stay stacked right on top of the bottom hip. Hold 2-3 seconds at the top and slowly return the leg to the starting position. Perform 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions. You may progress to adding a light ankle weight.
Man in R sidelying raising the Left leg with a straight leg raise

Man doing a Side Leg Raise

7. Glute Bridge

The last exercise for strengthening weak knees is called a glute bridge and is performed lying on your back with the knees bent. As the name implies, this exercise strengthens the glutes. Keeping the front of your hips level, squeeze the buttocks and lift your hips up off the floor without arching your lower back. Hold at the top for 5 seconds and slowly return to the starting position. Perform 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions. To progress this exercise, you can cross one leg over the other and perform a single-leg glute bridge.
Glute Bridge

Glute Bridge

Knee Pain Relief and Physical Therapy

Knee pain is a common condition that affects over 18 million Americans each year. Performing stretching combined with low-impact workouts with a focus on strengthening the knee 3 times per week can help to ease pain, restore and maintain mobility and reduce the risk of future injuries.

What to Expect in Physical Therapy for Knee Pain

At the first physical therapy visit for an initial evaluation, the physical therapist ( PT) will evaluate your pain, knee strength, and mobility to determine which exercises will be prescribed. The adjacent hip and ankle joints will also be screened as mobility or weakness issues in those areas can result in compensatory patterns of movement and ultimately affect the knee.
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Watch this video from JOI and JOI Rehab on Why Knee Pain Can’t Wait!

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