We’ve all heard it before. That smarmy non-runner know-it-all who quips, “Running? It’s bad for your knees.” While it’s easily shown that running is actually better for your joints than being sedentary, there is no doubt that some runners have knee issues. Joint pain in general is more common as you age, of course. I know many people who stop running when they get older because it just hurts their knees too much.
While some knee pain is due to genetic conditions and the effects of aging, strength work can help many runners avoid pain deep into their later years. To help keep your knees healthy, you can try some of these strengthening exercises.
We’ll cover 11 different exercises that will help make your knees stronger, including how to do the exercise so that you can start incorporating them into your workout routine and feeling better! No matter your age, now is the time to start strengthening your knees to avoid pain later.
While it seems a little ironic to work on strengthening your hips if your knees are the problem, knee pain can actually originate in the hips. That’s why hip exercises will really be able to help you out with knee pain.
As the name implies, the clam exercise means that you’re turning yourself into a human clamshell. And we all know how challenging clams can be to get open. In order to complete this exercise, start by lying on one side with your legs on top of each other.
Next, bend your knees 90 degrees and let your head rest on your arm. Make sure that your knees are drawn in toward your body and your feet are aligned with your bottom.
Slowly raise your knee on top as much as you can without lifting the other knee off the floor or rotating your hip. Hold for one second before slowly bringing your knee back down.
Repeat 19 more times for a total of 20 reps (or whatever feels comfortable to you) and then switch to the other side.
Pro tip: If you want to make this exercise more challenging, loop a resistance band just above your knees and then try! It will be quite a bit harder.
This is a bodyweight floor exercise that will strengthen your core and will help you improve not just in running but also in balance. First, find a soft surface to kneel on. This is important!
An exercise mat is a great option. Also, make sure that you can extend your arm and leg at the same time. This isn’t an exercise for tight quarters.
Next, keep your knees hip-width apart and your hands shoulder-width apart. Lift one arm straight out and extend the opposite leg behind you. This should be a clean straight line. Make sure that your back is straight and not arched.
Hold for several seconds and return to the starting position. Ideally, you should complete 5 solid reps on each side for a total of 10 reps. If you’re feeling extra good, feel free to go up to a total of 30 reps.
Pro tip: Try some more challenging variations like completing the bird-dog exercise on a weightlifting bench or exercise ball or from a pushup position. You can even try doing a single-side bird-dog, meaning that you extend your arm and leg from the same side of the body.
Low Side-to-Side Lunge
This exercise will strengthen your glutes, hamstrings, and abs, making your core stronger and causing less pain to your knees. First, start with your feet shoulder-width apart. Next, move one leg to the side, shifting your weight to that side, and lowering your body.
Make sure that your other foot is flat on the floor and that leg is straight. Then, switch sides, completing as many reps as you can.
Pro tip: If you want to make it a little more challenging, hold a dumbbell in your hands in front of your chest. You can start out small and work your way up to something heavier.
Related: The Best Running Shoes for Bad Knees in 2020
Quads and Hamstrings
Your quads hold your kneecap in place, so weak quads are going to impact your knees. With strong quads, you’ll be able to absorb shock better in your knees.
With this exercise, you work your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and hip flexors, making it a great warm up or cool down exercise. Start by standing with your feet together and then take a step forward with one leg, making sure that you’re lowering your one knee to the ground.
Both knees should be bent at 90-degree angles, with the back knee pointed toward (but not touching) the ground and your front knee over your ankle.
Press the heel of your leg that you first stepped with into the ground and then push off with the other foot to bring the other leg forward to lunge on the other side. This is considered 2 reps. Do three sets of 20 reps each.
Pro tip: Make it more challenging by holding dumbbells at your sides. Consider trying 5-pound or 8-pound dumbbells depending on your size and strength.
Also known as “running planks,” you’ll exercise almost your entire body with mountain climbers. Start first in a plank position with your weight evenly distributed between your hands and toes. Make sure that your hands are shoulder-width apart and that your back is flat.
Pull one knee into your chest as far as you are able, and then switch to the other knee. Make sure to keep your hips down and pull your knees in and out as far and as fast as you can. Don’t forget to breathe!
Pro tip: Make it harder by trying a variation like sliding mountain climbers. Place a sliding disc underneath one foot on a hardwood floor, which will make you work your quads more.
Reverse Hip Raise
This exercise will be best if you have a home gym or regularly go to a gym, as you’ll need a Roman Chair or an anchored flat bench. Start by lying face down with your hips just off the bench.
Make sure your feet are together and then lift them as high as you can without arching your back. Hold for two seconds and then slowly lower your feet back down. Repeat to complete 15 reps.
Pro tip: You could make it a little bit harder by putting some weight on the back of your legs, but obviously, don’t overdo it.
If you want all the benefits of squats but lack balance (like me!) or are older, knee bends will work many of the same muscles. And you don’t have to worry about falling! Start by lying with your back to the floor. Make sure you’re on a comfortable surface.
Next, bring your knees up and place a towel or resistance band under your feet. Start at a 90-degree angle with your knees. Then push your feet out against the band or towel until your legs are fully extended. Make sure that your toes stay pointed upward to the ceiling. Repeat for 20 reps.
Pro tip: You can make it more challenging by starting with a low resistance band and working up to the strongest resistance band. Or you can even combine multiple bands to get more resistance.
Related: Best Running Braces for Knee Pain
Straight Leg Raises
If you want to strengthen the muscles that support your knee, you should do straight leg raises. They are extremely common exercises after someone has had hip or knee replacement surgery.
Start by lying flat on the ground with one leg bent and one leg straight and slowly raise your straight leg off the floor. Make sure as you raise your leg that you’re keeping your knee straight. Lower this leg and repeat several times before switching to the other leg.
Pro tip: While you’ll want a softer surface and not the hard linoleum floor, opt for a carpet rather than a comfy bed. You want your body and hips to be able to lie flat and neutral. A soft bed will counteract this and allow your hips to sink into the bed.
Squats are great exercises, and they will help you strengthen your quads and knees and improve flexibility. It’s essential that you follow proper form for squats. Start by standing up straight with your knees slightly bent and your feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart.
Then squat, but make sure that your shoulders are not hunched, your head is up, and there is a bend at your hips, pushing your bottom behind your knees as you squat. Do as many as you can until it hurts too much to stand up.
Pro tip: If you want more of a challenge, hold some small-pound dumbbells in your hands, but make sure that you are completely comfortable with the original exercise before adding weight.
You need strong calves because they are the muscles that help you bend your knees as well as help you lift up the heel.
This exercise will help you not only increase your leg strength but also help you stand and sit up straighter. Start by standing up straight with your back against the wall and your feet shoulder-width apart.
Bring your arms up and press your shoulder blades against the wall. This means that the back of your hands will be against the wall.
Slowly bend your knees and slide your back down the wall until your knees are at a 45-degree angle. Hold for five seconds and then slick back up. Repeat for 5 reps.
Pro tip: You can make this exercise harder by standing on a pillow (because it’s a slightly unsteady surface) as you complete the slides or by holding hand weights. Be sure to start small!
Heel and Calf Raises
By completing this exercise, you’ll be strengthening your calves and providing stability to your knees. Start by standing with your toes pointed straight ahead and lift your heels off the floor. After a brief pause, return to the floor. That’s it. Complete two sets of 10-15 reps, making sure to rest between sets.
Pro tip: If you want to also work your ankles, stand on a step and then let your heel extend just slightly below your foot before you lift your heel.
In the end, having strong knees will mean that you’ll be able to run longer, harder, and farther. Make sure that you take the time to strengthen your hips, quads, and calves so that you’re making it easier on your knees and making running more enjoyable.