Work It Out: Save Your Knees

I have terrible knees.

When they are at their worst, I walk like an old man.

This week’s Work It Out comes from a reader request.  My girl Calee has been struggling with injuries and wanted to hear more about leg exercises that wouldn’t stress her knees.  Since she designed this logo I, of course, had to oblige. :)



Building up your leg muscles will go a long way in helping your knees.  After years of abuse – including a broken knee – my knees were so bad that I could tell when it was going to rain because they would ache so much.  That’s actually gotten BETTER since I’ve been lifting more seriously.

I’m not going to tell you they are 100%.  Just last week my left knee was tweaking during hack squats.  However, prior to beginning my training I couldn’t run more than a mile.  I ran an adventure race 3 weeks ago with no issues whatsoever.

Leg mucles

The leg muscles are the largest muscles in our body, and a large contributor to overall lean muscle mass (or lack thereof).  Leg muscles also protect the knee joint.

Movements like squats and lunges place a lot of stress on the knees, which is exactly what those suffering from knee issues need to avoid.  Instead, focus on strengthening your hamstring and quadriceps muscles to build leg strength and protect your knees.  It will seem difficult at first.  Start slowly and do leg exercises on a regular basis.  It takes 21 days to change a pattern!


Below are several exercises you might try to strengthen your leg muscles without stressing your knees.  Note that these exercises are options to work around your pain and/ or limitations.  They are NOT designed to be rehabilitation exercises or corrective training.  This type of training is best left to a qualified physical therapist, so please consult with a doctor first if you have significant pain or injuries.  I am NOT a doctor.

Sumo Stomps

Yes, this is just what it sounds like.  Sumo stomps are fun to do and will blast your quads, and you inner and outer thighs.  Be sure to stay low and controlled!

Sumo stomp

Stand with feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart, toes pointed out to sides at about 45 degrees.  Pointing your toes out will make this easier on your knees than a traditional squat.  Press your palms together in front of you in a prayer position at shoulder level.  Squat down, sending hips back and keeping knees behind toes.  Hold the squat and lift one leg up to the side as high as you can, remaining as low as possible in your squat.  Be sure to keep your abs tight and your chest up!  Lower leg and repeat with other side to complete one rep.

Cable Squats

These are great for your core too!  Lean back a bit while doing these, hitting your glutes and taking strain off of your knees.  A medicine ball is used in the example, but you can do it without.

Cable Squats

Attach a EZ or straight bar to the low pulley cable.  Place a medicine ball between your knees (feet hip width apart as in a squat position).  Hold the bar with arms outstretched, standing a body length away from the cable stack.  Squat until both your hips and knees form 90 degree angles. Shift your weight over your heels and push through the heels to return to standing position.

Hip Lifts On Bench

This is a great move to target the glutes and the hamstrings.  Hamstrings provide an accelerating force at each push-off, so stronger hamstrings are especially beneficial for runners.  Keep your core tight to get a little extra oblique tone, too!

Hip Lift

Place your heels on a bench (or chair), allowing your knees to bend so that they are directly above your hips at a 90 degree angle  Rest your arms should on the floor at your side.  Exhale and dig into the bench with your heels, lifting your hips off the floor as high as possible.  Pause for 1-2 seconds, squeezing your glutes.  Lower and repeat for reps.

Need a challenge?  Do them one-legged or on a stability ball!


Below are a few more exercises.  Click the titles for a link to descriptions and pics:

  • Wall Ball Squats – This is a great way to squat with some support.  Just like a traditional squat, be sure your knees don’t go over your toes.  Try them with weights in your hands for a greater challenge.
  • Side Step Ups – This is a good move for you butt, hips, and thighs.  Start on a lower platform and work your way up to a bench.  As your legs strengthen, you can do these at a faster pace as more of a Side Shuffle.
  • Pop Squats – These are a plyometric exercise.  Plyo can be hard on your knees… BUT if you do these correctly, take your time, and land softly they can help build up your quads and hams.  Tip: keeping your toes pointed slightly outward will  make it easier on  your knees.
  • Single Leg Extensions – These CAN strain your knees, but if you adjust the machine to your height and stick to low weight/high reps it can be a good tool for strengthening your quads, which is a huge help to your knees.
  • Single Leg Curls – This is a perfect for directly targeting the hamstrings.  If you don’t have access to gym machines, you can do standing leg curls with an elastic resistance band or low cable pulley
  • Good Mornings – This is another fantastic move for your hamstrings.  I like to do them at the end of a workout because it’s also a nice stretch.  Begin with a light weight and be sure not to round your back.  Your chin should remain upright; I try to focus on a spot at about belt height during the lift to ensure my back doesn’t round.

Don’t be afraid to modify a movement to better accommodate your specific limitations.  For instance, use a lighter weight or slower tempo.  If it hurts, stop.  Don’t push yourself too far or you could cause further injury to your knees.


I’ve been super-setting a lot since last week’s post about them.  According to my Polar HRM, the claim of an extra 1/3 calorie burn is spot on!

Did anyone try super-sets after reading about them last week?

Do you have any workout questions or things you’d like more info on? I’m going to “interview” with my trainer in a future post and would love your input!!  Leave a comment or email me at sprint2thetable at


  1. says

    Love these! I have knee “issues.” a torn miniscus probably that I’ll someday have to take care of. In the meantime, we muddle on. Great exercises for strengthening all the leg muscles.

  2. says

    Great post, Laura! I used to have terribleeeee knees from running. It got so bad that I couldn’t even walk to work anymore. It was kind of a blessing in disguise, as the time I took off from running introduced me to weight lifting 😉 My knees are SO strong now, and I attribute it all to my increased leg strength. I actually found leg extensions helped a lot which is ironic as most people caution against using the leg extension machine because of the pressure it places on the knees. I usually start out my clients with cable squats if they have any knee pain.

    • Laura says

      I was the same way – when I started lifting, I could barely walk. It’s incredible what building up muscle (quads, in my case) can do!

  3. says

    Ever since I started running, I’m serious about building smarter leg muscles. Anything that will protect my joints gets done. My leg muscles don’t pop like my arms do so I’ve started to focus on building more muscle on the lower half of my body.

    Side note, everyone talks about having bad knees with me when they mention how much I’ve been running. My knees aren’t incredible either. I think a lot of it does have to do with weaker leg muscles in general. Your knees carry the brunt of any weight you have (big or small) when your leg muscles are weaker. Great post!

  4. says

    I need to add in those pop squats – need to work on my hips really badly. I also like firewalkers for hips (band around feet, squat and side step to the right then back to left). Since I’m not supposed to be doing heavy weights right now, I’m noticing more and more issues cropping up so I like some of these options. Thanks for sharing!

    • Laura says

      Fire walkers are another great one! I’d love to do a workout with just bands – they are great for those that travel or don’t have a home gym.

  5. says

    My running stride is sort of strange and I’ve been told that it’s going to affect my knees at some point, but I can’t help it. It feels normal to run the way I do. (I kind of shuffle and kick my legs out to the side, which sounds ridiculous when I type it out that way.) I’ll try some of these exercises. Do you have any suggestions for weak glutes?

  6. says

    Great post! Thanks for all the tips. I just finished doing a killer leg workout this morning. I’m working on building my leg strength, and making sure my knees are happy for all the stress I like to put on them. 😉 Next week, I’ll have to try a few of these exercises that I haven’t done before. Thanks!

    Also, I did do the close-grip tricep exercise from last week. Awesome!! It definitely targeted a different part of my tricep. Thank you!

    • Laura says

      That’s great to hear. No shame in using the handicapped stall. 😉

      Thanks for the feedback – I’m glad you liked the new exercise!

  7. says

    Oh–I forgot. I have a question. I’ve been having issues with my tibialis anterior being too tight (front of lower leg) and causing some discomfort. It makes me nervous to do any “jumping” type exercises, because that seems to aggravate it more. Any tips and strengthening/stretching this area? I know it’s not shin splits, it just seems to be too contracted. Thanks!

  8. says

    Great post! Lots of people end up with issues because they don’t work all the muscles , especially ones they can’t see. OR like legs, work quads way more than hamstrings or maybe skip hammies all together & end up with knee issues. This happens with back & core too… got to work opposing body parts as you know! :)

    Tamara did a good post on exercises for post knee injury here:

    • Laura says

      That’s a great point – balancing your hams and quads is so important.

      thanks for sharing Tamara’s post – I missed that one!

  9. says

    You are the greatest! This is a great list of moves. THANKS.

    Side note, this reminds me that I’m sad because my gym basically got rid of all the cable equipment (and mirrors, WTF?). They did this huge remodel on both campus gyms and added a bunch more cardio equipment, and machines, and got rid of the cable and free-er weight stuff (like barbells with racks and benches).

    • Laura says

      I’m so glad you liked!!! I hope some of these help you out.

      A gym with no mirrors or free weights?! WTF is right!

  10. says

    This is the best post!!! All of these exercises not only target my problem areas but since they’re easy on the knees I’ll be able to do a lot of them!! I hyper extended one of my knees in high school and it hasn’t been the same since.

    • Laura says

      I hope it helps! I know how you feel – when I was running a lot, I’d get up to 13 miles and get some sort of injury.

    • Laura says

      I can imagine so! Some of these might be perfect though since they are eithe rdon’t use weights, or use light weights. No sense in over-doing it with the training you’re already doing!

  11. says

    Great post. Knees are such fickle things. Sadly, mine are plagued by what the doctor calls instable patella. eight weeks of physical therapy did nothing. Well it made me stronger, but didn’t make my knee caps any less loose. Oh well, I love sumo squats. Makes me feel like the hulk.

    • Laura says

      I wonder if that’s like a floating knee cap? The Dr. said I had that once… building my quads made a HUGE difference. Stronger quads mean that they didn’t tire as quickly, which was forcing my body to rely too heavily on the knee.

  12. says

    Awesome post. I used to have bad knees but they’ve gotten much better. I never knew that doing squats and lunges is actually bad for the knees though 0.0 Never knew that leg muscles are the biggest muscles in the body, I always thought it was the abdominal muscles 0.0 Yoga should help with the knees too I’ve heard 😉

    • Laura says

      They are necessarily bad, but they do put a lot of stress on the knee. If you have knee problems, it’s generally not a good idea to do them until you build up more muscle to supprt those activities.

  13. says

    Love your suggestions! I would love to know what your trainer thinks of BodyPump.. it is lower weights, higher weights. I have a feeling it isn’t as good as heavier weights for shorter intervals for strength but better for endurance. The best part is that it is no-think for me. 😉

    • Laura says

      That’s a good one! Adding to the list. :)

      I’d venture to say it depends on what your goals are, which I think is what you were saying here.

  14. says

    I, too, have lots of knee problems that are aggrevated by my favorite form of exercise: running! My PT told me many of these tips, but I have gotten a bit lazy and haven’t been doing my exercises. I’m glad I came across this post to remind me to! Thanks!

  15. says

    I’m going to bookmark this post. My knees have been bothering me when I run lately and I think it’s time to start incorporating some strengthening exercises to help them.


  1. […] workouts: 1.  Treadmill Hill Workout from Clare 2.  Inverted Rows with a Sheet from Paige 3.  Work It Out: Save Your Knees from Laura 4.  Ladder Cardio Workout from Ashley 5.  Full Body Burnout from […]

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