If your knees are giving you problems, you’re not alone.
Knees are the commonly injured joints in the body, considering we use them for walking and going up and down stairs every day. In fact, walking up stairs puts pressure across your knee joints four times your body weight (1).
What Causes Knee Pain?
Many different things can cause knee pain. The following factors might be the cause of yours:
– Carrying too much bodyweight
– Poor posture
– Insufficient nourishment
– IT band issues
– Dislocated kneecap
– Hip or foot pain
– Improperly treated knee injuries (like ACL injuries, torn meniscus, fractures, or tendinitis)
Although some things like arthritis, gout and injuries need a little more TLC (like anti-inflammatory herbs and lots of rest and care), most knee issues can be resolved, or prevented by strengthening and stretching the muscles that compose the kneecap and those that surround it.
Muscles In And Around The Knee
The knee muscles control how the knee joint and patella move. Understanding which muscles support the knee is crucial in developing an effective strengthening and stretching routine. Find out below which muscles should be targeted (2):
– Quadriceps: a group of four muscles found in the front of the thigh and over the knee. Controls the movement of the patella (kneecap), straightens the leg, and assists us in going up and down stairs.
– Hamstrings: made up of three muscles found in the back of the thigh. Primary role is to bend the knee. It also helps stabilize the knee, especially when the knee twists. It lifts the leg off the ground when walking, and provides strength for propulsion.
– Popliteus: a muscle behind the knee joint that helps the knee twist. It aids stability of the knee and helps protect the lateral meniscus.
– Gastrocnemius & Soleus: the calf muscles that attach just above and below the knee. They play a small part in knee movements, and mainly control ankle movements.
– Gluteus muscles: a group of three muscles, which play an important role in the stability of the knee, and are often the main culprit behind knee problems.
What To Do
One of the best things you can do for your knees if it is not a fresh injury is maintaining active. Your joints thrive on movement, especially low-impact movement like swimming, walking, or cycling. If exercise is too high-impact (like HIIT and long-distance runs), and continues for long periods of time, you need to make sure you also focus on strengthening and stretching the knee to avoid and alleviate pain.
Try doing the following routine after every workout to keep your knee healthy and pain-free.
Use this strengthening routine to strengthen the muscles around the knee cap, and the muscles that support the knee. If any of the exercises hurt, discontinue them, or do a modified version by going to the point that is most comfortable for you without experiencing any pain.
1. Straight-Leg Raises
This exercise puts very little strain on your knee, but also activates and strengthens the quadriceps, an important muscle in knee stability.
1. Lie down on the floor on your back, with one knee bent, and the other leg on the ground in front of you.
2. Lift your straight leg up about one foot, rotating your leg outward (the entire leg rotates outward, so that the toes point on a diagonal instead of straight up to the ceiling).
3. Do 3 sets of 10-15 repetitions, alternating legs. As you get stronger, you can add ankle weights for more resistance.
A great strengthening exercise for the quads that also helps reduce knee pain you might experience while walking up stairs.
1. Stand in front of a step, like a sturdy bench or stairs, about 2 feet high.
2. Step up onto the support, straighten your knees fully (without locking them), and step down.
3. Keep a steady pace, and alternate knees each time you step up (do the right leg, then left leg, etc.).
4. Do 10-15 repetitions (alternating legs), and do 1-3 sets.
3. Abductor Raise
This exercise strengthens the hip abductors. Weak hip abductors can lead to patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS) and iliotibial (IT) band syndrome. PFPS can cause mild to severe pain behind the kneecap if not dealt with properly.
1. Lie on your side, propped up on one elbow.
2. The leg on the floor is bent, and the other is straight.
3. Slowly lift the top leg, hold for 5-10 seconds and then lower (ankle weights will increase intensity).
4. Do 1-3 sets with 12-15 repetitions each. Rest in between sets.
4. Two Leg Hamstring Curl
The hamstring muscles need to be strengthened so that your knees remain safe and healthy.
1. Lay down on your stomach, and bring your legs together in a parallel position so your knees face the floor.
2. Put your hands underneath your nose and rest your head forward.
3. Pull your lower belly in, and squeeze the glutes and inner thighs. Bend the knees, using the hamstring muscle along the back of the thigh to bring the heels in toward the buttocks.
4. Your hips and low back should not move – do NOT bend the lower back to bend the knees. Also, do not allow the legs to come apart. Keep the inner thighs and inner hamstrings working.
5. Do 5-10 repetitions and repeat for 1-3 sets.
5. Wall Sits
One of the most do-able exercise for anyone with back, hip or knee pain. Strengthens the quads and gluteus maximus muscles.
1. Lean with your back against a wall, and bend your knees until they are around 90 degrees (your thighs parallel to the floor). You’ll be sliding down the wall until you reach this position – make sure you do not allow your knees to go out over the toes.
2. Sit in this position for 10-15 seconds, and then slowly straighten up again, using your hands on the wall for balance if you need.
3. Repeat 5-10 times.
As with all stretches, make sure you are breathing deeply, and never press so far that you feel sharp pain. If you do, ease up on the stretch a bit and go to the point of comfortable release.
1. Wall Calf Stretch
The calf muscles often get neglected during stretching, however, it is very necessary. Tight calves need to be released to relieve any pain that might travel up the knee from the calves.
1. Find a wall you can lean against, and facing the wall, flex your right foot and position your heel right where the floor meets the bottom of the wall.
2. Keeping your heel on the ground and your leg as straight as possible, lean forward into your front leg, holding the stretch at the deepest point.
3. Hold for 5 seconds, and release. Repeat with the left leg.
4. Aim for 10-15 reps on each leg.
2. Half-Kneel Hip and Quad Stretch
This stretch works double duty for your hip and quad muscles, and feels amazing, too!
1. Kneel down with one knee on a folded towel or mat. The other foot will be planted flat on the ground in front of you.
2. Make close to a 90-degree angle with both of your legs, and lean forward toward your front leg, stretching the front of your hip downward.
3. Next, grab the ankle of your leg that is on the ground, and pull it toward your buttocks for a deep hamstring and hip stretch down the front leg, all the way to your knee.
4. Move in and out of this stretch for 10-15 reps or more, depending on how tight you are, then switch legs.
3. IT Band Foam Roller
If you have a foam roller, you definitely need to do this exercise. A tight IT band is often the culprit for most knee pain issues. This WILL hurt, but the end result is major relief.
1. Lie facedown with a foam roller under your right leg, right under the side of your right leg.
2. Put most of your bodyweight on your leg, and slowly roll – instead of rolling up and down, roll your leg from side to side, too. Focus the pressure on tighter spots of your muscles and hold for longer in spots that are more tight.
3. Switch legs. Roll for 5 minutes per leg, or until the feeling is no longer painful.
4. Figure Four Glute Stretch
This stretch targets the piriformis muscle, which can manifest as knee pain if the muscle becomes too irritated. It is a great stretch to open up the hips, too!
1. Lie on the floor with the affected leg crossed over the other leg at the knees, both legs bent.
2. Gently pull the lower knee up toward the shoulder on the same side of the body until you feel a stretch in the affected leg.
3. Hold for 30 seconds, and then slowly return to starting position.
5. Wall Hamstring Stretch
Tight hamstring muscles affect the knee more than we may think – they can also be the source of major discomfort or pain in and around the area of the knee.
1. Lie on your back with your left leg flat on the ground, foot flexed. Take your right leg and prop it up on a wall or table, or use a resistance band.
2. Once you find the deepest point of the stretch (you should feel it down the back of your leg, beginning in your knee), alternate in 5-second sequences between contracting and relaxing the foot of your right leg.
3. If you are more flexible, hold the ankle of your right leg and pull it toward you.
4. Do 10-15 round of 5-second holds. Repeat on the left leg.