Exercises to Strengthen Weak Knees
What Is a Weak Knee?
The muscles surrounding the knee need to be strong to support the joint—weak muscles can lead to stress and pain. That's why strengthening exercises are a popular noninvasive and effective method for treating knee pain.
There are many potential causes for knee pain, but the best way to diagnose it is to see your doctor. Your doctor may refer you to a physiotherapist or recommend x-rays or an MRI. If it is more serious, he or she may refer you to an orthopedist.
If you want to learn more about the cause of your knee pain or soreness, check the NIH webpage about knee problems. Here are some of the aggravating factors and triggers:
- Overuse or misuse
- Weak muscles
- Acute injuries
- Hormonal changes such as those that occur during puberty or pregnancy
- Aging (osteoarthritis)
- Uneven muscles or bones or other physical abnormalities
- Being overweight
Supplements for Joints
The most popular supplements for joints are glucosamine based. It is effective and has very few side effects, providing you take the correct dosage and the supplement consists of high-quality, non-synthetic ingredients.
The best-selling glucosamine products are combinations of two or three compounds, glucosamine mixed with MSM and/or chondroitin. Although there is not enough research to establish the efficacy on MSM and chondroitin on joint health, people swear by it. It looks like the three are somehow synergistic, working better together.
What Type of Knee Problem Do You Face?
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Invasive vs. Non-invasive Treatment for Your Knees
Non-invasive procedures are always the best when it comes to healing joints. Human articulations have very poor blood flow, so when they are injured (which includes surgery trauma), they heal slowly. Even for athletes, who usually heal more quickly than the rest of us, take a long time to recover from joint problems, and during that recovery time, there's an increased risk of another injury.
Other serious deterrents to surgery include:
- Limping for at least a couple of weeks
- Loss of range of motion
- Poor rest during recovery
- Very reduced physical activity during the recovery period
For this reason, surgeons and orthopedists will usually try a non-surgical approach, though in some cases a surgical intervention is absolutely necessary.
However, sometimes the surgery only addresses the symptoms, without fixing the root of the problem. For example, the surgical solution for a torn meniscus is to remove the torn piece of the meniscus that is blocking the articulation from moving properly or irritating the joint, and the surgical solution for osteoarthritis is to reshape the cartilaginous side of the bone so it moves freely.
This type of surgery is usually done with scopes, which reduces the recovery time. The surgery is called arthroscopy (arthroscopic surgery) and is a day surgery, meaning the patient goes home the same day. The recovery time is different for the different procedures, from a few weeks for a meniscectomy to a few months for an ACL reconstruction.
Why Are Exercises Necessary?
Even if you are getting surgery, a joint in good shape supported by strong muscles will significantly shorten your recovery time because the strong muscles will provide more blood flow in the joint. Blood flow is critical for proper healing, especially for a poor vascularised zone such as the susceptible zones of the knee.
This basically means that you should probably start your strengthening exercises now—at best, it will solve the problem; if not, it will be necessary for optimal recovery from surgery.
Breathable Neoprene Knee Support
During your strengthening exercises, a knee support is very useful because it reinforces the patella and stabilizes the joint, preventing displacement.
I have tried quite a few brace models, and many do not work very well. The brace needs to be designed in such way as to stabilize without being too restrictive—your blood should be able to flow freely and the skin should be able to breathe.
Important Tips for Knee Exercises!
Before starting the strengthening exercises, you need to know a few things:
- Wear a knee support. Wearing a knee support will give your articulation more stability, so it won't swell up as easily. You definitely need to wear a brace when exercising.
- Use topical anti-inflammatory. The use of a topical anti-inflammatory is absolutely vital. You may think that is not that important, but if your joint puffs up, you won't be able to do the exercises anymore, so you'll stop.
- Use an exercise bicycle. An exercise bicycle is the best and safest way to exercise your quads.
- Use NSAIDs only when absolutely needed. The painkillers should always be the last resort. There are serious side effects associated with oral NSAIDs.
Athletes With Knee Pain
Sometimes athletes will complain about knee pain that prevents them from performing at their highest ability. As previously mentioned, the first impulse is to blame the pain on weak muscles, since this is quite common. However, athletes are a special case—weak muscles are often not the problem.
Quite the opposite—for athletes tight muscles are the problem in many cases. When a muscle is injured, the body will naturally try to protect it by compensating with other muscles. Even when the injured muscle is fully recovered, the muscles that overcompensated will still remain tight. A tight muscle will pull the patella in an unnatural way, displacing it. The displaced patella then causes more friction and tension in the joint, leading to pain and inflammation.
Because of this, the solution in this case not a strengthening regimen, but a stretching routine. You want to increase the elasticity and flexibility of the tight muscles, ligaments, and tendons so that they stop pulling the patella out of place.
Muscles that can directly or indirectly cause problems in your knees are glutes (gluteus maximus), quads (quadriceps), and hamstrings. The IT Band (iliotibial band) also can cause problems for the knees if it's too tight or inflexible.
The best course of action is to see a physiotherapist. A professional can run a series of tests to determine which muscles or tendons are tight. This is important so you can adapt your stretching exercises. If you can't see a physiotherapist, you can try to do this by yourself, stretching all the muscles to make sure there is no unnatural pull on your knee.
The easiest exercise for knees is riding a bicycle. Cycling is very easy on the leg joints and will definitely strengthen your muscles around the knees. Don't underestimate biking as part of your strengthening routine. This is probably one of the most fun ways to get the right muscles to work with the least impact on the joint, and it yields impressive results. When all else fails because your joint is too sensitive, biking will work.
When I started biking, I would only take up flat roads because hills would put too much strain on my knees. However, in time, my muscles got stronger, properly supporting my knees, and I was able to go from home to work and back without problems.
If you live in a hilly area, like I do, get a bike with gears so you can change the speed and torque. For the uphill ride, you need to lower the torque so it doesn't push your articulations too much.
However, if you don't have to bike uphill, you can definitely get a one-gear bike, also known as a fixie. The fixies are actually my favorites.
Swimming is another great option for your knee strengthening exercising. It has low impact on all joints, it is fun and it works out exactly the muscles that need reinforcement.
The best swimming style for your lower limbs articulations is crawl. Crawling is the perfect combination of low impact on the sensitive joints and great workout for the muscles to reinforce. You could also use a swimming pad and swim only using your legs motion. This gives you a bit more control over the movement.
I actually love the swimming not only for my knee, but because it stretches my other body parts, that are still affected by the long period of time limping, and unhealthy body positions. When I realized how good swimming, and playing in a pool, was for my entire body, I got hooked immediately, and my four years old son is more than happy about my new hobby.
Photo Credit: jonfeinstein via Flickr.com
Side-Lying Hip Abduction (Gluteus Workout)
Lie on your side with your body in a straight line. Lift the top leg as high as you can. The move should be done in such way that your upper body doesn't move. If you do it properly, you will feel your gluteal muscles working hard.
Do this exercise 10 times per side for three sets.
The glutes are important they can indirectly affect your knees. If the glutes are weak, other muscles in the back of the knee will compensate, causing tight hamstrings, which can put unnatural pressure on the meniscus.
Seated Leg Lifts
Sitting on the edge of a seat (your back should not touch the back of the chair), straighten one leg so it forms a 90-degree angle with the rest of the body. The joint should be straight, so that you exercise the right muscles. If the knee is bent, you will use other muscles.
Hold the leg straight for about 30 seconds and then do the same with the other leg. Repeat three to four times.
In time, as your muscles become stronger, you can incrementally increase the time from 30 seconds to up to 60 seconds. Be careful not to overdo it—you do not want your muscles to feel tired the next day. Always keep a balance.
An alternative to this exercise is to hold the leg straight for 3-4 seconds, and then rest. Repeat this 10 times, for three or four cycles.
Lying Leg Lifts
Lie on your back on a firm surface, such as a yoga mat or something similar. Keeping your knee straight, tighten the thigh muscles in one leg and lift it from the floor off of the mat about 40 degrees. Hold the leg in position for two to three seconds. Do this exercise 10 times on each side for three sets.
The previous two exercises are easiest, so start with them first. Once they feel too easy, you can start with these.
For the bridge, start out by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground, roughly hip distance apart. Breathe in and lift your torso off of the ground so that your body and thighs form a straight line. Breathe out and lower your body back to the ground, then repeat.
Once the above exercise feels easy, you can make it more challenging with the following modification. Start in the same position, and extend one leg so that it is straight on the ground. You will keep this leg in a straight line with your body throughout the exercise. As your breathe in and lift your torso for the bridge, keep this leg in line with your body, so that it is lifted above the ground. Breathe out and lower both your body and your leg. After working out one side, switch to the other.
An exercise bicycle is the best way to strengthen the muscles around the knee without needing to go outside. You can just watch your favorite TV show and work your muscles. Doing so is much easier than other workouts because the time flies by, so you don't even realize you've done your daily knee exercise.
This is a great exercise bicycle with adjustable resistance and a large console display to track your speed and distance.
I used this recumbent bicycle for my knee recovery, after the surgery, and it was the best investment in my health. Here in Canada, the winters are long and harsh, biking outdoors is not an option, (although I see crazy people biking at -25 degree Celsius). I started at the lowest level and gradually I progressed to the level eight.
The best thing about it is that you can watch TV while strengthening your knees. I love my bicycle.
These are advanced exercises meant for those who already have strong muscles. If you haven't done the previous ones, approach these with caution, and stop if your joints get irritated. For best results, use an anti-inflammatory cream such as Penetrex.
Using a five-to-six-inch-high stool, step forward up onto it using a slow, controlled motion. The more controlled the motion, the more difficult the exercise. Step down, returning to the starting position. Increase the height of the platform, and use an even slower motion as strength increases. Repeat for three sets of 10 times each.
Standing on the side of a six-inch high stool, make a lateral step up onto the stool, leading with your weak knee leg. Step down, returning to the starting position.
Oral NSAID and Painkillers
When your joints are swollen and in a lot of pain, a very efficient way to decrease the inflammation and to control the suffering is to take acetaminophen and ibuprofen together. After my knee surgery, my doctor recommended me to take this cocktail for a few days, and it worked perfectly for me.
However, you need to speak to your doctor about taking these together. Self medication is very dangerous and the combination could have serious consequences for some people.
Here are the results of an NIH study about the efficiency of ibuprofen plus acetaminophen.
Stand on a stepping box or a stair step. Slowly lower your self to the floor (or the next stair step), by bending the support knee. The support foot should not move. Then slowly return to your original position. The slower the movement, the harder the exercise.
Note, this is an advanced exercise that will put a lot of strain on your muscles and could even cause your joint to swell if you have weak muscles around the joint or an underlying condition, such as a joint injury.
This is one of the most strenuous routines listed here, and it should be done after the easier exercises no longer provide any challenge.
You could make this exercise as hard as you like by either modifying the height of the step-up box, or the speed of the motion, or both. The taller the box and slower the motion, the more challenging the exercise.
Not everybody's story is the same—the best course of action is to see a doctor or physiotherapist to make an accurate assessment of the situation and propose a personalized plan. But here is my knee-problem story:
When I was young, I practiced a lot of sports, my favorites being judo and soccer. During a judo training session, I badly injured my knee, and I have suffered for more than 20 years now. I had some treatment at the time, but because I didn't fully understand the gravity of the situation, I ignored the doctor's advice, and my knee got worse. Over the years, its condition fluctuated, but usually it would swell after a soccer game, or even after an intense jogging. Eventually, it reached the point where it would with the slightest physical exercise, and I went to see a specialist.
As I explained previously, my family doctor took a rather progressive approach, trying small fixes before resorting to surgery. He first recommended orthotics. After a few months with the new shoe pads, nothing improved. There was a big chance, though, that my knee problem was caused by an incorrect position of the feet, and the shoe pads were supposed to relieve any extra pressure my feet could be having on my knees.
My next appointment was with a physiotherapist, who gave me a set of progressive exercises, like the ones listed on this page. Everything seemed to progress nicely until I got to the difficult exercises, which invariably caused swelling, even when I tried doing them less frequently or with fewer repetitions. This was the point where I had to see a surgeon.
The surgeon recommended removing a torn piece of meniscus that was causing the irritation. I did, (my first surgery ever), and now my knee is way better.
My recovery took longer than an average person's, partly because of my reluctance to doing the exercises. Before the surgery, a swollen knee could stay that way for weeks and even months. After the surgery, my joint was way better. Even if it swelled, applying ice would return it to normal overnight or in two days. It took me long time to realize that my knee was behaving differently now.
I am now almost 100 percent recovered, the exercises do not cause swelling to my knees anymore, and I even started to play a bit of soccer. I will keep this page up to date with my progress.
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