The Best Knee Exercises for Strength and Flexibility, According to Physical Therapists

Learn about the most effective physical therapist-recommended exercises to prevent and manage knee pain.

Published Date: Mar 14, 2024
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You may not think about them all that often, but your knees have a major impact on your ability to move in your daily life, whether you’re standing, walking, going up stairs, picking something up off the ground, or playing your favorite sport. Changes in your knees can impact how you move and contribute to knee pain, and even aches in other areas of your body. 

“If you start to lose mobility, it changes the way you stand and walk, which can contribute to some aches and pain in your knees, hips, back, ankles, and feet,” says Kristin Vinci, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. 

Knee exercises recommended by a physical therapist can help reduce knee pain, and also promote healthy movement in your daily life. Strengthening the muscles around your knee means better support for the knee joint, and promoting flexibility can help maintain range of motion in both your muscles and joints. 

In this article, learn more about how to keep your knees healthy, strong, and flexible with exercises recommended by our Hinge Health physical therapists. 

Our Hinge Health Experts

Kristin Vinci, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Vinci is a Hinge Health physical therapist with a special interest in orthopedics, persistent pain, and mindfulness based stress reduction.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

The exercises below are divided into exercises that strengthen your knees and ones that stretch the areas around your knees to improve flexibility. You can do these exercises as often as you like or any time your knees feel sore.

Knee Strengthening Exercises

Strengthening the muscles that support your knees can improve stability, promoting healthy movement and reducing potential discomfort in your knees and throughout your body. Knee strengthening is also important for preventing injury from playing sports and managing age-related changes in your knees due to conditions like arthritis. These exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists are a great place to start. 

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Squats

Squats

Even if you’re not experiencing knee pain right now, Dr. Vinci recommends squats to activate your quads, hamstrings, and glutes, all of which help support and stabilize your knees. Try adding a band above your knees for a bit of extra resistance. “With the band, you’re also maintaining outward resistance, which helps make the strengthening more multi-dimensional and engages more deep stabilizing muscles in your hips,” says Dr. Vinci. 

How to Do It: 

  • Stand with your feet a comfortable distance apart. 

  • Keeping most of your weight in your heels, reach your hips back while bending your knees, as if you were sitting in a chair. 

  • Hold this position while you focus on squeezing your thigh and hip muscles. 

  • Push through your feet to straighten your knees and return to a standing position.

  • As you do each rep, you might feel your thigh, butt, and hip muscles working.

Banded Bridge

Banded Bridge

By promoting quad, hamstring, and glute strength, the banded bridge exercise helps stabilize your trunk and pelvis and reduces force on the knees, according to Dr. Vinci.

How to Do It: 

  • Lie comfortably on your back with a looped resistance band placed above your knees. 

  • With your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, move your knees apart to stretch the band and push through your heels to lift your hips off the floor. 

  • Focus on squeezing your glutes and holding your knees apart. 

  • Lower your hips back to the floor. 

  • As you do each rep, you might feel your hip, butt, and leg muscles working. 

Single-Leg Calf Raise

Single-Leg Calf Raise

The calf muscle extends above the knee, so strengthening it can help prevent force and twisting on the knee. “This exercise can be challenging but it’s a great one for promoting stability in the knees,” says Dr. Vinci. 

How to Do It: 

  • Start by standing with one hand on a table or wall for balance. 

  • Keep your targeted foot flat on the floor and your opposite foot lifted off the floor.  

  • Push up onto your toes to lift your heel off the floor. 

  • Focus on squeezing your calf muscles as you hold this position. 

  • Relax your heel down to the starting position. 

  • As you do each rep, you might feel your calf, ankle, and foot muscles working. 

Knee Stretches for Flexibility 

Flexibility is another important component of maintaining knee health, because it helps promote range of motion in your joint, allowing you to perform daily activities (and maintain strength). Muscles that aren’t flexible are also more susceptible to injury when you start new activities, says Dr. Vinci.

Seated Hamstring Stretch

Seated Hamstring Stretch

This stretch, which elongates your hamstring muscles on the back of your thigh, is a great way to work on the extension range of motion for your knees (that’s your ability to fully straighten your knees). Because it’s a seated exercise, you can incorporate it anywhere, anytime.

How to Do It: 

  • Sit at the edge of a chair and stretch one leg out in front of you while resting your heel on the floor. 

  • Hinge at your hips, leaning your chest toward the floor. 

  • Hold for a few deep breaths before returning to your starting position. 

  • As you do each rep, you should feel a stretch in the back of your leg, calf, and hips.

Quad Stretch

Quad Stretch

Stretching your quads helps promote knee flexion mobility, or the ability to bend your knee. If you sit a lot during the day, your quads can become tight, which can make flexion movements more difficult. “This is a good opposite movement of what we normally do, and it’s easy to incorporate into your daily routine,” says Dr. Vinci.

How to Do It: 

  • Stand with your hands holding onto a table. 

  • Bend your knee, bringing your heel up toward your butt, and grab onto your foot or ankle.

  • Gently pull your foot toward your butt until you feel a nice stretch in the front of your thigh. 

  • Hold this stretch while you focus on standing tall. 

  • Release your foot back to the floor to return to standing, 

  • As you do each rep, you might feel a slight stretch in the front of your thigh and hip.  

Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch

Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch

Sitting tightens your hip flexor muscles, so stretching them can help reduce tension and improve mobility, especially with straightening your knees. The kneeling hip flexor stretch also stretches your quadriceps, making it a versatile exercise. “You can extend your arm overhead to get a nice stretch all the way from your chest and abs down through your hips and pelvis,” says Dr. Vinci. 

How to Do It: 

  • Start by kneeling on a yoga mat with one leg out in front of you with your foot flat on the floor. Your other knee should be on the floor, directly below your hip. 

  • Move your hips and knee forward.

  • Keep your chest and head upright as you hold this stretch. 

  • Move your hips and knee back to the starting position. 

  • As you do each rep, you might feel a stretch at the front of your hip and thigh. 

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

Why Should You Do Knee Exercises? 

Knee exercises are useful and important whether you’re currently healthy or experiencing pain. If you don’t already have knee pain, strength and flexibility can help you stay ahead of the curve by supporting your everyday activities and exercise routine, whether you’re walking or playing sports. Knee strengthening, Dr. Vinci says, can also reduce the risk of injury in these activities by supporting your knee joints. 

If you already experience knee pain from an injury or from age-related changes in your joints, exercise is a great way to improve mobility and reduce pain. It may feel counterintuitive to exercise when your knees are already bothering you, but you don’t need to wait until the pain goes away to start a PT-backed routine. “It’s about finding the right pattern of movement and the right dose of exercise for you, which a physical therapist can help with,” says Dr. Vinci. 

How Hinge Health Can Help You 

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References

  1. Hsu, H., & Siwiec, R. M. (2023). Knee Osteoarthritis. StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507884/

  2. Marshall, R. N., Morgan, P. T., Martinez-Valdes, E., & Breen, L. (2020). Quadriceps muscle electromyography activity during physical activities and resistance exercise modes in younger and older adults. Experimental gerontology, 136, 110965. doi:10.1016/j.exger.2020.110965

  3. Mo, L., Jiang, B., Mei, T., & Zhou, D. (2023). Exercise Therapy for Knee Osteoarthritis: A Systematic Review and Network Meta-analysis. Orthopaedic journal of sports medicine, 11(5), 23259671231172773. doi:10.1177/23259671231172773

  4. Zeng, C. Y., Zhang, Z. R., Tang, Z. M., & Hua, F. Z. (2021). Benefits and Mechanisms of Exercise Training for Knee Osteoarthritis. Frontiers in physiology, 12, 794062. doi:10.3389/fphys.2021.794062