10 Knee Strengthening Exercises, Recommended by Physical Therapists

Learn about the importance of knee strengthening exercises and which ones are recommended by physical therapists.

Published Date: Jun 7, 2024

10 Knee Strengthening Exercises, Recommended by Physical Therapists

Learn about the importance of knee strengthening exercises and which ones are recommended by physical therapists.

Published Date: Jun 7, 2024

10 Knee Strengthening Exercises, Recommended by Physical Therapists

Learn about the importance of knee strengthening exercises and which ones are recommended by physical therapists.

Published Date: Jun 7, 2024

10 Knee Strengthening Exercises, Recommended by Physical Therapists

Learn about the importance of knee strengthening exercises and which ones are recommended by physical therapists.

Published Date: Jun 7, 2024
Table of Contents

If you’re experiencing knee pain, you may not think of exercise as your first line of treatment but knee strengthening exercises may be exactly what you need to feel better. Moving your body is often the most effective way to help recover from pain in your knees, whether it stems from an acute injury or a chronic condition like osteoarthritis, says Sarah Kellen, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health.  

Along with lubricating your joints, which can help reduce pain and enhance mobility, exercise can also help improve strength. Targeted exercise that activates the muscles around your knees is a great way to make many everyday activities less painful, and to prevent injuries that can interfere with your daily routines. 

Read on to learn how to protect your knees, improve your everyday function and reduce pain, especially with these knee strengthening exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Sarah Kellen, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Kellen is a Hinge Health Physical Therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist. She has a special interest in pregnancy and postpartum care.
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.
Maureen Lu, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Lu is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist with over 17 years of clinical experience.

10 Knee Strengthening Exercises

1. Hamstring Curl

Hamstring Curl

This exercise uses your back thigh muscles to lift your lower leg, engaging your hamstrings and glutes at the same time. As you get stronger, you can add a resistance band for an additional challenge.

1. Hamstring Curl

Hamstring Curl

This exercise uses your back thigh muscles to lift your lower leg, engaging your hamstrings and glutes at the same time. As you get stronger, you can add a resistance band for an additional challenge.

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Along with strengthening your hamstring muscles, this exercise works on bending and straightening your knee, which can help lubricate the joint and improve mobility. “Over time, you can make it more challenging by adding a resistance band around your legs,” says Dr. Kellen. 

How to Do It: 

  • Start by standing with both hands resting on a sturdy surface, like a table or chair. 

  • Next, lift one leg’s heel off the floor and move it toward your butt. 

  • Squeeze the muscles in the back of your leg while you hold this position. 

  • Lower your foot back to the floor.

2. Knee Extension

Knee Extension

Because you’re seated, this puts a lower load on the patellar tendon. As you get stronger, you can add more resistance with a band or ankle weights.

2. Knee Extension

Knee Extension

Because you’re seated, this puts a lower load on the patellar tendon. As you get stronger, you can add more resistance with a band or ankle weights.

The knee extension movement isolates the quadriceps, the large muscles on the front of your thigh that help stabilize your knee. Dr. Kellen recommends knee extension for a comfortable form of movement early on after an injury, because it doesn’t put pressure on your joint in a weight-bearing position. 

How to Do It: 

  • Start by sitting comfortably in a chair.  

  • Then, move your foot toward the ceiling to straighten your leg. The back of your thigh should remain on the chair as you hold this position. 

  • Relax your foot back to the floor. 

3. Straight Leg Raise

Straight Leg Raises

This move strengthens the quads and the hip flexor muscles. This can be a really great move if you have more advanced osteoarthritis — it tends to be less irritating to the knee.

3. Straight Leg Raise

Straight Leg Raises

This move strengthens the quads and the hip flexor muscles. This can be a really great move if you have more advanced osteoarthritis — it tends to be less irritating to the knee.

Another non-weight bearing exercise, the straight leg raise is a great way to strengthen your quadriceps without causing pain in the process. “It can help prime the quad muscles so you can do more advanced exercises as you heal,” says Dr. Kellen. 

How to Do It: 

  • On a yoga mat, lie comfortably on your back with one leg resting straight on the floor. 

  • Bend the knee of your other leg so that your foot is resting on the floor. 

  • Now raise your straight leg toward the ceiling. Focus on keeping your leg straight as you hold your leg high. 

  • Then relax your leg back to the floor.

4. Squat

4. Squat

Once you’re ready to incorporate weight-bearing exercises into your routine, squats can be a go-to move because they help strengthen several muscles that support your knees, including your calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. 

How to Do It: 

  • To begin, stand with your feet comfortably apart.

  • Next, keeping most of your weight in your heels, reach your hips back while bending your knees like you’re sitting in a chair. 

  • Hold this squat 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. 

5. Calf Raises

Calf Raises

5. Calf Raises

Calf Raises

The top of your calf connects to your lower femur, or thigh bone, and helps to support your knees. This exercise helps gently strengthen your calves, resulting in stronger and more stable knees. 

How to Do It: 

  • Start by standing with your feet hip-width apart and with one hand on a table for balance.  

  • Now, push through the balls of your feet to raise your heels off the floor. Focus on squeezing your calf muscles as you hold this position. 

  • Then, relax your heels back to the floor.

6. Mini Lunges

6. Mini Lunges

Traditional lunges can sometimes irritate the knee joint if you’re already in pain, so Dr. Kellen often suggests beginning with mini lunges to help improve strength and decrease irritation with functional activities like getting up and down from the floor.

How to Do It: 

  • Start by standing with your feet a comfortable distance apart and your hands at your sides or on your hips. 

  • Now, take a step forward and slightly bend through your front knee. 

  • Your back heel might lift off the floor as you lunge. 

  • As you bend through your front knee, aim to have your knee positioned over your ankle and behind your toes.  

  • Focus on your balance as you hold this position. 

  • Then, push through your front foot to straighten your legs and return to standing.

7. Forward Step Up

7. Forward Step Up

With this exercise, you’ll feel a little activation in your glutes and a lot in your quads. If the full step down is too challenging, Dr. Kellen says you can stop half way and slowly build up to the full step down over time. 

How to Do It: 

  • Start by standing on a step with your toes facing forward. 

  • Then, lower one foot toward the floor while bending your leg that is on the step.  

  • Let your heel come to rest lightly on the floor. Focus on engaging the muscles in your thigh and side of your hip while holding this position. 

  • Push through your leg to lift your foot off the floor and return to the starting position.

9. Side Lying Leg Raise

Side Lying Leg Raise

This helps to strengthen hip abductor muscles, the muscles on the outside of your hip joint.

9. Side Lying Leg Raise

Side Lying Leg Raise

This helps to strengthen hip abductor muscles, the muscles on the outside of your hip joint.

This move trains the outer glutes and the muscles along the side of the leg, which you use when lifting your leg up and stepping down. “The stronger these muscles become, the easier it will be for your knees as you walk up and down stairs,” says Dr. Kellen.

How to Do It: 

  • On a yoga mat, lie on your side with your arm or a cushion for head support. 

  • Keep your legs straight and your feet stacked on top of one another. 

  • Next, lift your top leg toward the ceiling while you keep your leg straight and your hips stacked. Focus on squeezing the hip and butt muscles as you hold at the top. 

  • Relax your leg down to the starting position.

10. Bridge

10. Bridge

A non-weight bearing exercise that’s helpful for people experiencing knee pain while standing, the bridge helps strengthen your gluteus maximus and medius to relieve pressure on your knees. 

How to Do It: 

  • On a yoga mat, lie comfortably on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.

  • Push through your feet to raise your hips off the floor. Focus on squeezing your butt muscles as you hold this position. 

  • Relax your hips back to the floor.

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.

Benefits of Knee Strengthening Exercises

You use your knees for any daily movement that involves standing or walking — not to mention many exercises and sports activities. If you want to keep your knees pain-free, it’s important to engage in knee strengthening exercises that target the surrounding muscles, such as your calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.

Strengthening the muscles that support your knees can take pressure off your joints, which is helpful if you have age-related changes in your knees, like knee arthritis, or other causes of pain. As your muscles learn to handle more stress and strain, daily activities and exercise can become less uncomfortable. “The stronger the muscles are around your knees, the more load you’ll take off the knee joint,” says Dr. Kellen. Along with helping reduce pain symptoms, building strength in your knees and surrounding structures improves stability, which can also reduce the likelihood of an acute or chronic knee injury in the future. 

PT Tip: Incorporate Daily Movement 

Knee strengthening exercises, like the ones above, can go a long way in managing and preventing knee pain, and working them into your daily life as “movement snacks” can help you prioritize knee health even when you’re busy. “Every few hours or every day on your lunch break, do some sit to stands at your desk or chair squats, where you hover over your chair and squat,” suggests Dr. Kellen. “Quick exercises are easy to mix into your daily routine so you can continue progressing.”

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. (2021). Knee Osteoarthritis. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/nbk507884/ 

  2. Susko, A. M., & Fitzgerald, G. K. (2013). The pain-relieving qualities of exercise in knee osteoarthritis. Open Access Rheumatology: Research and Reviews, 5, 81–91. doi:10.2147/OARRR.S53974

  3. 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(1). doi:10.3389/fphys.2021.794062