This article is part of the Ultimate Guide to Knee Pain Relief.

Your body wants to keep you moving—whether you’re injured and looking for a way to get in a workout while you recover or battling chronic knee pain because of arthritis or other condition. But, what are good exercises for bad knees? Are there any activities that can help your knees heal and strengthen them? What are the safest exercises? Can any help alleviate discomfort?

IBJI recently chatted with Nathan Wetters, MD, a fellowship-trained knee doctor specializing in sports medicine, with a special focus on providing minimally invasive treatments, including cartilage transplants and restoration. His responses to these common patient questions and more—below—have been edited and condensed for space.

Frequently Asked Questions About Exercising with Knee Pain

Do You Have to Put Your Fitness Routine on Hold if You Have Knee Pain?

Dr. Wetters: It differs from patient to patient based on their fitness routine. Some exercise routines can put a lot of stress on your knees.

If your knee pain is caused by a recent trauma or due to high-intensity workouts, then you may have an overuse injury which is different than if your discomfort is caused by a chronic or degenerative condition like arthritis. 

The key is a thorough discussion with your personal trainer, physical therapist, or knee doctor to diagnose the cause of your pain. Then, they can provide guidance on options for continued exercise supported by your treatment plan.

Patient Success Story: Learn how 60-year-old electrician Bill J. got rid of his limp with knee surgery

Which Exercises Should People with Bad Knees Avoid?

Dr. Wetters: This, too, is different from patient to patient. 

I typically ask patients to avoid “open-chain” knee exercises as that can put unnecessary stress through the knee. Patients with mild to moderate arthritis especially may cause worsening of their symptoms through repetitive pounding if they are running on hard surfaces. 

Nobody should persist through any exercise once they are feeling fatigued. 

That’s because form breaks down quickly when your body becomes tired from plyometrics, weight training, and especially running. In these cases, the ligaments and tendons around your knee suffer the most when your form declines and the muscles aren’t functioning properly and in sync.

What Are Some of the Best Exercises for Bad Knees?

Dr. Wetters: Almost all people with knee pain will feel better with exercises that put less weight and pressure through their knee joints. 

Some examples include working out on:

  • Stationary bikes
  • Elliptical machines
  • Altered gravity treadmills

Water aerobics also provides excellent cardiovascular benefits without putting pressure on your knees. The buoyancy of the water will make it feel like pounds of weight have been lifted from your body.

Are There Any Exercises You Can Do to Strengthen Your Knees and Get Some Pain Relief?

Dr. Wetters: Low impact is key.

Bicycling, elliptical training, walking, and water aerobics are excellent for endurance strengthening. Closed-chain knee exercises for improving leg strength—such as rowing, squatting, and leg presses—can add stability to the front of your knee, which can provide relief for the pain you feel around your knee cap.

Additionally, stretching and yoga can relieve stress from the knees and ease the pain.

Having well-balanced muscle groups in the legs does not always mean less weight or more strength. Sometimes the strongest people can have high levels of pain caused by muscular stiffness that alters the biomechanics of the entire lower body.

New techniques, like blood flow restriction therapy, require much less stress while allowing low-intensity exercise to produce similar results to high-intensity training. Discuss this treatment option with your physical therapist or a physician before implemented it into a training routine.

Patient Success Story: Find out how surgery and physical therapy helped arthritis patient Charlie N. get back to doing what he loves.

What Other Things You Can Do to Help Alleviate Pain from Bad Knees?

Dr. Wetters: While the options discussed above describe the way to exercise by putting less force through the joints, losing weight is the best way to relieve that stress 24 hours per day. Sometimes, that’s not the best option or may be incredibly difficult.

Another option is to find supportive shoes with good arch support. Wearing the right footwear makes all of the difference for many people in their attempts to improve form which in turn allows for more effective exercise and improved pain relief. The biomechanics of your legs are complex, and everyone should start with a stable foundation: good shoes.

Ultimately, some people might have to consider alternative activities for pain relief when other options have failed. Eliminating what’s causing your pain can be powerful. For instance, you might switch from tennis to golf or stop running and take up kayaking. If that isn’t effective, your knee doctor may consider surgery as a last resort, which can be as simple as an arthroscopic meniscus surgery or even knee replacement.

How Do You Know if It’s Time to See a Knee Doctor?

Dr. Wetters: The first thing to ask yourself when suffering from knee pain is: Why do my knees hurt? 

For some people, the reason for their knee pain might be due to carrying extra weight. For others, the cause might be a recent injury or because they were inactive for a long period of time then started right back into an intense exercise routine their body wasn’t ready for.

The easier it is to answer why your knees hurt, the more prepared you are to decide on the next best step for treatment.

Finding Relief for Knee Pain

The easiest thing is to troubleshoot things yourself, but when all else fails you can contact us. IBJI’s experienced knee doctors and specialists are here to help move better and live better. 

If you think your weight might be causing your knee pain, you might be a good fit for our supportive OrthoHealth program. It’s specifically designed to marry weight management, nutrition, and physical therapy to help patients improve their overall health. Even if you don’t need all of those services at once, we have physical therapists, personal trainers, and health coaches who can help.

Our physicians and surgeons who specialize in treating knee pain can also help if you had a recent injury or your pain is persisting even after a period of rest and attempts at temporary activity modification.

Request an Appointment with a Knee Doctor


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Download the Ultimate Guide to Knee Pain Relief 

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