How to Get In Shape with Knee Pain (Best Cardio Exercises)

exercising ladyThe worst part about knee pain is watching your fitness wither away as you’re slowly turning into a couch potato.

With every passing day you feel more sluggish and the risk of getting fat and depressed is very real. But what if you could get into better shape instead?

In this article you will learn:

  • 2 knee-friendly exercises for getting in shape
  • Safe cardio options for knee pain (and what to stay away from)
  • A fun training plan you can start with today

The 2 Simplest Exercises for Getting in Shape without stressing your knees

Have you ever asked yourself what “in shape” actually means to you? If not, think about it for a minute before you go any further.

is this fitness?

Is this fitness? (Picture by Hotel de la Paix Genève)

For some, being able to run a marathon is the gold standard of being in shape. Others may define it through how much they can bench press or maybe how good they look at the beach.

There is no right or wrong, you just need to figure out your goal, so that you can work towards it effectively. Let’s see how much you agree with my definition of “in shape”.

To me being in shape means having a healthy body fat percentage and adequate strength. That’s roughly between 8 and 15% body fat for men and 15 to 30% body fat for women.

Where the Magic Happens

In my experience, the best way to ensure you stick to a training routine is to systematically remove any obstacles and excuses.

Use simple exercises.

Use little or no equipment.

Use a straight-forward training program.

That’s one reason why running is so popular: you don’t need any equipment at all to do it, not even running shoes (or shoes at all if you want to be extreme), but what if you can’t run?

If you have knee pain, you need to focus on exercises that don’t stress the knee. Again, you have many options, but here’s why I think body weight exercises are your best choice.

  1. They provide clear benchmarks for how fit and in shape you are (in contrast to cycling or swimming).
  2. You can only get better by losing body fat or getting stronger (usually it’s both).
  3. Risk of injury is practically zero (in contrast to running).
  4. You can adapt them to any strength level.
  5. You will end up with a body that is attractive to the opposite sex.
  6. They will give you useable strength that can save your life and will keep you fit in old age (in contrast to cardio machines).
  7. THEY’RE FUN! Once you’ve gotten good at them.

Let’s get started with the exercise I used to hate most and remember: you can do this at ANY strength level.


Push-ups are one of the most underrated exercises. They’re considered “too easy” and you’ll often hear some guys claim they can do 50 of them. Done with proper technique, this number shrinks dramatically.

The benefits of (clean) push-ups include:

  • They train your core and gluteal muscles
  • They strengthen your rotator cuff to protect against shoulder injury
  • They improve your posture
  • They build upper body strength without bulk

Here’s what you need to pay attention to when doing them:

  • Keep a straight line from your tailbone, to your shoulders, to the back of your head (if your lower back sags, your core is too weak or uncoordinated)
  • Place your hands directly underneath your shoulders (not out to the side)
  • Your elbows point down towards your feet (not out to the side)

One repetition is going from arms completely extended with elbows locked to your nose touching the ground. Don’t reach your head forward to touch the ground, but keep your head back and chin tucked, like you’re making a double chin.

Take about one second down and one second up, no bouncing.

If they’re too hard, you can work up to doing regular push-ups, by doing them with your hands elevated. Move to increasingly lower surfaces (e.g., from the kitchen counter, to a chair, to a low box).

If you easily do 30 clean push-ups, you can do them with a 5 to 22 lbs weight plate in a backpack, or you do other variations such as dive bomber push-ups.


Done correctly, chin-ups are even harder than push-ups. Full range of motion requires locked elbows at the bottom and your hands touching your chest at the top (i.e., not just reaching the chin over the bar).

My preferred way of doing chin-ups is using gymnastic rings. Rings make the movement much easier on the elbows and shoulders. You can hang them from any sturdy beam in your home and use them for many different exercises like inverted rows, dips, or ring push-ups by adjusting height.

You can also do chin-ups at the gym or you can improvise. I’ve done them on traffic signs in Dresden, playgrounds in Huntsville and Philadelphia, scaffolding in NYC, a lifeguard tower in Athens Greece, and of course in my parent’s backyard, wearing rubber boots.

Rubber boot chin-ups are the best chin-ups.

I don’t recommend most of the contraptions you can put into doorways, because they’re usually not sturdy enough (the doorways and the contraptions). This poses too big a risk of injury for my liking.

My advice is to get a pair of gymnastic rings and hang them in your home somewhere. Then just do a few repetitions every day. Ten to twenty is enough to stay in shape.

If you cannot do chin-ups yet, work up to it using the lat pull-down machine at the gym or use a chair to get to the top of the chin-up and hold there for as long as you can. Then lower yourself as slowly as you can. Repeat up to five times every day.

If chin-ups are too easy, you can of course do them with weight, but instead I’d recommend you try hands-only rope climbing with a thick rope. The wider apart you place your hands when climbing, the more challenging the exercise will be.

 “I’m a woman, should I still do these exercises?”

The biggest concern women have with strength exercises is that they’ll end up looking like a female version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. We could talk about the science behind why women won’t get bulky, but it’s easier for you to just see for yourself.

Safe Cardio Exercises for Knee Pain

If you have knee pain, you want to avoid cardio exercises that load the knee, require deep knee flexion or fast movements, have the knee travel out in front of the toes, or use high leg tension.

Of the conservative cardio options, here’s what I’d consider safe for most knees:

  • Walking on the treadmill (low speed, walking softly)
  • Cycling on the recumbent bike (low resistance, medium speed)

A few alternative cardio options you can try are backwards walking on an incline treadmill, the battle ropes exercise, or hitting a tractor tire with a sledge hammer.

These cardio machines are not knee pain friendly:

  • Rowing machine (deep knee flexion, knees forward, high tension)
  • Jacob’s ladder (deep knee flexion, knees forward)
  • Spin bike and airdyne (load under deep knee flexion)
  • Stair mill

If you want to have fun, skip the machines. Do this instead.

The BEST Cardio Choice for Knee Pain

The best way to get your heart going without stressing your knees at all is circuit training with upper body exercises.

Pick exercises you can do for about a minute (but no more). Do them for 30 seconds and then take a ten second break before switching to the next exercise. For example:

  1. 30 seconds of push-ups (or dumbbell bench press)
  2. 10 second break
  3. 30 seconds of chin-ups (or lat pull-downs)
  4. 10 second break
  5. 30 seconds of overhead dumbbell press (or pike push-ups)
  6. 10 second break
  7. 30 seconds of stomach vacuum (or another ab exercise)
  8. 10 second break
  9. 30 seconds of dumbbell rows (or kettlebell rows)
  10. 10 second break

This is one circuit. It will take about 7 minutes and once you reach the end, you just start over from the beginning. Go through the circuit 3 to 5 times to give your heart and your whole upper body a fantastic workout.

Remember to pick an exercise resistance that you can do for about 60 seconds. This may require doing the push-ups with your hands on a box. If it’s still too much, take 15 or 20 second breaks instead.

This type of training also has a much higher carry-over to real world demands than ANY cardio machine. Download an exercise timer app to your phone and try it the next time you’re at the gym (here’s one for iPhones and one for Android phones).

Now let’s make it even simpler.

The Simplest of Training Plans

The best training plan is one you actually follow. Keep it as simple as possible, with as few exercises as necessary, to ensure maximum adherence. Here’s a fun plan you can start with today.

The exercises you will be doing are push-ups and chin-ups. Remember that you can do push-ups with your hands on an elevated surface and chin-up holds for time instead (do the repetition number in seconds).

Start with a base number and add one rep to chin-ups and two reps to push-ups every day. Do it for one month. As base number, start with 10 if you’re just getting back into shape, 20 if you’re already in good shape, and 30 if you want to challenge yourself.

Do the goal number of repetitions in as few sets as possible, so if the training plan calls for 30 chin-ups, you could do 30 sets of 1 chin-up with a short break in between if you needed to. This is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point.

This is what it looks like:


Take one day per week off. Again, do your push-ups with your hands elevated if you cannot do regular push-ups yet. With this program, you will work up to it very quickly.

If you cannot do chin-ups due to lack of equipment, do dumbbell rows instead. If you cannot do those either, pick any other exercise or do just the push-ups.

Download the training plan here.
(Go to File -> Download As -> PDF or select File -> Print and set Scale to “Fit to Width”)

If it’s the first week of the month, you can scale the repetitions based on the day of the month instead, making this plan even simpler to follow. So on the first of January is day 1, for example.

Let me know how it works out in the comments below.


  1. tim smith says

    I had bilateral tkr 18 months ago. I have bad pain below (towards my feet) my kneecap. my leg strength is strong. I walk 2-4 mi/day through the woods with my dog (sometimes i even use trails). It feels like tendon pain. is there any way to strengthen tendons or do i have to rest them?

    • Martin Koban says

      Hi Tim,

      Check out this article: but be sure to talk to a doctor before doing any exercises. Once you’re cleared, you can try isometric holds on the leg press (just hold the weight in place with somewhat bent knees). Pick a weight you can do for 45s holds that is heavy but won’t cause shaking. Then do it for 5 sets of 45 seconds with a 2 minute break in between. You can do this every day or every other day.

      – Martin

  2. Marie says

    Do u have exercises for quadriceps tendinopathy diagnosed wth MRI Nerve conduction test…. I need to see the exercises not just in written form …. thank you

    • Martin Koban says

      Hi Marie,

      Look into isometric holds on the leg extension machine. You hold the weight in place at a 60-degree knee angle.



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