Knee Strengthening Exercises: strength training for healthy knees
If you’re a healthy individual, you can use the knee strengthening exercises on this page to do injury prehab, increase your lower body strength and improve your flexibility. The exercises will also make you a better athlete. If you have knee pain, the basic knee strengthening exercises will get you back on the path towards being pain-free, at which point you can progress to performing the more demanding exercises.
You need to use your own discretion when performing these exercises. If one of these knee strengthening exercises feels weird or maybe even causes pain then just skip that exercise. You can try it again after working on the other exercises for a couple of weeks. The important thing is to listen to your body, to challenge it, but not to overstress it. That being said, performing 10 repetitions of a given exercise per day is way superior to performing 70 repetitions of that exercise once a week. Frequency is a lot more important that intensity with these kinds of drills.
Practice these movements every day, if you can even two or three times per day, for the quickest results. Listen to your body for information on how many repetitions you should do. Remember: challenging, but not overstressing.
Additionally, make sure you completely avoid the most common causes for knee pain, as these will slow your healing down or even prevent you from getting better altogether.
Good tissue quality: prerequisite for success with knee strengthening exercises
Before we dive into the actual knee strengthening exercises, we have to bring out the trash so to speak. The trash in this case is bad tissue quality, which can mean adhesions or trigger points for example. These soft-tissue problems will prevent you from moving freely, as they restrict the free gliding of the layers of fascia. Soft-tissue restrictions will make you less flexible and decrease your power output, as force gets absorbed by the friction between tissues.
The cheapest way to address these soft-tissue problems is by massaging them yourself with a foamroller, tennis ball, lacrosse ball or even a simple stick or PVC pipe. If you can afford to have a professional massage therapist work on your tissues that’s even better of course.
Personally, I prefer the original density model RumbleRoller. You can also use the RumbleRoller to improve tissue quality of almost all other muscles and it is basically a poor man’s massage.
A few words of caution about Foam rolling: it should not be used on parts of the body you have recently injured. If you have chronic pain conditions (e.g. fibromyalgia) or circulatory problems you have to consult your physician before foam rolling.
Foam rolling is a cheap and easy way to improve tissue quality, but results will not appear overnight. You may have to work on your fascia daily for a week or two before you notice improvement.
You should not be rolling your joints or other bony structures. Roll a certain tissue for a minute or two and switch to a different body part. With foam rolling, frequency trumps duration, so you’re better off foam rolling a certain muscle several times a day for a minute.
Roll the following muscles and concentrate on those that are more unpleasant (i.e. need more work):
- Vastus Medialis
- Vastus Lateralis
If you want, you can perform some stretches after rolling your muscles. It will be easier than without having rolled. Performing a psoas stretch should be the minimum, as restrictions in the psoas will prevent your gluteal muscles from firing properly. Everything else is up to your discretion.
Basic knee strengthening exercises for pain rehab
Gluteal Training: most important for knee health
Strong and functional gluteals are very important for healthy knees. Your glutes will help you control the movement of the knee. They produce abduction and external rotation and resist adduction and internal rotation. In other words: the glutes prevent your knee from collapsing inward when cutting or landing from a jump. The knees-in-position increases your risk of ACL-tears, knee tendonitis and many other knee issues. Because of all that you could say that strong and functional gluteals are a part of the foundation of a strong and healthy human.
Gluteal exercise #1: side-lying clams
Lie on your side with your knees slightly bent and in front of you. Rotate the upper leg out by just using your gluteals. Don’t move your upper body and don’t push off using your toes. Your range of motion will be low in the beginning if you’re doing it right and you should feel some muscles in your buttocks working.
Perform 10 repetitions and hold the upper position for 2 to 3 seconds. Concentrate on contracting the glute hard. Then switch to the other side. Do both sides twice, so 2 sets of 10 repetitions per side.
You can add an elastic band to make this knee strengthening exercise harder.
Gluteal exercise #2: side-lying hip abduction
Lie on your side and have your body form a straight line. Lift the top leg up as far as you can, leading with the heel. As with the previous drill: don’t move your upper body.
With this knee strengthening exercise 2 sets of 10 repetitions per side will suffice as well. Add bands if the exercise is too easy.
Gluteal exercise #3: Glute Bridge
Lie on your back with your feet on the floor and the knees forming a 90 degree angle. Now press yourself up into the bridge position by contracting your glute hard. There should be a straight line from your upper body to your knees. Poke the muscles to help you nervous system “find” them. Work to have your hamstrings less tight than your gluteals with this drill.
As with the other drills, do 2 sets of 10 repetitions. Once that is too easy you can perform the one-legged glute bridge by having one foot in the air. Concentrate on maintaining good form at the upper position.
Gluteal exercise #4: x-band-walks
For this knee strengthening exercise you will need an elastic band. Loop the band around your feet as shown in the picture, squat down slightly and start walking sideways. Move one leg at a time. Don’t let the moving leg drag on the ground. Pick it up and actively resist the tension of the band.
This exercise can be made more difficult by using a stronger band or pulling on the band more. Just like in the other strengthening drills: move without using momentum. You should be able to stop at any point and then reverse the movement into the opposite direction.
The simplest knee strengthening exercise: squats!
The deep squat is a basic human movement only few can still do properly. It’s beneficial for relaxing the hip musculature and providing the cartilage of the knee with nutrients. It should also be noted that squatting does not cause knee pain. Squatting improperly might cause knee pain, but doing anything improperly might cause pain.
How to perform the deep squat properly:
Sit back rather than dip down. Keep the shin bones as close to vertical as you can. If you cannot do this without falling over backwards, your ankle mobility needs work. Find something to hold on to, like a doorway, or hold a light weight out in front of you for balance.
Place your feet directly under your hip pointing straight ahead. In this narrow-stance version of the squat there is no need to turn your feet out.
Don’t let your knees collapse inward. Track your knees over your smaller toes. If your knees keep collapsing inward you can loop an elastic band around your knees and work against the pressure to keep your knees from collapsing. This will help you recruit and train the proper muscles.
I found it helpful to just do a couple of deep squats every now and then throughout the day. This will provide the cartilage in your knees with nutrients and get some healthy movement into your day.
Resting in the deep squat position is also highly beneficial for relaxing hip muscles and improving digestion. Hold on to something if you’re falling over backwards, but wean yourself off soon.
Don’t stand up too quickly if you’ve spent more than a minute in the deep squat position. Push your hips back as far as you can and don’t let your knees slip forward.
You can make this exercise easier by holding on to something.
Basic four corner balance drill
This balance drill by Scott Sonnon provides numerous benefits. It’s a knee strengthening exercise with high demand for balance and muscular coordination. Your body will learn how maintain balance in spite of external forces trying to push it out of it.
We will be performing this knee strengthening exercise on solid ground, just like you would be performing your sport on solid ground. We live our lives on solid ground and the only time the ground wobbles is during an earthquake. The nervous system adapts specifically to what is trained, so training on wobble boards and similar devices simply does not carry over to performing on solid ground as much as training on solid ground would (SAID principle: specific adaptation to imposed demands). So why would you waste time and money on a piece of equipment when you could derive more benefits from training on solid ground, the most available balance training tool out there?
You need some space around you and solid ground to perform this exercise. Two meters (6 feet) of space in every direction should suffice. To derive maximum benefit from this drill it has to be performed barefoot. Minimalist shoe wear such as Vibram FiveFingers is a distant second option.
Step 1: frontal thrust
With both legs on the ground directly under your hips, turn the supporting foot out to about 45 degree and bend the knee of that leg slightly. Lift your other leg up in front of you, locking out the knee. Push the heel forward and pull the toes towards your shin. Sit back a bit on the planted leg, but only as far as you can without having to lean for balance. Flex the quadriceps of the elevated leg and the glutes of the planted leg, to help the hamstring of the elevated leg relax. Grip the ground with your toes and exhale.
Step 2: lateral thrust
From the previous position you turn with your whole leg by rotating your leg outwards, leading with the smallest toe (i.e. point the toes back)*. The foot of the working leg has to be turned outward at around a 45 degree angle. As in the previous step: sit back without leaning, but continue to rotate your leg outwards. Again: grip the ground with your toes and exhale.
* in the Intu-Flow DVD Series Sonnon advises to lead with the heel, but in his blog post he wants us to lead with the pinky. I guess it’s up to you.
Step 3: dorsal thrust
Now you’re leading with the heel and rotate your leg inward, to then thrust it backwards into a locked out position. To maintain balance you have to lean forward. Don’t forget to exhale and to grip the ground with your toes. Keep your head aligned with your spine in this knee strengthening exercise (i.e. look down).
After step 3 you move back to step one by slowly swinging your bent leg forward. Once you have it in front of you just begin in step one at the point where the working leg was already in the air.
- Perform this drill every day
- 3 – 5 repetitions per position
- slow, controlled and smooth movement
- relax everything that doesn’t need to be tense or is too tense
- 10 second holds per position in the beginning
- 30 second holds per position are very good
- Scott Sonnon worked up to 60 seconds per position (brutal)
If you want more information on this drill and would like to know about the advanced versions, you can read more about it on Scott Sonnon’s blog: four corner balance drill – 4CBD or watch his Intu-Flow video on Youtube.
Intermediate Knee Strengthening exercises for injury prehab
The following knee strengthening exercises should not be performed without consulting your physician if you’re rehabbing a knee injury. Knee injury rehab should be performed with a qualified physical therapist in actual hands-on sessions, not based on information on the internet.
Knee strengthening exercises for joint mobility
Performing joint mobility has several benefits. With these drills you will restore or maintain range of motion in the joints, which is important for optimal performance. Not only will restrictions in range of movement cause problems such as knee pain, they will also reduce your athletic performance through what’s called the arthrokinetic reflex. I can tell you first hand that after doing joint mobility drills for every part of the body for the first time at the Nature Training seminar in Austria 2011 I felt amazing and proceeded to set a personal record in the towel pull-up.
The second reason why you should do joint mobility drills is to provide the cartilage in the joint with nutrients. The cartilage in our joints depends on movement for its nutrient supply, as there is no network of blood vessels, but only the synovial fluid. So to get nutrients to every part of the joint we have to make sure the whole thing gets used in its full range of motion. That will ensure proper lubrication, so to speak or in other words: “you don’t use it, you lose it”.
Of course there numerous other reasons to perform joint mobility drills. For example you prepare your body for dealing with bad positions in which injuries usually happen by putting yourself in these positions (without application of excessive force of course). You will also train your central nervous system to more efficiently communicate with your muscles, improving the neural pathways and thereby increasing your strength and athletic ability without any increase in muscle mass. Joint mobility exercises are also very beneficial for speeding up recovery after a hard workout (or in general), as they help remove waste products from your system. The list goes on and on.
There are hundreds of joint mobility exercises out there, but we will concentrate on those that focus on the knee. For optimal knee health you also have to take care of joint mobility at the ankle and hip and we will deal with those as well.
Knee circles with a block
This exercise will improve strength and range of motion in the ankle. The ankles are our first point of contact with the ground, which is why they are very important for optimal force transfer through the kinetic chain. Range of motion restrictions will lead to problems upstream (in the knees) and low strength will set you up for injuries like ankle sprains. These injuries will then further restrict range of motion and strength at the ankle, increasing the stress on the knee and you’re chances for injury even further. A vicious circle that has to be broken!
- You need a yoga block, a rolled up towel or something similar (e.g. telephone book …)
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart
- Place the block between your knees
- Trace a circle with your knees
- Try not to move the hips too much (i.e. don’t turn the hip to the side)
- 5 to 10 repetitions per direction
Supported squat (Amosov Squat)
In this knee strengthening exercise you can take load off the knee by placing more weight on the supporting object. This is helpful if you’re overweight, weak or are just not feeling really safe for whatever reason. From personal experience I can tell you that performing these squats is a great way to speed up healing of patellar tendonitis and they will also make all the creaking in your knees go away.
- Use a chair, a pole or sturdy piece of furniture for support
- Stand with your knees slightly wider than hip width
- Feet pointing straight forward
- Sit back into the squat
- Keep your shins vertical
- Don’t let your knees collapse inward
- Go as low as you can go without pain
- Try to go a little deeper every time you practice
- Perform 50 to 100 repetitions per day (split it up in however many sets you’d like)
The bear squat is an excellent knee strengthening exercise in that it not only allows you to move the knee through the full range of motion, but it also dynamically stretches all the muscles on the backside of your body from your calves to your upper back.
- You start in downward facing dog (yoga, see the picture)
- Keep the heels on the floor
- Get your legs and your back as straight as you can
- Sit back on your heels
- Keep the hands on the ground
- Don’t let your torso move forward
- Move back into the starting position by completely extending your legs
- Put the heels back on the floor
- Don’t let your feet rotate inward (i.e. don’t let the arch of your foot collapse)
- Inhale as you sit down on your heels, exhale as you push your legs back again
The shin roll is a knee strengthening exercise that will have you move around, which is actually quite refreshing after being stationary in all the other exercises. This exercise does a lot for your ankles and knees, as both are gently moved in their end-range of motion. It’s fun, try it out.
- Sit on the ground
- Put one leg out in front of you
- Bend the other leg and put your heel towards your groin
- Rock your weight forward to roll over the shin
- Use your hands for support if you need to
- Reverse the movement by sitting back again
- Stay out of pain
The “Squat Clinic”
The following is a collection of knee strengthening exercises that were put together by Ido Portal. These exercises will help you regain range of motion at the ankle and at the hip, while also allowing you to move the knee through the full range of motion. Some of these drills are also excellent for improving muscle coordination of muscles that you might not have used for some time.
Soleus Dynamic Squat Stretch
Restrictive shoes and lack of movement caused dorsiflexion at the ankle to be very limited in many of us, yet at the same time we need to have a good amount of dorsiflexion range of motion for sports. This drill will help regaining lost range of motion at the ankle.
- Stand in front of a sturdy object
- Knees hip-width apart
- Grab the object at waist height
- Squat down, driving your knees forward
- Keep your heels firmly planted
- Get back up again
- Ido suggests doing 10 reps and holding the forward stretched position for 10 seconds in the final rep
Hip Rotations on all fours
Being able to produce and resist rotation at the hip is just as important as ankle flexibility. This drill helps you rediscover those movements.
- With your back facing the ground, get up on hands and feet with your knees bent
- Your knees need to be slightly wider than shin-width apart
- Rotate one leg out as far as you can, pointing the heel to the ceiling
- Now rotate your leg back to the starting position
- Next rotate your leg inwards as far as you can (try to touch the floor)
- This is one repetition. Do 5 per side.
Squat hip rotations
This drill will take the hip rotation that we’ve used in the previous knee strengthening exercise and apply it in a squatting stance. It provides all the benefits of the previous drill while also improving the bottom position of the squat (very important for ankle, hip and knee health).
- Take a stance slightly wider than hip-width
- Squat down by sitting back
- Keep your weight on your heels
- Rotate one leg outward, going up on the outer ridge of that foot
- Pause for a moment and go back to the starting position
- Now rotate the same leg inwards until the knee touches the ground next to the other foot
- Pause, go back to neutral and repeat with the other leg
- Do 5 reps per side
This stretch will have you sit on your toes for 30 to 60 seconds. Put something under your knees for cushioning if you have to, curl your toes up and proceed to sit on your heels. Keep your heels together. This will be very uncomfortable in the beginning (been there) and in my opinion you should not force yourself to stay in this position too long in the beginning. Try doing it for 10 to 30 seconds the first couple of times. Once it’s easier you can move up to 30 to 60 seconds.
You can and should take load off the toes in the beginning by shifting your weight forward. Try to feel what’s right for you, only you will know.
Dynamic Toes Stretch
Now we’ll take the previous drill and start moving into and out of the stretch dynamically. To do this just place your hands on the ground to the side of your legs, keep them on the ground the whole time and move back on your heels. Once you’re back, still keeping your hands on the ground, move forward and out of the stretch again. Ido suggests doing 10 repetitions.
Static and Dynamic Squats
The final two knee strengthening exercises for injury prehab are the static and the dynamic squat. For the static squat you just go into the bottom position of the squat and hold for a minute or two. Remember:
- Sit back rather than dip down
- Keep your weight on your heels
- To get up, push your hips back as far as you can
- Keep your shins close to vertical throughout
Finish the session off by doing 10 to 20 dynamic squats, going as low as you can.
How to put the knee strengthening exercises for injury prehab into action
Obviously some of these knee strengthening exercises overlap, so for a given day you would just pick one of the respective exercises. But you know what? Variety is the spice of life, so I thought I’d include more than just one option, especially since I’m convinced that this kind of injury prehab doesn’t have to be boring. It’s only boring if you simply go through the motions, but you could also have fun with it by connection the movements into a more complex routine like going from squat, to bear squat, to shin roll, to squat hip rotations and back to squat for just one or two repetitions each. You get the idea.
Advanced Knee Strengthening exercises for increased athletic performance
I don’t know which kind of knee strengthening exercises you were looking for when you came to this page, but looking at the other top results it seemed like most people are looking for rehab exercises. I’ve covered plenty of knee strengthening exercises for rehab in the previous sections. Once your knees are healthy again you might want to improve your game in your favorite sport. That’s where the following exercises come in.
Considerations for loading, sets and performance
Every sport puts different demands on the muscular and energy system of the body. If you’re competing in MMA and the round length is 5 minutes you would be better off performing a 5 minute strength circuit than just resting between exercises. If you’re playing pickup basketball you would want to train for explosiveness, but you wouldn’t want to get gassed either. That being said it’s hard to give general recommendations for loading and sets, but performing the following exercises will still be beneficial to you, regardless of your sport.
The simple lunge is a very excellent exercise for thigh and hip strength. The peak glute contraction may not be as high as in the exercises that directly target the glutes, but the glutes will still get a good workout if you squeeze them hard. This exercise can also easily and safely loaded by holding dumbbells in your hands. You can keep your back straight and upright easily, don’t have to support a heavy barbell on your back and can move around even if there is little space available. You can do forward walking lunges and if space is limited you just do reverse lunges by stepping back and then forward again.
Some technique points to remember for the lunges:
- Don’t let your knee collapse inward
- Keep your pointing forward
- Imagine your feet are stuck on railroad tracks underneath your hips
- Keep your back straight and vertical
- Brace your abs and tense the glutes, especially of the back leg
This is another excellent drill by Scott Sonnon. It will challenge your core stability, legs, grip and upper body strength. You will need a clubbell, a macebell or a kettlebell to perform this. The clubbell definitely works best, but if you don’t have one, just hold a kettlebell by the horns.
- Assume a squatting stance
- Put the clubbell behind your head by moving it past your head on the side
- Keep some tension in your triceps (i.e. don’t let your elbow close all the way)
- Now move the weight in front of you, extending your arms, turning your elbow pits up and slightly out
- At the same time go down into the squat until you reach parallel
- Keep your shins vertical
- From there reverse the movement
The one-legged deadlift provides numerous benefits:
- Improved balance, proprioception and coordination in a sport-specific setup (i.e. not on a wobble board)
- Improved hamstring flexibility and strength
- Improved gluteal strength
- Improved postural awareness
In the beginning you should perform this exercise with a stick to help you find proper form. The stick assists with finding the ideal head and back alignment. Just have it touch the back of your head, your upper back between your shoulder blades and your hip. Keep these points of contact at all times.
Performing this drill with the big toe of the back foot on the ground can also be beneficial in the beginning, as this helps with grooving the proper movement without having to “fight” to maintain balance.
The important error to avoid is having your knee collapse inward (as shown in the last frame). This position puts you at risk for injuries like ACL-tears. However, if you strengthen the correct movement pattern your risk of injury will drop significantly.
- Stand with your legs hip-width apart, feet pointing forward
- Place one foot back, only the big toe touching the ground
- Bend at the waist without bending too much at the knee
- Keep a straight back alignment
- Keep your shin vertical
- Don’t let the knee collapse inward
- Go as deep as you can go
- Return to the starting position by squeezing your glutes hard
Just go as low as possible without resorting to bad technique and don’t worry about range of motion (it will increase automatically as you keep practicing). You can experiment with different degrees of knee bend. The less you bend your knees, the more hamstring flexibility the exercise will require. To make this exercise harder you will just need to take the supporting foot off the ground. Once you’ve mastered that you can proceed to loading this knee strengthening exercise with dumbbells. Using just one weight in the hand opposite of your working leg will provide a tremendous training effect for the whole body.
The benefits of the one-legged deadlift go beyond knee health, as the improved proprioception and strengthening of the ankle will also bullet-proof you against ankle sprains and similar ankle injuries. I’ve landed on other people’s feet several times in basketball and I haven’t sprained my ankle once after implementing this exercise (ankle sprains happened every now and then before adding this knee strengthening exercise).
This is a very difficult single-leg knee strengthening exercise that will require strength and flexibility in the hip, as well as very good balance. It’s a strength drill: perform it in a controlled fashion without momentum (i.e. you should be able to stop at any point, just as you should be able to reverse the movement at any point).
- Stand on one leg, with the other leg bent behind you
- Sit back, while keeping the other leg bent and off the floor
- Don’t let the knee collapse inward (last frame)
- The knee should stay above the foot (i.e. not travel beyond the toes)
- The first thing to touch the floor should be your knee
- Reverse the movement without rocking or momentum
Obviously you should use something for padding under you knee in the beginning and it’s also fine to push off slightly with the back knee until you’re strong enough to just move from the working leg. Wean yourself off quickly though.
You have to pay attention to your knees in this knee strengthening exercise. Don’t let them collapse inward and don’t let them travel forward too far. The knee should always stay behind the toes of the foot and to achieve this you simply have to lean forward to a certain degree.
Single Leg Squat
Steve Maxwell has written an excellent piece on the full range of motion single-leg squat (aka pistol) and so there is no need to reinvent the wheel: how to become a pistolero. This is a very advanced knee strengthening exercise only few people can perform properly, but it’s no magic trick. On the contrary: dedicate a few weeks of training to this skill and you’ll have it down in no time. No half-assing please, for your own good.
Range of motion in the pistol is even more controversially discussed than ROM of the two-legged squat. The only time I ever felt it in my knees was when I increased my volume injudiciously (as in from 3×6 to 5×9). If you slowly increase one training variable (volume, frequency or intensity) in a given training cycle of 6 to 8 weeks, you will derive great benefits from a properly performed pistol. If you do too much too soon (like I did) or maybe even use improper technique, you will get hurt. It should also be noted that the main reason for using bad technique usually is the desire to get more reps in. Never sacrifice poundage lifted for technique, because in the end that mentality will not only get you injured, but also prevent you from setting records (lesson learned).
There you have it. Knee strengthening exercises that will take you from wherever you are now to the top 1 %. Always remember the most important prerequisites for knee health: strong and mobile hips and ankles, good tissue quality and length, and, most vital of them all, good programming of your central nervous system.
And by the way: if you want to know more about all requirements knee health, you should definitely check out my free email course on the most common causes for knee pain (sign-up right below or read more about it here)! It will help you find and fix crucial mistakes you might be making right now. Here’s a preview: