The Best Moves for Healthy Knees

It may be common, but knee pain is not inevitable. We asked a sports medicine doctor, a physical therapist and a Pilates instructor for the most effective exercises for healthy, pain-free knees.
Photo by Kristopher Roller

By Amy Schlinger

It’s not just pro athletes who are sidelined with knee injuries, lots of amateur runners, yogis and weekend warriors know what it’s like to grimace during workouts—or even just everyday activities. Achy, painful, creaky knees—and the resulting lack of mobility—can also be a major factor in preventing you from your wellness goals. But spending time (and sweat) keeping them in shape with these moves from three experts will pay off big time.

The sports medicine doctor recommends: lunges

Why they help: “This move is great because it activates all the muscles around the knee to help strengthen it,” explains Jordan Metzl, MD, sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.

How to do them: Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Step right leg out about two feet in front of left leg, and bend both knees to lower toward the ground, right knee stacked over right ankle, left hip stacked over left knee, left knee hovering slightly above the ground. Keeping core tight, push through right heel to come back to standing. Repeat on the other side. Continue alternating for 20 reps total.

The physical therapist recommends: sumo squats with kettlebell

Why they help: “These will strengthen the lower extremities,” says Dan Giordano, D.P.T., C.S.C.S, co-founder of Bespoke Treatments Physical Therapy in New York City. “The wide stance emphasizes the inner thigh, an often forgotten-about area. Using a kettlebell increases the intensity.”

How to do them: Stand with feet wider than shoulder width apart, feet pointed outward, holding kettlebell with both hands by the handle up at chest level. (You can also substitute a dumbbell.) Keeping back straight and without letting knees pass ankles, bend knees and push them outward as you sit back and down until your hips are lower than your knees, or as far as you can. Push through heels to come back to standing. Repeat. Do 15 reps.

The Pilates teacher recommends: standing leg lifts 

Why they help: “This series of exercises mimics movements we make every day,” says Hayley Thorpe, director of Norma Jean Pilates in Sag Harbor, NY. “It strengthens and stretches the muscles around the front of the knee and the many muscles in the back of the knee, too.”

How to do them: Place hands on a wall in front of you. With foot flexed and keeping leg straight, lift right leg behind you about a foot off the ground, then lower without touching the foot to the ground. Repeat. Do 15 reps on the right, then 15 times on the left.

For the second move: Keeping foot flexed and leg straight, lift right leg behind you, bend slightly, then extend, then lower back down without touching the ground. Do 15 reps.

For the third move: With foot still flexed, lift right leg to the side about a foot off the ground, then lower back down without touching the ground. Do 15 reps. Repeat with the left leg.