exercise recovery

Knees Hurt? Strengthening the Quads is NOT the Answer

Many of my clients struggle with “bad” knees.

I too have spent restless nights dreading knee surgery while dealing with pain.

There is hope.

Instead of trying to strengthen your quads, you might try to loosen the muscles – especially those in the quadriceps complex and then, strengthen supporting areas – calves, glutes and the inner quads and adductors.

Release, Stretch, mobilize, strengthen, integrate


What Causes Weak Knees?

Weak Quadriceps, Weak Glutes, Weak Hamstrings, Weak Calves. And by jumping right in to add strength, you might be causing more harm than good – without loosening and mobilizing first.


Why the “Prescription” Fails

Knee rehab programs are based on the idea that by strengthening the muscles, you can protect the joint … While this is true in the long run, if you are in significant pain, going right into strengthening exercises can prolong recovery and exacerbate pain.

First off, you should work to release tight tissue, mobilize joints and establish better range of motion. After that strengthening – within tolerance can help – at low loads and high repetitions.


Strengthen the Knees

Recovery may not be fast, nor smooth. It might be that your program begins with easy walking, coupled with, a focus on monitoring symptoms and noticing how your knees felt over days and weeks, with a slow and intentional build in intensity.

“Strengthen your quads” makes abundant sense when you want to protect healthy knees against future pain. Strengthen your quads may make sense if your knees hurt, but not too badly, and they can tolerate most exercises. But eventually you reach a point where quad strengthening becomes a dismal failure because the knee can’t handle the forces required to build up the muscle.

Instead focus on releasing the quads and strengthening the muscles supporting the knees.


Keys to Start

Release Tight Muscles Daily – Roll lateral quads, calves, lateral hamstring (biceps femoris) and hips

Strengthen Supporting Areas with Low Load, High Reps 2-4x/week

The quadriceps muscles and, most importantly, the Vastus Medialis Oblique (VMO), run along the front and side of the upper leg from the hip to the knee.

These are important for keeping the knee straight and absorbing shock from walking , running and other weight-bearing activities. Weakness here will lead to unstable knees and increased pressure on the knee joint, causing pain.

When it comes to exercises to strengthen knees, working the quads and VMO is key. And they might need some releasing first!


Weak Glutes

The glute muscles are key players in hip adduction.  Most of us have weak glutes because we sit so much and do not activate the glutes prior to motion.

As a result, the knees are not supported by the glute muscles, which can lead to improper foot placement and subsequent compensations. In turn, you get massive shock and pressure on the knees instead of your glute muscles, where it could be absorbed efficiently.

Finally, while the glutes and quads are keep your knees in line, the calves act as the base “spring.”

Weakness (or tightness) in the calf muscles removes the shock absorber capacity of the calves, allowing the knee take the impact of weight-bearing exercise.


9 Best Exercises to Strengthen Knees

The following exercises will focus on strengthening these knee-supporting muscles so you can take pressure off your knee joints and make sure they’re aligning properly.

Try to perform these exercises every other day (or even every day if you have the time) for the best results.


1. Straight Leg Raises

Straight leg raises help you work the front of your quadriceps, without bending your knees. They are great for when bending your knees is bothering you.

The reason you want to strengthen the quadriceps muscle is because it helps absorb shock before it reaches the knee joint. This will lessen the strain on your knees and help reduce pain and friction.

  1. Begin flat on your back, one leg bent with the other extended straight in front of you, along the floor.
  2. Flex your foot and pull your toes toward you, keeping your knee straight.
  3. Lift your foot six inches off the floor, hold for 3-5 seconds, then lower.
  4. Repeat for 15 to 20 reps.

Progression: Once your knees feel stronger, try adding weight in the form of an ankle weight.


2. Glute Bridges

The glute bridge is an amazing exercise that works the entire lower half of the body, including the core. Strengthening the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and core all help to relieve pressure off the knee joints, and improve knee stabilization during your workouts.

  1. Begin on the floor with legs bent and feet in line with your hips.
  2. Engage your glutes, lift your butt toward the sky and hold for a beat. Avoid arching your back.
  3. Lower to just above the floor and repeat for 15 to 20 reps.

Progression: Once you’re easily doing standard bridges with no knee pain or weakness, progress to single-leg bridges by extending one leg out in front as you raise and lower the hips.


3. Knee Marches

Knee marches are similar to straight leg raises, but less strenuous. They focus on strengthening the quad muscles without putting downward pressure on the knee.

  1. Sit tall on a chair with your feet on the floor. Holding on to the edge of the chair (or on top of lifting knee), lift one leg up toward your chest (keep the knee bent).
  2. Lower and switch sides, alternating for 20 to 30 reps.

Progression: Make these more difficult by adding an ankle weight.


4. Clams

Clams help strengthen the glutes, which is really important when it comes to removing excess pressure from the knees. When your glute muscles are weak, a heavier load is taken on by your leg muscles and knee joints, which can lead to strain and pain.

  1. Begin on your side, propping your head up with your arm.
  2. Bend your hips at 45 degrees and your knees at 90 degrees, resting one leg on top of the other.
  3. Now lift your top knee, keeping your toes together. You should feel the glutes engage. Try placing your back, hips and feet against a wall to avoid compensation.
  4. Repeat for 10 to 15 reps on each leg.


5. Heel Raises

Calf exercises like the heel raise help support the knees from the bottom. Strong and mobile calves aid the needs with mobility and strength.

Heel raises also help strengthen the stabilizer muscles surrounding the knee due to the balance required to raise onto the balls of your feet.

  1. Stand tall with your feet shoulder width apart (you can lightly touch a wall or chair for balance).
  2. Rise onto the balls of your feet, avoiding leaning forward.
  3. Hold for 1 to 2 seconds, then lower. Repeat for 10 to 20 reps.

Watch my Social Media Feed for examples of releasing the tissues mentioned and the strengthening exercises and reach out for specific help for your unique needs


I work with mid-life men and women who want to feel younger through improving their relationship to food, movement and mindfulness.

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