Knee pain can happen to anyone, and while most glute exercises don’t stress the knees, some glute movements can be aggravating if you have bad knees.
If you have bad knees and are targeting the glutes, choose movements that place the knee in a fixed position throughout the exercise and limit knee flexion (bending the knee). Hip thrusts, deadlifts, and cable pull throughs are great options. You may want to avoid lunges and squats initially, as they may aggravate bad knees.
If you are looking for a workout program to help you build stronger glutes using exercises that are knee friendly, be sure to check out the FitBod app.
6 Reasons You Have Knee Pain
Below are six reasons why you may be having knee pain and discomfort during workouts and daily life.
Note: This is not an exhaustive list. You should consult your doctor for specific roots of pain and address accordingly.
1. You Have Weak Glutes
If you have weak glutes, you may find that your knees can become painful and sore while performing lower body exercises. The glutes are an important muscle of the lower body, and aid in movements like squats, lunges, and step ups to move the body in space under load.
Weak glutes can also result in increased knee instability, which under loads can create joint issues and extra strain on the connective tissues around the knee.
Solution: Use the exercises in this article to help build your glute strength without continued stress on the knees.
2. Your Hips Are Stiff
When your hips are stiff and immobile, they do not allow the femur (leg bone) to move freely in the joint. When this happens, the knee joint may have more unusual stress being placed on it when you are working out and moving around in your daily life.
Stiff hips result in the knees being asked to compensate for immobility .When this happens, knee stability can be decreased and knee injuries can arise.
3. You Are Lifting Too Heavy
Knee pain may be a result of lifting too heavy, too often. If you find yourself having knee pain when loads get heavy, this is often a good sign that the amount of weight you’re lifting is too much for your joints.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t lift heavy, but it does mean you may be lifting heavy too often (frequently).
Solution: If you are having knee pain during movements when the loads get heavy, decrease the weight or perform those heavy movements less frequently. If you’re trying to build strength, less is more. If you are trying to build muscle with heavy weights, just know you can also build muscle lifting lighter weights.
4. You Are Progressing Workouts too Aggressively
Progressively overloading workouts is a key to ensuring progress over time (doing slightly more volume over time). However, sometimes lifters get too aggressive with their training, too quickly, and it can result in overuse injury and knee pain.
If you are progressing your lower body training too quickly, using too much load, or jumping back into higher volume training without being ready for it physically, you could run the risk of injuring yourself and getting knee pain during common lower body movements.
Solution: If you have knee pain, back off the loading and total volume, and see if that helps. Sometimes adding in an extra rest day can help. The key is to be on a program that monitors your progress and adapts your workouts accordingly, such as when using the Fitbod app.
5. You Are Not Recovering from Hard Workouts
When looking to build muscle and strength in the lower body, you need to train hard. The issue is, some people are really good at training hard, but really bad at learning how to recover from hard training sessions.
Bad recovery can result in knee pain and other joint discomfort due to poor programming, inadequate nutrition, and lack of sleep.
Solution: If you suspect your knee pain is because you are not recovering enough in between sessions, try adding in an extra day between leg sessions. You can also decrease your volume (amount of sets) you do one a leg day so that you are more recovered to attack the next session.
6. You May Have Structural Damage
This one is the most severe cause of knee pain, and will require you to see your doctor. If you have experienced knee pain for a while or after a traumatic event, then you may have structural damage to the knee joint and connective tissues.
To determine if this is the reason for your knee pain, you need to see a doctor who will schedule a X-ray and MRI, both of which are necessary to get a clear picture of what is happening within the knee joint and surrounding tissues.
Solution: Consult your doctor and get an X-ray and MRI to determine the cause of your knee pain (or to rule out other things).
How Strengthening Your Glutes Can Help Your Knee Pain
When your glutes become stronger, they can help your knee pain by taking on more of these stresses placed on the knees and hips during daily life and exercise.
When your glutes are weak, your hips not only become weaker but they also lose stability and strength.
If your hip muscles are weak, the quads and hamstrings need to work overtime to pick up the slack. This excess stress on the joint and muscles could result in overuse injury or movement asymmetrics, which can cause muscle stiffness, immobility in the joints, and injury.
Related Article: 10 Knee Friendly Quad Exercises (Form Tips For Safe Knees)
Factors To Consider When Choosing Glute Exercises To Do With Knee Pain
Below are four key factors to consider when determining which glute exercise is best to do with knee pain.
Does Your Knee Hurt When Doing the Movement with No Weight?
If an exercise hurts when you are doing it, there is a strong chance that you should not be doing that exercise.
Understanding the difference between discomfort caused by a weak muscle and a challenging exercise vs actual joint and tissue pain is necessary.
If you find a movement is painful even after a warm up, and you are using little to no weight, then you may want to choose another movement.
Does the Knee Hurt Only When You Add More Weight?
If you are doing a glute exercise and have no pain, but the second you add more weight you get pain, then you may want to just train that exercise with as much weight as you can while still being pain free.
If you want to progress your workouts and build muscle without using more weight, you can do more reps, increase the range of motion, or slow down the movement to increase time under tension.
Over time, you should also then be able to use slightly more weight.
Does Your Knee Hurt If You Do Too Many Reps or Sets?
Sometimes knee pain during a glute exercise has nothing to do with how much weight you are using, but rather when you do too many sets or reps.
If you find your knee pain begins after you do a few hard sets of an exercise, then you may just want to stop doing that exercise once you start to get pain. This may be after two hard sets, or four, it just depends on the individuals.
Once you have pain, make sure it’s not because you have too much weight on the exercise, or your form is poor. If you still have pain, then move on to the next exercise in your workout.
Does Your Knee Hurt at a Specific Joint Angle?
If your knees only hurt at a specific range of motion in an exercise, then you may want to just train where you have pain free movement. Everyone is slightly different in that they need to experiment with what ranges of motion feel best.
Some people may find doing hip thrusts with their knees bent at 90 degrees and feet together cause pain, whereas if they allow their knees to be bent at 110 degrees and feet hip width apart, knee pain subsides.
Experiment with joint angles and foot placement to see if that’s the issue, and if it is, change it.
11 Best Glute Exercises for Bad Knees
Note: Each of the exercises below can also be found on the Fitbod app.
The 11 best glute exercises for bad knees are:
- Barbell Glute Bridge
- Cable Pull Through
- Unilateral Glute Bridge
- Hip Thrust
- Stability Ball Glute Bridge
- Sumo Deadlift
- Romanian Deadlift
- Kettlebell Swing
- Sled Push
1. Barbell Glute Bridge
The barbell glute bridge is a glute strengthening exercise that is typically a knee friendly exercise when trained properly. Some lifters will get knee pain during these if they have their knees bent too much, which will create more stress on the knees as the feet are too far underneath their body.
Form Tip: To do this without knee pain, make sure you are driving through the heels and have your feet under your knees (knees bent at 90 degrees). This exercise doesn’t need to be done with maximal loads either to be effective, so focus on good glute contractions and smooth movements.
2. Cable Pull Through
Cable pull throughs are a hamstring and glute movement that is great to do when you are looking for a knee friendly way to train the hips. Doing these from a standing position, with slightly bent knees means that the main joint action should be hip extension.
Form Tip: If you are doing these and feel knee pain, make sure that your knees are not bent as much, and keep your shins perpendicular to the ground. Keeping the knees straighter will force more hip extension and glute development.
3. Unilateral Glute Bridge
The glute bridge can also be done one leg at a time, which is a great way to build unilateral glute strength and stability. When doing one leg at a time, you do not need to use as much external loading which could also help if you find heavy glute bridges cause knee pain.
Form Tip: When doing these, as with other glute bridge and hip thrust movements, make sure you are driving through the heels rather than the toes.
4. Hip Thrust
The hip thrust, which can be done with a dumbbell, barbell, or bodyweight, is a great way to build glute strength without needing to have the knee move in a large range of motion. Hip thrusts differ from glute bridges in that they have you place your back on a bench, which increases the amount of hip flexion and extension.
Form Tip: When doing these, make sure you’re driving through your heels instead of through the toes. This will help keep this glute exercise knee friendly and effective.
5. Stability Ball Glute Bridge
The stability ball glute bridge targets the hamstrings and glutes. Using a stability ball to perform glute bridges adds in the need for added stability of the hips, which is helpful to increase knee health.
Form Tip: Like the other glute bridges on this list, it is important to drive through your heels to lift the hips, rather than the toes.
The deadlift can be done with a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells and trains the posterior chain,specially the glutes, hamstrings, and back. With the dealdit, you will find you have more knee flexion than in the Romanian deadlift, however this is typically a knee fredly exercise for most people
Form Tip: If you find you are doing deadlifts and have knee pain, try doing deadlifts from blocks or a rack, so that you are not having to lift the bar off the floor. This will allow you to keep your knees straighter and target the glutes through emphasizing hip extension more.
7. Sumo Deadlift
The sumo deadlift can be done with a variety of weights, with the most common being the barbell and dumbbell sumo deadlift variations. Unlike the regular deadlift, the sumo deadlift is a wide stance deadlift that targets the glutes and allows you to stay more upright in your pulling position.
Form Tip: Like the deadlift, you can also do this from the rack of blocks to limit the range of motion and decrease the amount of knee flexion needed if you choose to not pull from the floor.
8. Romanian Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift is a great hamstring and glute exercise to do when you are looking for knee friendly options during leg days. This exercise is knee friendly because it does not have the knee move through a wide range of motion under load. The knee itself should not be flexing or extending during this exercise.
Form Tip: If you find you are having a lot of knee pain, you need to try to use less weight and keep the knee straighter (not locked out, but straight enough that your shins are perpendicular to the ground). You can do this movement with a barbell, kettlebells, or even a dumbbell.
Good goodmorning is a knee friendly lower body exercise that targets the glutes and hamstrings. When doing these, like the RDL, you want to slightly bend your knees, making sure your shins are perpendicular to the ground. This exercise can be done with a barbel on the back, or other specialty bars and is a great way to train the glute without squatting.
Form Tip: If you have too much knee bend, you may feel it less in the hamstrings and glutes, and more pressure in your knees.
10. Kettlebell Swing
The kettlebell swing is a dynamic hip extension exercise that can be a great way to train the glutes directly but also incorporate power training. The kettlebell swing, when done with a glute emphasis, should have the knees be nearly straight, so that their shins are perpendicular to the floor.
Form Tip: By not allowing the knees to bend more than 10-15 degrees (almost straight the entire time), you minimize knee flexion and maximize the usage of the glutes (and hamstrings) to move the kettlebell.
11. Sled Push
The sled push is a glute exercise that can also double as a great quad building exercise. When doing sled pushes, you work the muscles of the body concentrically, without stressing the body with eccentric loads.
This can be a great way to also help strengthen the quad muscles and support knee health and recovery, as it will increase blood flow to the knee and surrounding muscles, while also building strength in the glutes.
Form Tip: Work short, little steps rather than big steps to minimize the amount of knee flexion and stress on the knees.
Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try Fitbod for free.
Glute Exercises to AVOID With Knee Pain
If you are experiencing knee pain during a glute exercise, you first want to make sure your form is correct.
Glute specific movements usually do not have the knee doing deep knee flexion, however some more compound glute exercise may cause some discomfort for those who have knee pain.
Below are four of the most common glute exercises to avoid (you can do them once knee pain goes away) with knee pain.
1. Forward Lunges
Forward lunges create a lot of shearing stress on the knee joint, and can be a major contributor to knee pain.
When knee pain flares up, it is best to avoid movements that load the knee directly. While most people assume lunges are great glute movements, the forward lunge is actually much more of a quad dominant movement than a glute one.
If you want to target the glutes, and minimize knee pain, stick to reverse lunges, walking lunges, or more targeted glute exercises (from the list above).
2. Walking Lunges
Walking lunges are a great glute exercise, but sometimes they can create a lot of stress on the knees. If you find walking lunges cause knee pain, it may be more of a loading issue than an exercise one.
Try doing these with less weight or body weight. If they still hurt, and your goal is to target the glutes, then opt for a more targeted exercise that trains the glutes without putting the knee in deeper angles of knee flexion.
3. Deep Squats
Deep squats are great for building strong glutes, however they also require strong quads and deep angles of knee flexion. If you find you get knee pain with deep squats, try first decreasing the weight and see if that helps.
If you find less weight decreases knee pain but doesn’t train the glutes as well, or doesn’t solve your knee pain issues at all, then don’t squat as low and also throw in some glute exercises from the list above the do not until going into deep knee flexion.
Looking for a glute building workout program? What about a program that monitors your performance and makes adjustments to help optimize your results? Try out the Fitbod app today and see why so many people turn to Fitbod for their customize workout programs.
Related Article: 11 Best Smith Machine Exercise For Glutes (+ Sample Workout)
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I work my glutes without hurting my knees?
First, you want to pick a glute exercise that allows you to do pain-free movement. The exercises listed above are good places to start. From there, you want to choose a load and rep/set scheme that allows you to feel the glutes and not feel any pain in the knees. If you start to feel knee pain, it most likely is due to poor form, too much weight being used, and lastly poor exercise selection.
Can strengthening glutes help knee pain?
Yes, strengthening your glutes can help knee pain as stronger glutes can decrease stress on the joints, help improve knee stability during movements, and can help you train hamstring and quad exercises more effectively (which will also help increase knee health). Building stronger muscles through a full range of motion exercises can also help you increase mobility and prevent injury.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.