The knees get a ton of abuse when training legs, and many lifters will suffer from knee pain throughout their lifting journey.
Performing knee friendly quad exercises are important when your knees hurt during traditional leg workouts, and are also key in preventing knee pain in the future.
So how can you train your quads with knee pain? Isometrics are a great way to train the quads with bad knees. Next, you’ll want to progress into limited range of motion squats, machines extensions, and single leg exercises. Form there, you can add in sleds, squats, and other traditional quad building exercises.
Below, we will discuss reasons why you may be experiencing knee pain during your quad workouts and offer you 10 knee friendly quad exercises to train to decrease knee pain and build stronger quads..
If you are looking for a workout program to help you build more bigger quads with knee friendly exercises, and progressively overload the movements to minimize injury, be sure to check out the Fitbod app.
7 Reasons You Have Knee Pain
Knee pain is very common in the lifting community, however it is something that is often a sign of poor programming, poor technique, or lack of mobility.
In more extreme cases, it is due to structural damage within the knee itself.
Below, we will discuss seven of the most common reasons why you have knee pain, and what you need to do about it.
Note: This isn’t an exhaustive list It’s also not meant to diagnose you. Please consult with your doctor.
You are Lifting Too Heavy, Too Often
When it comes to knee pain, sometimes the pain is due to a loading issue rather than the particular exercise.
When you lift too heavy, the muscles may not be able to deal with the extra loading stress, which in turn will place more strain on the joints and connective tissues.
If you are using heavy loads all the time, there is always a risk that you will at some point let your form change (for the worse) and open yourself up to increased risks of injury or overuse injuries.
This is why having a program that modifies your workouts based on your performance is key. With Fitbod, your workouts are tailored to your goals, abilities, and week to week performance.
You Lack Knee Joint Stability During Lower Body Movements
Knee stabilization is important for lower training and knee health, and if you experience knee pain during exercise it could be due to muscle weakness in the quads and hamstrings.
When your muscles are weak around the knee, it causes the joints and connective tissues to pick up the slack. Over time, this can lead to injury and extra stress being placed on the knee joint and tissues that should be placed on the muscles.
To remedy this, you want to strengthen the muscles around the knee and progressively overload the movements and expand the range of motion in which you can move without pain.
You Are Doing the Same Exercises Every Leg Workout
Sometimes, your body gives you feedback like pain and discomfort to tell you that it is time to change a movement up in your workout program.
While this exact time frame can vary, you’ll want to make exercise swaps every 4-8 weeks, or when you start feeling pain around the joints and tissues surrounding the muscle (if you only feel muscle soreness, then you don’t necessarily need to change the movement).
You Have Stiff Hips
Stiff hips is something many people have, as desk jobs and workout programs that don’t include multi directional exercises can contribute to stiff hips. If your hips are stiff, this will have a ripple effect on the joint above and below the pelvis (knees and spine).
When the hips become stiff, the knees then need to increase their mobility to allow movement, which is NOT the intended anatomical purpose of that joint (the knee joint is a hinge joint, and moves only one way, and requires stability).
You Have Poor Ankle Mobility
Just like stiff hips can cause knee pain, if your ankles are stiff and immobile, your biomechanical movement may also be altered in a way that places greater stress on the knee joint.
Stiff joints above and below the knee are common culprits of knee pain, and can be addressed with mobility exercises and a program that strengthens the muscles around the ankle (such as doing toe raises for the tibialis anterior to improve ankle mobility)
You Are Not Challenging Your Range of Motion
Strength is angular specific, meaning the range of motion used to strengthen a muscle in the gym is the range of motion that you’ll be able to express strength and safe movements outside the gym.
People only think about strengthening a muscle and improving knee health by adding weight, however if you can also increase the range of motion the knee can move pain free (through challenging your depth in lower body exercises), you can also help alleviate knee pain in the long run.
Aim to train in a full range of motion, and over time, try to expand on that range of motion, even if it means you use less weight. This will help you not only decrease knee pain, but also strengthen the muscles of the leg throughout the entire range of motion.
You Have Structural Damage to Your Knee Joint
If you are experiencing knee pain during exercise, you should also be aware that the issue may be structural. If there was an injury to the knee, or if you have sharp pain, you may be during a tendon/ligament injury, which is much more serious than slight discomfort.
To determine if your knee pain is from a more serious connective tissue or joint injury, you will need to get an X-ray and MRI scan, which can rule out any ligament or bone injuries. To do this, consult your doctor and get those tests done immediately.
Will Strengthening Your Quads Help With Knee Pain?
Yes, strengthening your quads should help with knee pain. The stronger the muscles get around a joint, the more stability that joint has which can improve injury prevention during daily life and exercise.
Sometimes, however, training the quads to get stronger can lead to the quad muscles to tighten, and create more tension on the knee joint and surrounding area (quad tendon).
The good news is that with proper programming and quad-focused stretches can ensure recovery and minimize those risks.
More advanced lifters can also run the risk of injuring the knees in the quest for stronger quads, making it critical to always prioritize recovery and good form during lower body movements.
A good workout program that includes a variety of lower body exercises and progresses wisely can also help to increase your chances of staying injury free.
Chances are you will be sore after a good workout. Help yourself out by adding in some light cardio after a workout to decrease muscle soreness.
How To Choose Quad Exercises That Won’t Cause Knee Pain
Choosing quad exercises the won’t cause knee pain is often a trial and error process, and means you need to lift with less weight on the movements you normally do, incorporate more stretching to the quad muscles, and introduce unilateral lower body exercises to train the quads and allow the knee joint to recover.
- You can first start by doing the movements you normally would, but use less weight and more controlled reps, and see if the knee pain was caused by lifting too heavy or without enough control.
- If those movements still cause knee pain, then try other variations that allow you to train hard and feel the muscle but with less overall weight. A good example may be doing a Bulgarian split squat instead of a back squat.
- If you still have pain, try performing isometric exercises like wall sits, which require no joint movement at the knee but can still work the quad muscle. Isometrics are great to use in conjunction with other strengthening exercises.
10 Best Quad Exercises for Bad Knees
Below are 10 exercises that you can do to train the quads with bad knees:
Note for Fitbod users: each of the exercises below can also be found on the Fitbod app.
1. Wall Sit
The wall sit is an isometric exercise that targets the quadriceps muscles. The benefit of doing isometrics during a period of injury is that the joint (knee) is not moving throughout the duration of the exercise, however the muscle itself is still being placed under tension and stress.
Form Tip: These can be done for timed holds to build quadriceps strength and help activate the quads, and then can be progressed to slow bodyweight squats and holds with weight.
2. TRX Assisted Squat
Using the TRX (suspension bands) to aid you in the squat movement is a great way to integrate squats into a program after injury. By using the TRX straps, you assist the individuals in performing the squat by minimizing the amount of balance they need on their own.
Form Tip: Use the TRX handles to assist if you cannot do them with bodyweight, as the handles allow you use your upper body to assist..
3. TRX Assisted Split Squat
The TRX assisted split squat is similar to the TRX squat, however the split squat is a unilateral leg exercise that has the lifter stand in a split stance and place more weight on their lead leg. By doing a split squat, you can increase the single leg strength of each leg, and address any muscle imbalances or movement asymmetries.
Form Tip: By holding the handles, you aid in balance and allow the individual to use their upper body to assist if they are not strong enough to only use their legs in the movement.
4. Machine Leg Extension
The machine leg extension is a quad isolation exercise that allows you to train the quads directly. Sometimes, knee pain originated from poor hip or ankle mobility, or just bad squatting mechanics.
If you find yourself able to do these and train the quads with weight without pain, then this could be a great way to build muscle and strength while you address technique and movement on compound movements.
Form Tip: If you have issues feeling the quads, add in isometric holds at the top of the exercise every rep.
5. Machine Single Leg Extensions
With the machine single leg extension, you are able to build muscle and strength one leg at a time, which can be helpful when trying to address lower body training when one knee is more painful than the other.
Whether you are recovering from an injury or want to percent one, training the legs indledning (unilateral training) can help correct muscle imbalances and address any muscle weaknesses.
Form Tip: Use less weight than you think, and add isometric holds at the top to train the quad directly, with less weight.
6. Air Bike Sprints
Building quad muscles can also be done with bike work, especially air bike sprints. The air bike can be a great way to rehab from knee pain and train the quads intensity, without adding a ton of joint stress.
Form Tip: When doing air bike training to specially developed the quads, you want to train at hard intensities for 30-90 seconds, and then rest 30-90 seconds between sets (sprints). This is only effective at building muscle of the quads when done at hard entities and you should feel the quad muscles burning.
7. Box Squat
The box squat can be done with any type of weight (barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, bodyweight), and is a squat to a target. This is a great way to help repattern good squatting mechanics after injury or during periods of knee pain.
Form Tip: With the box squat, you want to squat to a depth that is pain free, and work in that range of motion until you can increase the depth by 5-10%. Keep doing this until you are able to progressively squat lower and lower without knee pain.
8. Sled Drag
The sled drag is a movement that has you walk backwards as you drag the sled. By doing this, you are extending the knee in short, limited ranges of motion, and using the quad muscles to power the movement.
This is a great way to improve knee health, train the quads, and build muscle endurance and tissue without needing to load a ton of weight onto the body directly.
Form Tip: This is a great exercise to pair directly with the sled push, which could make a very effective quad building workout to do with bad knees.
9. Sled Push
The sled push is when you stand behind a sled and push it in a bent over position. This exercise targets the quads and glutes, and is a great way to train the quads without needing to load the knee joint directly with heavy weights.
Form Tip: When doing these, try to push the sled for 30-90 seconds at a consistent pace with as much loading as you can do while still being pain free. Rest 30-90 seconds, and repeat until your quad muscles are burning.
10. Sumo Squat
The sumo squat is an exercise that can be done to train the quads directly, while potentially limiting the amount of knee pain you may experience. Sometimes, changing the stance of a squat can be just enough to train the muscle and decrease knee pain as you are training a slightly different joint angle.
This can be a great way to reintroduce squats into your training program, and slowly progress your stance back to a more narrow one that allows deeper knee flexion.
Form Tip: Play around with your stance width, and always allow the toes to point outwards on a 20-45 degree angle. You want your knees and toes to be aligned as you squat down.
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.
Quad Exercises to AVOID With Knee Pain
When you have knee pain, the quad exercises you need to avoid are the ones that cause pain.
This can be tough to pinpoint why they are causing you pain, but if you are in pain during or after an exercise, then you should not train that movement (pain in the joint).
The only exception would be if the exercise only causes pain when you use too much weight, so if that is the case, decrease the weight and allow the knee to heal.
Below are some of the most quad exercises that may need to be avoided when you have knee pain.
Anything Quad Exercise That is Done with Heavy Weight and Hard Intensity
This is more of a training tip, but if you are lifting heavy weights and training to failure, and “pushing through” knee pain, just know you are walking on borrowed time.
If something hurts, causes knee joint pain, or swelling, the exercise itself may not be the issue, but rather your form and how much weight you are lifting or how fast you are doing a movement may be.
Deep Squats and Lunges
Deep squatting and lunges will actually be part of your rehabilitation journey, but if you have pain at a certain depth, then you need to train just shy of that range of motion that causes pain.
If you can perform the full range of motion deep squat or lunge pain free with less weight, then the issue is not the movement, but the loading.
High-Impact Jumping Exercises
Jumping is a high impact movement, and while it offers many benefits, you should not be doing them if you actively have knee pain. Jumping is done at high movement velocities, and can increase the joint stress on the body.
If you are injured or experience knee pain during jumping movements, then you want to train at slower speeds and with less impact to allow the knees to recover and improve joint health (increase quadriceps strength and flexibility).
You can try doing slow versions of jumps, such as speed squats or decrease the weight needed to jump by doing band assisted jumps or TRX jump squats to decrease the amount of stress on the body until you are able to get back into jumping training.
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.