Don’t let your dodgy knee get in the way of a good workout.
Medically reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson and words by Karen Gordon
Think you can’t run, squat, lift or cycle because of your dodgy knee? Think again. A sore knee is not a death sentence and keeping as active as possible is just as important if you suffer from knee problems.
If fact, choosing the right type of exercise can actually help to ease joint pain and make you fitter and healthier in the long run.
Sports physiotherapist and osteopath Tim Allardyce offers his expert advice on what you can and can’t do if you suffer from knee pain:
What is knee pain?
Knee pain is typically anterior, which means it’s at the front of the knee. But you may be able to feel the pain at the sides, back or along the joint line of the knee.
‘There are a number of things that could be causing knee pain, such as cartilage tear, ligament tear or other things like muscle problems,’ says Allardyce. ‘And there’s also a chance that you could be suffering from osteoarthritic knees.’
⚠️ If you are concerned, speak to your GP, who might refer you for an X-ray. If the problem is due to the joint capsule and the supporting muscles, a course of physiotherapy to strengthen the quadriceps muscles that form the front of the thigh, may also help.
Myth: Don’t do ANY exercise if you have any knee pain
If you have knee pain, you need to be careful when doing weight-bearing exercises, such as body pump classes, Zumba, step aerobics, jumping, running and sprinting, as these can all put a strain on your knee joints. But you can still exercise! You just need to choose wisely.
‘It’s dependent on the knee problem to what exercise you can do,’ says Allardyce. ‘If you get pain, stop or slow down. Don’t push through the pain – listen to what your body is telling you.’
Opt for non-weight-bearing exercises, such as cycling, cross-training and swimming. You can even power walk, which will put much less strain on the knee.
Myth: You should rest until knee pain goes away
This is a common mistake people make. You can exercise the knee with care. However, if it’s a fresh injury and your knee has been sprained and is swollen, or if you’re having difficulty bending it then this is a different matter.
‘You should rest for around 48 to 72 hours and use either crutches, a walking stick or rest it completely by lying down,’ says Allardyce. ‘Apply ice and do gentle mobilisation exercises. But thereafter you can gently exercise it.’
Myth: Don’t exercise if you have arthritic knees
Not exercising because you have arthritis is one of the most common myths about knee pain. As a general rule, if you have osteoarthritis it is fine to exercise.
A report by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) provides strong evidence that exercise is, in fact, good for the knees. The findings concluded that exercise actually helps improve the cartilage in between joints instead of breaking it down.
‘For years, doctors have said for years that patients should rest their knees – but now we think differently about this,’ says Allardyce. ‘Osteoarthritis is probably one of the biggest problems in the UK with knees – one of the most common surgeries is a knee arthroscopy or a knee replacement and typically osteoarthritis develops after any knee injury.’
Myth: You shouldn’t run
You do need to be careful running with a sore knee, because any weight-bearing exercise can potentially cause knee pain, but unless you’re in acute pain, there’s no reason why you should stop running.
If you run regularly, it is common to feel occasional twinges in your legs. Try to run off-road on gentler surfaces such as trails and paths, and book regular appointments with a sports massage therapist to keep your knees in tip-top shape.
Will running on a sore knee cause future health problems? Research by Hansen P at the University of Utah Orthopaedic Center concluded that low- and moderate-volume runners appear to have no more risk of developing osteoarthritis than non-runners. ‘The jury is still out and different experts disagree – some say it does some say it doesn’t,’ says Allardyce.
⚠️ If you’re a keen runner and you experience occasional knee pain, it’s worth investing in a foam roller!
Myth: You shouldn’t squat
Squatting is generally considered good for your knees. The main function of the knee is to be able to bend – so it’s perfectly normal to keep on squatting.
‘For some reason when we’re in the gym, we’re more apprehensive to squat. If you have painful knees, you may want to make the squat easier,’ says Allardyce.
‘You could just do a quarter leg squat where your knee just bends a little bit – or a half squat where your knee bends half way. Or you could put a Swiss ball behind your back and do a wall squat. This is a great way to rehab people with knee problems.’
Fact: You shouldn’t jump
Jumping is not recommended if you have knee problems and it’s actually one of the tests sports physios use to see how fit athletes are after knee problems.
‘We’ll get them jumping off a high wall to see if their knee can take it,’ says Allardyce. ‘Someone with a knee problem will know instinctively that they won’t want to jump. They will be very apprehensive.’
⚠️ Avoid jumping if you are experiencing knee pain, because it will put too much pressure on your knees.
Exercises to strengthen your knees
1. Knee flexion exercise
- Lie face down, and bend your knee bringing your heel towards your bottom.
- You will feel a gentle stretch to the quadricep muscles at the front of your thigh.
- Make sure you bend the leg in a controlled way.
- Return to the start position slowly and using the same level of control.
- Repeat this exercise 10 times, and perform three times per day to improve range of mobility to your knee joint.
2. Half wall squat with gym ball
- Place a Swiss ball behind your lower back, and keep your feet shoulder width apart.
- Bend your knees to the half squat position.
- Keep the middle of your knee-cap in line with the middle toes of your foot.
- Return to the start position.
- Repeat the exercise 10 times, twice a day to strengthen your quadricep muscles and knees.
3. Knee extension
- Sit down on a chair and place a towel under your thigh.
- Pull your toes up, tighten the muscles in the front of your thigh (quadriceps muscles), and slowly pull your leg to a straight position.
- You will feel a stretch to the hamstring at the back of the thigh, and contraction of the quadriceps in the front of the thigh.
- Hold this stretch for 15 seconds, and relax.
- Repeat three times, twice a day.