Updated: Mar 31, 2022
Some people can squat, lunge, and do all sorts of activities without any issues from their knees. Other folks perform just a few partial squats and their knees, well, have a reaction like this.
And it can be extremely frustrating, especially if knee pain just kinda crept up on you without any rhyme or reason. But alas, there is hope for all you knee pain sufferers. Assuming you haven’t experienced some sort of knee injury in the past, there are ways to help remedy that annoying knee discomfort that’s sucking the quality of life right out of you.
Often when you experience knee pain, it’s because certain muscles are a bit tighter than they should be. This tightness, in turn, pulls on joints with somewhat unnecessary force when they’re called into action. This is essentially what happens when muscles and tendons that attach to the knee cap develop tightness.
This can occur because of weakness, inactivity, prior injuries, a sedentary lifestyle, or a combination of these factors. So the first step towards clearing yourself of knee pain is to give your thighs, groin, calves, and feet some love in the form of a foam roller.
Foam rolling is essentially the “poor man’s massage”. It allows you to work out the ‘knots’ and tightness that can cause that aggressive pulling on the knee joint.
Honestly, for some of you lucky knee pain sufferers, foam rolling might be the only thing you need to do. Buuuuuut if that didn’t solve the problem, let’s keep going.
Improve ankle mobility
Seems like a weird thing to worry about when your knees hurt, right? But take a minute to think about it.
Your body is incredibly smart and efficient at completing tasks. Just like how an airplane might divert power to one engine if the other fails, your body will “divert” mobility to adjacent joints if certain joints are immobile in order to complete a movement (ie: a squat)
So when your ankles, a joint that is meant to be very mobile, suddenly can’t move freely like they’re supposed to, your body will try to compensate for that lack of mobility by trying to find it at an adjacent joint, aka your knees.
Knees like stability, not tons of mobility. So when your body is trying to make your knees provide the mobility that the ankles were supposed to, they get cranky. Imagine if your boss asked you to do twice the amount of work because your coworker is simply a lazy douche turd. You’d be pissed too!
So spend some time working on that ankle mobility!
Here’s a quick way to check to see if your ankle mobility is lacking.
Place your toe about 3-4 inches from a wall. Without letting your heel come off the ground, push your knee forward.
Did it hit the wall? Congrats, you’ve got velvety mobile ankles.
Did it not? Your ankles might be tight then.
Isolate and strengthen your hip muscles
While things like squats and lunges require the coordinated effort of hundreds of muscles, it’s probably worth your time to isolate and strengthen individual muscles around the hip like your glutes, hip external and internal rotators, as well as your hip flexors. When individual muscles are stronger, the sum of their efforts is that much more efficient and (hopefully) pain free.
Technically the movement above isn’t an isolation exercise because you’re holding a side plank while moving your leg, but the added core strengthening on top of hip abduction (moving a limb away from the midline of the body) is a great way to help strengthen the hips and glutes, both of which are vital for healthy knees.
The psoas (a muscle that attaches to the base of your spine and thigh bone) just happens to be both tight and weak in tons of people due to prolonged hours of sitting at work. This resulting weakness can put more stress on your quads, cause low back discomfort, and wreak havoc on hip mobility (all of these factors are not ideal for trying to alleviate knee pain). Taking the time to strengthen it, like in the above video, can help steer you in the right direction.
The leg lock hip bridge is a great move to help isolate your glutes and “wake them up” for a lack of better description. By keeping your non working leg hugged tightly to your chest, your pelvis tilts backwards, essentially forcing your glutes on your down leg to become the primary mover. As a general rule of thumb, strong glutes = healthy knees. Focus on squeeeeezing that glute hard as you bridge up.
CARs (controlled articular rotations) strengthen your whole hip in an isolation-ish type of way, even though this movement is multi-planar and involves numerous muscles. Certain muscles will work harder during different parts of this movement, all while they work to contract to get your hip moving through it’s biggest range of motion possible. This is a great way to isolate your hips without putting your knees in a precarious situation.
Prioritize hip dominant lifts
Isolation movements are cool and all, but at some point you’ll need to graduate from pre-algebra and start doing some calculus if you wanna see some real results.
Once you’ve isolated, activated, and strengthened (or whatever verb floats your boat), now it’s time to put it all together with some compound lifts, or exercises that involve numerous muscles and moving joints.
Things like squats and lunges are what you would call knee dominant lifts, meaning the degree of knee flexion and extension is equal to, if not greater, than the degree of hip flexion. These would be your most of your squats and lunges.
Hip dominant lifts, on the other hand, do not involve tons of knee movement, which tends to make them the go-to choice for knee pain sufferers. These would include most of your deadlift and hip thrust variations.
RDL’s or Romanian deadlift variations are often the go-to move when dealing with knee pain because of their ability to strengthen the glutes and hamstrings (muy importante for knee pain) while avoiding taking the knee through too much flexion or extension (also muy importante).
Hip thrust variations are also solid choices for knee pain sufferers for the same reasons listed above for the RDL’s. While the knee is bent during these movements, the lack of active extension and flexion tends to be the saving grace on this one. Many knee pain sufferers can complete this movement without pain and still get a nice training effect.
Dedicated hamstring isolation exercises are also great choices when dealing with knee pain because the hamstrings are often weak in most knee pain sufferers, which when combined with tight quads (muscles on the front side of your leg), can be a recipe for disaster.
Slowly incorporate box squat variations
We did indeed just say that squats are knee dominant movements, which can aggravate knee pain. However, box squats can actually be a nice addition into your program without causing discomfort.
Box squats force you to shift your hips backwards juuuust a bit more when compared to traditional box-less squats. This posterior shift in weight actually takes some stress off of your quads and overloads your glutes and hamstrings. This shift in musculature exertion can actually allow you to complete a squat more comfortably, if not pain free!
Fix your squat form!
All things aside, sometimes alleviating knee pain is really as simple as fixing your form on things like squats and lunges.
Practice lunging and squatting with a counterbalance, or a weight you press out as you perform the “down” portion of the movement. This will force you to keep an upright torso and shift your weight appropriately, which should hopefully result in some pain free squatting and lunging.
When you combine some or all of these guidelines for an extended period, things should start to feel better for you.
But of course we’re speaking in generalities here. There are plenty of instances where you may need some dedicated help from a physical therapist or doctor because of a traumatic injury or something along those lines. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a qualified professional if your knee pain persists past the point of frustration.
Or better yet, just shoot us an email at email@example.com!