The knee is almost always the first joint to fail when you “start getting old.” How many people you know have given up any kind of serious physical activity because of “bad knees”? How many people avoid the gym because they say their knees are too stiff? How many people take the elevator to go up a floor, avoid hiking because they can’t handle the hills, or give up their favorite sport – all because their knees hurt?
There are too many. It’s a damn shame, and it doesn’t have to be that way.
The knee is actually a very strong joint. Surrounded on two sides and supported by powerful muscles, tendons, and ligaments, supported by cartilage and fascia, and capable of great feats of recovery and regeneration, the knee is stronger and more resilient than most people realize. However, the knee needs to be cared for and strengthened. It has to perform different movements so that it becomes stronger and no longer feels pain. If you want to relieve or prevent knee pain before it occurs, these are the knee strengthening exercises for you.
1. Couch range
The couch stretch, a movement and term coined by Ready State’s Kelly Starrett, is a stretch that negates hours of sitting. When we sit, our hip flexors rest in a flexed position. They are bowed but not bowed. It’s a passive inflection that makes them tense and weak. Then when we do some squats or other dynamic knee-centric sports or movements, we have to deal with all that tension upstream of the knee.
Try squatting. Just a simple air squat. See how it feels to rest in the down position. Maybe it’s okay, maybe it’s hard. Anyway, make a mental note of how you feel as you squat. Next, try the couch stretch for a minute or two on each side. Then try to crouch again. You should feel a lot less pressure on your knees and have a greater ability to rest comfortably in the down position.
2. Knee circles
To perform the knee circles, place your hands on your quadriceps, just above your kneecaps. Allow the weight of your torso to press down and rest on your hands. Then do a few slow squats, bending and straightening your knees to “tighten” your menisci. Begin with slow knee circles, first clockwise and then counterclockwise. Do about 30 seconds in each direction slowly, gradually, and deliberately, really feeling like you’re hitting every corner of your knee.
Knee circles are ideal for people with meniscus problems. They allow you to compress any part of the meniscus and help create the stimulus needed to promote healing and regeneration. Because they’re low-intensity, slow, and intentional, knee circles rarely hurt. If you feel a sharp pain, try decreasing the flexion angle. These exercises are great for warming up before leg workouts or even done every morning as a lifetime warm up.
3. Tear drop squats
The teardrop squat is named for its ability to target the teardrop muscle of the quadriceps, also known as the vastus medialis obliques (VMO). Located in the medial portion of your quads, the VMO is an important muscle for controlling kneecap alignment, preventing knee pain, and can also improve the aesthetics (tearing) of your legs. When your VMO is weak, your knee tends to buckle inward. Therefore, strengthening the VMO through targeted movements can both improve your performance and help prevent catastrophic injuries (many MCL and meniscus tears occur when the VMO fails and the knee buckles inwards).
Traditional leg workouts often don’t adequately target the VMO, but the teardrop squat can help activate it by maintaining an upright torso and keeping the feet on the ball of the foot as you squat, leaving little to no space between the glutes and calves stays at the end of the movement. This extremely low knee position hits the VMO.
In this video you can see how Mark Bell, who coined the term and dreamed up the exercise, shows how it works. Set up a resistance band over a squat rack and use as much or as little of it as support as you bend down and back. Move your hands further apart for more support. Move them closer together for less money.
Tear drop squats are a good add-on exercise to use at the end of your workout or even for a few sets as a warm up for heavier leg days.
4. VMO stepdowns
VMO step downs are also a great VMO strengthening exercise that you can do almost anywhere. Stand on a step or short box with one foot hanging off the side and step down, touching the heel of your hanging foot to the floor, then step back up. Do not push off with a hanging foot; All the work comes from the foot standing on the step.
That’s all knee flexion. There should be little to no hip flexion. Keep your torso upright and straight. Don’t bend or bend at the hips.
5. Deep squats
To perform a deep split squat, begin by bringing one foot well behind you and one in front of you, with your torso centered between the two. Slowly lower into a squat and push forward until your knee goes over your toes. Hold this position for a moment to feel the stretch in your ankle, knee, and thigh. Then push back and up to return to an upright position. During the exercise, focus on the stretch in your ankle and knee.
If these are too light without weight, move on to weights with dumbbells, weight vests, or even barbells. They can be a legitimate strength workout on leg days, or you can keep them light as extra work.
6. Shin raises
The tibialis anterior is the muscle that runs along the front of your shin. It controls ankle motion and stability, helps absorb the effects of knee flexion, and most importantly, is under-trained in most people. A lot of knee pain occurs because the shin is too weak to control the knee during the hard, impacting flexion that occurs when jumping and landing, running, and touchdowns and lifts.
In shin raises, one starts with the ankle in plantar flexion (toes pointing down) and then dorsiflexes (toes move toward the knee) against a load (weight, band, etc.). That’s it. You can do them standing or sitting. It’s just a matter of starting in plantar flexion and dorsiflexing against a load.
To perform shin raises, you have a few options. My guy Brian in the gif below has a dumbbell attached to the straps of his sandals. There are also special machines to help you perform tibial raises with weights, or you can use resistance bands or weight room cable machines. In the worst case, you can even do it without any weight at all. Shin raises are a great add-on exercise to leg days.
7. Backward weighted mountain walks
Walking backwards up a hill wearing a weighted vest or carrying weights is a low-stress way to increase quadriceps activation, strengthen the muscles surrounding (and controlling) the knee, and increase blood and healing synovial fluid flow to the knee promote knees. It lubricates your knees and prepares you for further intensity. The real beauty of walking backwards uphill is that there’s nothing eccentric – it’s all concentric. Doing this before any leg workout is a fantastic way to warm up your knees without tiring them out.
You can also perform a weighted reverse sled pull with a prowler, a weight sled, or even a car.
If you suffer from knee pain or are concerned about getting it, incorporate these 7 exercises to strengthen your knees into your workouts. Even if you don’t have knee pain, there are no downsides to strengthening your knees and the muscles that support them.
About the author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather of the primal food and lifestyle movement, and New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, in which he explains how he combines the keto diet with a primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is also the author of numerous other books, including The Primal Blueprint, which in 2009 is credited with accelerating the growth of the Primal/Paleo movement and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark founded Primal Kitchen, a real food company that sells Primal/ Paleo, Keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen clips.
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