4 Knee-Friendly Exercises for Athletic and Strong Legs

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If you lift weights chances are you’ve experienced common aches and pains.

One of the most common problems lifters face is knee pain. Knee pain sucks. Whether it’s due to poor mobility, bad technique, or improper exercise selection, knee pain can feel like a kick in all the wrong places.

At the very least it can be worked around so you can still train hard and make progress.

Because what’s the point of working hard in the gym if your body feels worse after training?

If you’ve experienced any type of knee pain before from things like squats or lunges, give these 4 exercises below a try the next time you want a killer leg workout.

Knee Pain Causes

I don’t intend to diagnose your specific cause of knee pain.

I’m not a doctor, I just play one on TV.

All kidding aside, knee pain can be caused by multiple factors. Maybe it’s your mobility that’s lacking. If one area is a bit stiffer than others, you may not be able to execute the full movement without compensating somewhere else. Or, the pain could stem from technical breakdown or simply using the wrong exercises.

Let’s take a quick look at cleaning up these issues.

Mobility restrictions

Squats are the scapegoat for any knee pain issues.

Knees hurt? Yep, must be the squats. Or ‘squatting is bad for your knees.’

While it’s tough to say outright if squats are causing you knee pain, crappy squatting technique could certainly be causing knee pain.

If squatting causes knee pain for you, there’s a pretty good chance you’re lacking some mobility in your ankles or hips. Or heck, even in your upper back.

Let’s use the ankle as an example. If your ankles lack sufficient mobility, when you descend into a full squat you’ll have to allow your knees to slide farther and farther forward to achieve full range of motion. Because you lack enough ankle mobility, more of the load gets placed on the knee joint which can cause problems for many people.

A simple mobility drill I like to use is the rocking ankle mob. Here’s a quick video demo:

The goal here is to loosen the ankle joint. Keep the working side leg straight and try to get your heel to the ground. This will improve ankle dorsiflexion which will help during exercises like squats.

Poor technique

If you’re prone to knee irritation, technique becomes even more important for you. It’s always a good idea to keep the joints stacked. This basically means the knee is over the top of the ankle while performing various exercises. Try not to let the knee go inside or outside of the ankle joint.

The knee can go past the toes on exercises like squats or lunges, as long as mobility is sufficient and there’s no pain present. However, if these techniques bother you, then modifying them would be a good idea.

Things like knee pain can be a big downer. It’s probably best to avoid things like this:

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Sissy squats aren’t necessarily ‘bad,’ but if you’ve got knee problems, there are better exercises for you.

Choosing the wrong exercises

Sometimes, regardless of technique improvements and mobility fixes, certain exercises still bug your knees.

But don’t worry, there are plenty of options to pick from. I love squats but they might not love you. I love walking lunges but those might give you trouble as well.

When designing a program you’ve got to look at which exercises you can load, but also which ones you can load without pain.

Because adding load on top of pain is a recipe for disaster.

Below are 4 options you can add into your current leg routine to take stress off the knees and help you build stronger, athletic looking legs.

Barbell Glute Bridge

The barbell glute bridge is a fantastic exercise for building the glutes and hamstrings. It’s also very knee-friendly and can be utilized with many different rep schemes and loading protocols.

You can do these as your main leg movement for the day, or go a bit lighter for more hypertrophy work.

Here’s my coaching client, Kathleen, crushing 305lbs for reps:

If this replaces your ‘big lift’ for the day, ie if you do these in place of squats, for example, shoot for 6-10 reps with moderately heavy weight.

If this is an assistance move later on in your workout, you can do them for 10-12 reps, or even add a high rep set of 20 for a crazy glute pump.

I’d suggest using bumper plates, or if you don’t have bumper plates, simply elevating the bar up a bit so you can get underneath. Use a pad or folded over yoga mat to provide some cushion on your hips. Be sure to brace your abs hard before lifting up and push your hips up to the sky by pressing mainly through the heels and squeezing your butt hard.

Safety Squat Bar Reverse Lunge

Even without squats, we can still work the quads pretty well with reverse lunge variations. Stepping backwards instead of forwards like a traditional walking lunge, we take away a lot of the deceleration forces which lessens the stress on the knees.

That’s why a common substitution for regular lunges is to turn them into reverse lunges. Simple fix but still highly effective.

The safety squat bar reverse lunge is a great variation because you can load it safely to build strength. With any reverse lunge variation, it’s a good idea to keep the front shin pretty vertical. By keeping the shin more upright you’ll essentially work the glutes and hamstrings more and take most of the stress off the knee.

If you don’t have a safety squat bar handy, feel free to do these with a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells.

Pro tip-when performing reverse lunges that are decently heavy, do all your reps on one leg before switching legs. With heavier weights, you don’t want to compromise balance and stability and end up with poorly executed reps.

Banded Hip Thrust

If you want a crazy glute pump then you’ve got to try the banded hip thrust. Simply set up two heavy db’s, loop a band around them and get to thrusting.

This exercise is best used for higher reps and also with isometrics or controlled eccentrics. Depending on the thickness of the band you have, these can get challenging pretty quick.

To set up, get under the band and put your upper back/shoulder blades on the bench. Make sure your feet are even and your shins are vertical when you bridge up. If your feet are too close to your butt you won’t be able to maximize the effectiveness of this exercise and you’ll mainly be using your quads.

Bridge up by pressing through the entire foot evenly, keeping your abs tight and ribs down. Basically, you want to make sure you keep your torso rigid from shoulder to hip. Don’t let your back extend as you go up or down.

With a heavier band setup, do these for 8-12 reps. With lighter bands, do 15-20 reps and add in some 2-3 second holds.

Barbell Sumo Romanian Deadlift

The sumo Romanian deadlift is a good variation from the standard barbell rdl. Both work the posterior chain extremely well. Be sure to grab the bar inside of your knees and point your toes out slightly.

Don’t treat this one quite the same as the traditional version, however. Because it’s in the sumo stance, you don’t want to think about hinging back quite as much. Focus more on unlocking the hips and spreading the floor to lower the bar. To stand, lock your knees and flex your butt hard. Feel free to play around with foot positioning to find the best feel for you.

I like these for sets of 6-10 reps on average.

Wrap Up

By now, you probably think squats are the devil. No, no, I love squats. But, depending on your goals and individual training/injury history you don’t necessarily have to do them.

Consider using some of the exercises above to help you develop strong athletic legs.

Any exercise that causes you to feel pain isn’t going to be good in the long run.

Address mobility limitations, form issues, or simply make some informed exercise selections for your training.

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