Nothing haunts the middle aged athlete more than knee pain (cue the scary music!). When clients come in to see me for different issues, I feel like knee pain is the one that is responsible for more people missing their favorite activities than any other. It can be one of the most debilitating and persistent physical ailments, with some studies showing that it affects 25% of adults and hinders them from leading their regular life.
I don’t care how many braces, creams, or salves you use, your knee pain will never magically go away unless you start to strengthen it. Yes, strengthen it!
Keep reading because I’m going to share what is quite possibly the easiest exercise in the world for strengthening your knees and relieving that pain.
WHAT CAUSES KNEE PAIN
Knee pain is usually caused by a lack of strength in the surrounding muscles, most importantly the quadriceps (the four big muscles located just above the knee). Other factors include lack of ankle or hip mobility, but the majority of the time, lack of strength is the biggest culprit.
When this occurs the nervous system will develop a sense of instability in the knee, begin to feel threatened that if you continue to use it something worse will happen, and in return starts eliciting inflammation and a pain response.
While a comprehensive assessment is necessary to pinpoint the exact cause of your knee pain, today's exercise is a key player at the top of the hierarchy when it comes to tackling knee discomfort.
COMMON KNEE PAIN SYMPTOMS
Knee pain is typically associated with a sharp stabbing pain somewhere around the joint. It can range from pain just above the knee cap, to little aches on the inside, outside, and just below the knee cap. Other symptoms that come from inside the joint may be present, as well as painful shooting sensations, or those haunting cracking sounds many are too familiar with.
HOW DO I KNOW IF KNEE PAIN IS A JOINT OR MUSCLE ISSUE?
Determining whether you’re suffering from a joint or a muscle issue can be a little tricky. This isn’t fool proof as I’m not a doctor, but in general, I’d say that if the pain comes and goes, or you can use certain modalities to get it to go away like myofascial release, chiropractic adjustments, or even a massage gun, then it’s most likely a muscle or tissue problem.
However, if the pain is always occurring, coming from inside of the joint or there are noticeable signs of instability, then most likely it’s a joint problem.
WHAT NOT TO DO FOR KNEE PAIN
The two most common things people do for knee pain that I wouldn’t recommend, are rest and ice. Surprised? Unfortunately, both of these are just going to reduce the symptoms, not actually fix the problem. I’m not saying taking some time off or throwing an ice pack on those knees is a bad thing, but just know these are a temporary solution.
Other things that people tend to do when their knee acts up is they start limiting what exercises they do. You first start to lay off running or jumping. Then squatting, lunges, and deadlifting are off the table. Eventually you run out of lower body exercises you can do that don’t cause any pain. Sound familiar?
This is not the solution. There is truth to the saying "If you don't use it, you lose it" and if done appropriately, some of these exercises are what you’ll need to get back on track. Stay tuned as I have a great setup for one of these coming up shortly!
IS IT BETTER TO REST OR WALK WITH KNEE PAIN?
When experiencing knee pain, sometimes it’s a great idea to keep the joint moving as well as keeping all the muscles of the lower body strong and active by continuing to walk, but it just depends.
If it was me, the rules I’d follow are:
As long as the walk is tolerable, without a noticeable limp or change in how you walk, and the pain is very minimal, then this is a great idea
If the pain is persistent and your gait is greatly changed, then walking with knee pain can be a terrible decision
KNEE PAIN DO'S AND DON'TS
It you’re currently experiencing knee pain, what you should and shouldn’t be doing depends on the severity. As mentioned above, if whatever you’re doing is causing immediate pain, then stop. If the pain is not too severe, here’s a list of do’s and don’ts.
Knee Pain Do’s (as long as they don’t cause pain)
Steady state cardio exercise like cycling, swimming, walking, or the elliptical
Any type of body work like massage, myofascial release, chiropractic adjustments, etc.
Knee Pain Don’ts
High impact movements like jumping, deep squats, deep lunges, running, or anything that requires a change of direction
Maneuvering through treacherous terrain (this sounds like common sense but walking through slippery surfaces, or unstable ground like hiking is a bad idea)
Going too heavy too fast in your rehabilitation process
COMMON COMPENSATIONS WHEN YOU HAVE KNEE PAIN
If you have knee pain and you’re continuing to walk, run, or do whatever you enjoy doing, depending on the severity of the injury, you may start to experience problems up and downstream via compensations. A compensation is when another part of the body picks ups the slack for the area you’re originally having issues with.
For instance, if your knee can’t do “knee things” the ankles, hips, pelvis, and even the lower back may start to pick up the slack, which can start to lead to a bunch of problems in those areas.
The reason for this, is those areas are not designed to do “knee things” and will inevitably start to experience their own painful symptoms. The most common compensation I see is in the hips. If you have knee pain and compensate by putting more weight on the non-injured leg, that hip can take a beating and eventually become extremely painful.
HOW TO RELIEVE KNEE PAIN
To relieve knee pain you must strengthen the tissue around the knee, most importantly the quadriceps. Think about how many times your foot lands when you run, jump or do anything athletic. Every time your foot hits the ground the force is transmitted up the leg, and if your knee isn’t stabile (which is what happens when your quads aren’t strong), the force is absorbed by the knees and pain starts to set in.
Benefits of Strengthening Your Knees
Besides reducing and even eliminating knee pain, some other benefits of strengthening your knees include:
Improved flexibility and range of motion - The stronger your knees, the more range of motion you’re nervous system will allow you to have
Knee joint longevity - If you keep your knees strong, your knees will last longer, plain and simple. Our joints are designed to last a lifetime, and by keeping all the muscles around the knee strong, your knees should last as long as you need them!
Improved athletic performance - You’re only as strong as your weakest link. If your knees are the weakest part in the chain, other joints in the body will have to compensate as I mentioned before. If your hips, ankles, and lower back are doing the work of your knee, your posture, balance, and all other forms of athleticism will be compromised.
THE BEST EXERCISE TO STRENGTHEN YOUR KNEES & RELIEVE PAIN
Isometric lunges are a great way to not only strengthen tissue around your knees, but they don’t cause any inflammation, which is amazing when you’re trying to rehab tissue. Strength gains without causing a flare-up is the goal here.
What Are Isometric Lunges?
Isometric lunges are essentially where you get into a bodyweight lunge and then hold it for a set period of time without movement occurring. Trust me, it's way harder than it sounds. I could take someone who lifts a ton of weight and put them into an isometric lunge and you'll watch them quiver.
What’s great about isometric lunges, is that you can modify the position to work for every level. Our goal is to get you in a position where you're experiencing zero pain or discomfort and this is where you start getting stronger. As your tissue starts to become more resilient, you can increase the range of motion to get stronger in a deeper, more challenging position.
How to Perform Isometric Lunges
In the video below I go over all the little details you’ll need to consider as you find the appropriate position for your current needs. Just remember, while performing this, you must keep the exercise pain-free by adjusting it to your current level. The mentality of “No pain, no gain” doesn't fly here and will not get you where you want to go.
Start with 2 sets of 30 seconds, 2-3 times per week. These can be done during your workout or anytime you want.
Let’s face it, living an active lifestyle is way more fun when your knees are strong and pain-free. Rather than resorting to temporary fixes, it's essential to address the root cause by strengthening the muscles around the knee, particularly the quadriceps. Isometric lunges are an easy, effective exercise in this journey, offering a unique blend of strength-building without causing inflammation.
Before you know it, the next time someone asks you to go do something active, you won’t have to wonder, “Can my knees handle this, or am I going to be dying while trying to keep up?”
Other Knee Related Blogs You Might Find Helpful:
WHAT TO DO NEXT
If you want even mo re mobility goodness, check out my 3 must have mobility moves in the link below. It includes hip, shoulder and spine exercises that are my all-time favorite and I know you’ll love them too. They're completely free, so check it out.
ABOUT COACH MATT PIPPIN
Matt is a Strength and Mobility Coach with over 15 years experience in his field and has coached over a thousand professional, collegiate and everyday athletes with the goal to help them move, feel and perform at their highest level. He's incredibly passionate about bringing simple and effective online mobility training programs to everyone who wants to take control of their self care and make lasting change.
NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
Level 3: Fascial Stretch Specialist
Level 1: Institute of Motion Health Coach
Certified FRC Mobility Specialist (FRCms)
Level 1 Kinstretch Instructor
Weck Method Qualified