Knee Pain Exercises

Written By: Chloe Wilson, BSc(Hons) Physiotherapy
Reviewed by: KPE Medical Review Board

Knee Pain Exercises: Exercise plans you can do in your own home

Knee pain exercises are one of the best things you can do to reduce pain, weakness, stiffness and swelling at the knee. 

By strengthening and stretching the muscles around the knee, you can reduce the forces going through the joint and improve the stability. 

Most cases of knee pain respond well to exercises. But it can be hard to know where to start.

Here we will look at some great beginners level leg exercises to get you started. These knee pain exercises are generally suitable in the early stages following an injury or surgery, for anyone suffering from knee stiffness or for those people who are just starting out with knee exercises.

They get the knee moving and start strengthening the muscles without putting much force through the joint itself. Once you are happy with these exercises, you can progress onto intermediate and then advanced knee pain exercises.

Knee Pain Exercises: Stage 1

Knee pain exercises should feel challenging but not painful. See the Top Tips on Exercising section before you start to get the most out of these knee pain exercises. With any knee problem, you should always see your doctor before you begin exercising, but once you get the all clear, you’re ready to go.

1. Quad Clenches

Purpose: Maintain and strengthen the Quads without moving the knee, enable full straightening of the knee. One of the best knee pain exercises to start with following an injury or surgery

Starting Position: Lying flat on your back or sitting up. Leg and knee straight

Action: Tighten the muscle on the front of the thigh by pushing your knee down. You should feel your thigh muscles clench. Hold for 3 secs

Repetition: Repeat 10-20x every 3-4 hours

Variations: If you are struggling to get your knee to straighten fully, place a rolled up towel underneath the ankle so that your leg is lifted slightly on the bed. Then do the knee pain exercises as described. Lifting the leg up slightly lets gravity help the knee to straighten.

2. Short Arcs

Purpose: Strengthen the quads without much knee movement

Short acrs: Approved use by

Starting Position: Lying flat on your back or sitting up with your leg horizontal on a flat surface such as a bed. Place a rolled up towel (approx 10cm diameter) under the knee.

Action: Pull your toes towards you and clench your thigh muscles. Slowly lift your foot up off the bed until your knee is straight (keep your knee resting on the towel). Hold for 3-5 secs and slowly lower

Repetition: repeat 10-20 times, 3x daily

Progression: 1. Increase the size of the towel under the knee
2. Add a weight e.g. by wearing a shoe, or using a light ankle weight. Progress further by using a heavier weight
3. Place a loop resistance band around your ankles so you are pulling up against resistance to work the muscle harder

3. Straight Leg Raise

Purpose: Strengthen the Quads muscles without bending the knee NB Do not do this if you have a history of back problems

Starting Position: Lying flat on your back. Leg and knee straight

Action: Pull your toes towards you and tighten/clench the muscle on the front of the thigh, locking your knee straight. Lift your foot up about 6 inches off the bed. Hold for 3-5 secs and slowly lower. Ensure your knee stays straight the whole time

Repetition: repeat 10-20 times, 2x daily

Progression: Add a weight e.g. by wearing a shoe or using an ankle weight.

4. Long Arcs

Purpose: Strengthen quads, increase knee movement, great to do if sitting for long periods (30mins+) to stop the knee getting stiff

Starting Position: Sitting on a firm chair with your knee bent and your foot on the floor

Action: Lift your foot up and straighten your knee as much as possible. Hold for 3-5 secs and slowly lower. Then bend your knee back as far as you can

Repetition: 5-20 times, 3x daily

1. Strengthen further by adding a weight either by wearing a shoe or ankle weights, or place a loop resistance band around your ankles
2. To increase knee flexion further, when you’ve slid your foot back as far as you can, gently slide your bottom forwards in the chair whilst keeping your foot still.

5. Knee Marching

Purpose: A great knee pain exercises to increase quads strength without putting weight through the knee joint

Starting Position: Sit in a chair with your feet on the floor

Action: March your legs up and down one at a time. Lift your knee and foot up and then back down

Repetition: Repeat for about 1 minute, 2x daily and any time you are sitting for more than 20 minutes to stop your knee getting stiff

Progression: Add a weight e.g. by wearing shoes or using ankle weights

6. Kick Backs

Purpose: Improve the strength of hamstrings and mobility of the knee

Starting Position: Stand up straight holding on to something stable e.g. chair or table

Action: Lift your foot up as far as you can towards your bottom, bending the knee. Hold for 3-5 secs

Repetition: Repeat 5-25 times, 2x daily

Progression: Add a weight e.g. shoe or ankle weight, or a resistance band

Note: 1. Don’t bend forwards, keep your body upright
2. keep your knees in line with each other, don’t let your thigh come forwards.

7. Heel Raises

Purpose: Strengthen the calf muscles to help support the knee. Co-ordinate knee and ankle movement

Starting Position: Stand with your feet slightly apart, weight equally distributed, holding onto something solid for balance e.g. kitchen work surface or wall.

Action: Rise up onto your toes lifting your heels as high as possible. Keep your body upright (don’t bend forwards). Hold for 3-5 secs and slowly lower

Repetition: Repeat 10-30 times, 2x daily

8. Sit to Stand

Purpose: One of my favourite knee pain exercises as it improves knee mobility, strengthens both quads and glutes and improves general fitness

Starting position: Sit in a firm chair, feet on the floor

Action: Lean forwards, lift your bottom, stand up straight and then sit back down

Repetition: Repeat 10-30x

Adaptations: To make the exercise easier: 1. Push up through you arms 2. Use a higher chair.
To make the exercise harder: 1. Increase you speed 2. Use a lower chair 3. Hold a weight
3. To improve knee stability, place a loop resistance band around your lower thighs just above your knee. Gently push out against the band as you go up and down

Next Steps

Choose the knee pain exercises that work best for you. You don't need to do all of them, pick the three or four that feel right for you. Remember, they should be moderately challenging but not painful. Resistance bands are a useful tool to challenge yourself more as you get stronger.

Visit the Knee Exercise overview for tips on working at the right level for you and getting the most out of your exercises.

Once you have done these knee pain exercises for a few weeks, you should have built up the number of repetitions of each exercise and they should be starting to feel quite easy. When that is the case, CONGRATULATIONS! You are ready to progress on to the intermediate and then advanced knee pain exercises to help build up more strength and flexibility.

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Page Last Updated: 12/12/23
Next Review Due: 12/12/25

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