Quadriceps Exercises For Knee Pain

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

Quadriceps Exercises for Knee Pain: Loads of great exercises to rehab your knees

Quadriceps exercises for knee pain can make a massive difference with loads of different knee problems.

The quadriceps are a group of four muscles found on the front of the thigh.

When there is weakness and/or tightness in the quadriceps muscles, it places more strain on the knee and patella, and more force through the knee joint.

This can result in a whole range of knee problems such as Runners Knee, Patellar Tendonitis and Knee Bursitis.

Here we look at a whole range of quadriceps exercises for knee pain, each grouped into sets:

Quad Setting: Great way to get the quads firing properly
Sit To Stands: Great for functional rehab
Squats: Some great twists to make squats suitable for all
Lunges: A great challenge and functional
Step Exercises: Work those quads even harder using a step
Quads Stretches: Test if your quads are tight and learn how to stretch

Each set starts at beginners level and gets progressively more challenging.


Quad Setting Exercises


These setting exercises are brilliant quadriceps exercises for knee pain for those just starting out or in the early stages following knee surgery. The first three are done lying down, the fourth, sat in a chair.

1. Quad Sets

If you have recently had an injury or knee surgery then quads sets are the perfect place to start

Quadriceps Exercises For Knee Pain: Quads Setting. Approved use hep2go.com
  • Place a small rolled-up hand towel underneath your knee

  • Gently push the back of your knee down towards the floor, squashing the towel

  • Hold for 3 seconds and relax

2. Inner Range Quads

Place a large rolled-up towel or roller under your knee, so your knee is bent about 30o

  • Squash the back of your knee down into the towel and pull your toes towards you to clench your quads, and lift your heel up, aiming to fully straighten your leg

  • Hold for 3 seconds and slowly lower your heel, relax the foot and relax your thigh

Tips: If you want more of a bend in your knee to start with, use 2 or more towels rolled up together, a cushion or folded pillow

Progression: Use ankle weights

3. Straight Leg Raise

Keep the leg you want to work out straight and bend the other knee, foot planted

  • Squash the back of your knee into the floor, pull your toes towards you, lift your heel up and raise your leg, keeping the knee straight

  • Hold for 3 seconds then slowly lower the leg back down

Top Tips: Keep the knee straight throughout – the heel and back of the knee should touch down at the same time

4. Long Arc Quads

Quadriceps Exercises for Knee Pain: Long Arcs. Approved use www.hep2go.com

Sit on a firm chair with both feet flat on the floor

  • Slowly straighten your knee as you raise your foot upwards, aiming to get the knee fully straight

  • Hold for 3 seconds and slowly lower

Progression: Sitting in a higher chair or on a table so your foot is off the floor to start with allows you to move the leg through a greater range


Sit To Stand Quad Exercises


Standing up from sitting is a movement we do countless times a day but actually works the quadriceps muscles quite hard.

These are great functional quadriceps exercises for knee pain for anyone, just choose the level that’s right for you. Make sure you use a firm chair for these. The lower the chair, the harder these exercises will work the quads

1. Sit to Stand

Scoot towards the front of the chair, feet flat on the floor hip distance apart

Quadriceps Exercises: Sit to Stand. Approved use hep2go.com
  • Lean forward at your trunk and reach forward with your arms and rise to standing

  • Then stick your bottom backwards and slowly lower back down to the chair, bring your arms back down

To Make It Easier: use a chair with arms and push through them as you stand up

To Make It Harder: increase your speed

Test Your Progress: see how many you can do in 30 seconds or 1 minute and repeat the test once a week

2. Single Leg Sit To Stand

Exercises For Knee Pain: Single Leg Sit to Stand. Approved use hep2go.com

This quadriceps exercise for knee pain is the same action as the previous one but is performed with only one foot on the floor throughout.

Not only does this help with quadriceps strengthening, it will also help to improve your balance.

The main focus initially should be on control rather than speed.


Squatting Quad Exercises


Squats are excellent quadriceps exercises for knee pain, but if done incorrectly, they can actually make knee pain worse!

Here are my top tips for doing squats safely:

  1. Feet Hip Width Apart: Start with your feet together, turn your toes out into a “V” and then follow the movement with your heels

  2. Toes Pointing Forwards: not out to the side

  3. Weight Spread Evenly Through The Feet: Imagine a triangle underneath each foot, one point under the base of your big toe, one under the base of your little toe and the other through your heel. Gently rock backwards and forwards and come to rest taking your weight evenly through those 3 points

  4. Keep Knees Hip Width Apart Throughout: As you squat, keep your knee in-line with your second toe – don’t let it collapse inwards so it hides your big toe

  5. Don’t Come Forwards: Take you bottom backwards as you squat and don’t let your knees come in front of your toes

1. Wall Squats

Wall squats are a great place to start if you want to include squats in your quad exercises. 

Quadriceps Exercises: Wall Squats. Approved use hep2go.com
  • Stand with your back against the wall, feet hip distance apart, approx. 1ft away from the wall

  • Slowly slide down the wall, remembering to the top tips of squat technique

  • Only squat as far down as you feel comfortable and in control

  • Hold for 3-5 seconds and come back up

Progression: Gradually increase the depth of the squat and/or how long you hold it

The wall provides support and takes some of the weight off the knees making them less likely to aggravate knee problems and thus making wall squats brilliant quadriceps exercises for knee pain.

2. Standing Squats

Quadriceps Exercises for Knee Pain: Squats. Approved use hep2go.com

Stand, resting your fingers on a table or chair for balance

  • Bend your knees and push your bottom back as if you were going to sit in a chair

  • Return to standing position

Top Tips: Let most of the weight go through your heels, and push down through the heels as you come back up

Progressions: Don’t hold on to anything for support
: Increase the depth of the squat 
: Hold weights or a kettle bell as you do squats

3. Single Leg Squats

Quads Exercises: Single Leg Squats. Approved use hep2go.com

Bend one leg back behind you, holding on to a stable support for balance

  • Slowly let the standing knee bend, keeping your weight back

  • Lower down as far as feels comfortable and controlled

  • Return to starting position

Top Tips: Really think about the position of your feet, knees and hips with this one – follow the squat guidelines above

Progression: Once you can do these without your knees wobbling side to side, try not holding on to anything - fix your eyes on one spot to help with balance

4. Bulgarian Split Squats

Challenging Quadriceps Exercises for Knee Pain: Bulgarian Squats. Approved use hep2go.com

Stand on your target leg and prop your other foot behind you on a chair

  • Bend your knee and lower your body towards the floor keeping your knees behind your toes

  • Return to starting position, pushing up through your heels

Why Do These? If you are looking for really challenging quadriceps exercises for knee pain, this is a great one. The support of the chair means you can lower down to a really deep squat so you really work the quadriceps muscles


Lunge Exercises For Quadriceps


If you are progressing well with your quadriceps exercises for knee pain, then it might be time to try doing some lunges. If you are just starting out with quad exercises however, these may well be too challenging at first and may aggravate your knee pain.

The same principles apply for lunges as for squatting exercises for quadriceps so make sure to read back through the top tips before starting these.

1. Forwards Lunge

Lunging Quadriceps Exercises For Knee Pain - learn how to do lunges safely if you have a knee problem. Approved use hep2go.com

Stand with feet hip width apart

  • Take a step forwards and slightly out to the side

  • Allowing your knees to bend as you squat down

  • Return to starting position

  • Start with small dips and gradually increase the depth as able

Top Tip: Pop your hands on your hips as you do this exercise to check that you are keeping your pelvis straight rather than dipping to one side

2. Backwards Lunges

Exercises for Quadriceps: Backwards Lunges. Approved use hep2go.com

Backwards lunges are very challenging quadriceps exercises for knee pain but extremely effective. They also work your glutes and hamstrings

  • Stand with feet hip width apart and take a step backwards on to your toes, allowing your front knee to bend and letting your body squat down

  • To come back up, push up mostly from the front leg with pressure directed through the heel

Progressions: Increase the depth of the lunge
: Hold weights whilst doing the exercise

3. Deep Forwards Lunge

Quads Exercises For Knee Pain: How to do deep lunges without aggravating your knee. Approved use hep2go.com

Only do this one once you can do 20 reps on each leg of the forwards lunge with no ill-effects

  • Stand with feet hip width apart and take a large step forwards, allowing the front knee to bend

  • Let the back knee bend until it touches or comes close to the floor

  • Push off the front leg to come back up

Progression: Step the front food onto a step or box as shown to increase the depth of the dip


Stepping Quadriceps Exercises


Using a step as part of your quadriceps exercises for knee pain helps to work the thigh muscles that bit harder. Steps are also a great tool to improve control and stamina, as well as strength.

1. Side Step-Downs

Stand sideways with both feet near the edge of a step/box

  • Slowly lower one leg down off the side of the step

  • Gently touch the floor with your heel and then return to the starting position

Top Tips: Maintain proper knee alignment - knee in line with the 2nd toe and not passing in front of the toes
: If you don’t have a step, stand sideways on the bottom step of a staircase

NB These quads exercises works the leg that stays on the box

2. Forward Step Downs

Stand with both feet towards the front of a step/box

  • Slowly lower the unaffected leg down forwards off the step/box to lightly touch the heel to the floor

  • Then return to the original position with both feet on the step/box

Top Tip: It’s very easy to let the knee collapse inwards with this one so keep thinking about your knee alignment throughout

3. Quick Steps

Quick Steps Exercise for Knee Pain: Improve knee strength and endurance. Approved use hep2go.com

Stand facing a step/box

  • Quickly step up onto the step/box with one foot then the other then step quickly back down to the floor, one foot at a time

  • Make sure you are landing on the balls of your feet

Progression: Aim to gradually increase your speed

Test Yourself: check how many your can do in 30 seconds/1 minute and retest yourself every week. As your quadriceps strength and endurance improves, along with your stamina, you should be able to do more steps in the given time


Quads Stretches


Knee Stretches: How to do knee stretches as part of your quadriceps exercises for knee pain programme

Once you have started to strengthen the quads, it can also really help to stretch them.

Muscles often get tight in response to weakness and pain, but if you start to stretch them before strengthening them, you can actually make things worse.

Stretching quadriceps exercises for knee pain should be started once you feel your strength improving.

In the quads stretches section we look at some simple tests you can do to see if you do have tight quadriceps, the best ways to stretch the quads and how to get the best results for the minimum effort.


Top Tips For Quadriceps Exercises

  1. Always see you doctor before starting these quadriceps exercises for knee pain to make sure they are suitable for you

  2. Start with the first exercise in each group and once you can do 20 reps comfortably, move on to the next one – they get progressively harder!

  3. Aim to do one exercise from each section as they all work the quads in slightly different way

  4. You should feel it in the middle of the thigh, not your knee. If any of these quads exercises aggravate your knee pain, stop and switch to an easier one

  5. For standing quads exercises ensure feet are hip width apart, that your knee stays in-line with your second toe and that the knee doesn’t come in front of the toes

  6. Aim to do your quadriceps exercises for knee pain 5 times a week

Why Quadriceps Exercises For Knee Pain?

Quadriceps exercises for knee pain can make a massive difference in most cases of knee pain, particularly:

Runners Knee: Anterior knee pain caused by a problem with kneecap movement

Knee Tendonitis: Inflammation and degeneration of the knee tendons

Knee Bursitis: Inflammation of the small sacs that sit between muscles, tendons and bone

Knee Arthritis: Wear and tear of the knee cartilage and bones

Quadriceps Strain: Tears in one or more of the quadriceps muscles

What Else Can Help?

Sometimes with knee pain, there is weakness in the muscles that control how the kneecap moves, vastus medialis oblique, VMO. If you get any grating or grinding sensations in your knee, try these VMO exercises as part of you quadriceps exercises for knee pain routine.

Page Last Updated: 24th March, 2020
Next Review Due: 24th March, 2022

  1. Knee Pain Guide
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  3. Exercises
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  5. Strengthening Exs
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  7. Quads Exercises

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