Regular lower body strengthening and stretching can take unwanted stressors off the knee joint, reducing pain. There are several exercises people can try.
Doing knee stretches regularly can help a person develop an increased range of motion and reduce the risk of pain and injury.
Lower body strengthening exercises may offload unwanted stressors on the knee joint by improving shock absorption through enhanced muscle strength.
This article lists eight knee stretches and exercises to try, information on their benefits, and whether it is safe to stretch with knee pain.
It also includes tips on how a person can keep their knees healthy and manage pain.
Some causes of knee pain include:
- injury, including sports
- overuse or repetitive movement
- inflammation of tendons
- rheumatoid arthritis
Knee stretches can help improve the flexibility of the muscles surrounding the knee.
These muscles include:
- front and back thigh muscles — the quadriceps and hamstrings
- inner and outer thigh muscles — the adductors and abductors
- calf muscles
Strengthening these muscles may help decrease stress on the knee joint and absorb shock.
Stretching, especially after exercising, can help increase flexibility and range of motion of the knee joint. It can also help reduce soreness and the risk of injury.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommend the following exercises to help strengthen the muscles around the knee and increase the range of motion.
The exercises may suit people after a knee injury or surgery. However, a person should talk to a healthcare provider before attempting them.
Before starting the exercises, it is crucial to warm up gently with low-impact exercises, such as walking or riding an exercise bike for 5–10 minutes.
Here are eight stretches and exercises to try, including step-by-step instructions for each. This list also includes two exercises for people who are experiencing pain in the knee due to osteoarthritis.
1. Quadriceps stretch
- Stand upright with feet flat on the floor.
- Bend the left knee and hold the ankle to pull the leg behind.
- Gently pull the ankle toward the buttocks.
- Only stretch as far as feels comfortable.
- Hold onto a wall or chair for balance, if needed.
- Hold this position for 30–60 seconds.
- Return to the starting position and repeat with the right leg.
- Try to avoid twisting or arching the back during this exercise.
- Repeat the whole exercise 2–3 times, 6-7 days a week.
2. Calf stretch
- Stand upright with feet flat on the floor and weight balanced over both feet.
- Hold onto the back of a chair or a wall for support, if needed.
- Stand on the leg with the painful knee and lift the other leg.
- Lift the heel of the standing foot off the floor, then lower the heel back down.
- Repeat 10 times, centering body weight onto the ball of the foot of the standing leg.
- Lower both feet back to the floor and then repeat for two sets of 10 repetitions, 6–7 days a week.
3. Hip abduction
- Lie on one side on the floor, keeping the leg with the painful knee on top.
- Bend the bottom leg behind for support.
- Bend the lower arm to support the head and place the hand of the upper arm on the floor in front for balance.
- Straighten the top leg and lift it upward to a 45° angle.
- Keep the knee straight without locking, and avoid rotating the leg.
- Hold in this position for 5 seconds, then slowly lower.
- Rest for 2 seconds, then repeat.
- Repeat three sets of 20 repetitions, 4–5 days a week.
- Stand with feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart.
- Rest the hands on the thighs, reach in front, or hold onto the back of a chair for balance.
- Keeping the chest lifted, bend the knees and lower the hips about 10 inches (25 centimeters).
- Keep the weight centered on the heels and avoid bending from the waist.
- Hold for 5 seconds, then push down in the heels to slowly return to starting position.
- Repeat three sets of 10-20 repetitions, 4–5 days a week.
5. Wall slide
- Stand upright against a wall with the back and buttocks pressing flat against the wall.
- Position the feet about 12 inches (30 cm) apart from each other and about 6 inches (15 cm) away from the wall.
- Gently bend the knees and lower the hips to slide down the wall.
- Bend the knees to about 45° and hold for 5 seconds.
- Gently slide back up the wall to the upright starting position.
- Repeat for 10–15 repetitions for three sets, 4-5 days/week.
Be careful not to go too fast or low when doing this exercise because this could worsen the pain.
Stop at once if there is any pain, cracking, or crunching of the kneecap
6. Lateral hip and thigh stretch
- Stand upright with feet flat on the floor.
- Cross the left leg in front of the right foot.
- Keeping both feet flat on the floor, lean to the left by bending at the waist and pushing out the right hip.
- People should be able to feel a gentle stretch in the outer right hip.
- Hold for 15–20 seconds, and repeat the whole exercise 3–5 times.
- Repeat with the opposite leg.
The Arthritis Foundation recommend the following exercises and stretches for managing osteoarthritis knee pain. These exercises might help strengthen the quadriceps, hamstrings, and buttocks to support the knee joint.
1. Standing leg slide
- Stand upright with feet flat on the floor, holding the back of a chair in front for support.
- Slide the left leg backward, keeping the toes touching the floor.
- Extend leg backward until the buttocks tighten.
- Slide the leg back to the starting position.
- Repeat with the right leg.
2. Hamstring stretch
- Sit on the edge of a chair.
- Keeping the right foot flat on the floor, stretch the left leg forward, keeping the heel on the floor and the toes pointing upward.
- Lean forward from the hips and keep the back straight to feel a stretch in the back of the left leg.
- Hold in the outstretched position for 30–60 seconds.
- Return to starting position and repeat with the right leg.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommend avoiding any exercise or activity that causes knee pain until the issue resolves.
Anyone who experiences pain in the knee when stretching should consider consulting a healthcare provider to check what stretches are safe for them.
A person can take several steps to help prevent injury and relieve knee pain.
Tips for maintaining knee health
Steps people can take to protect and maintain knee health include:
- moving about and taking regular exercise
- doing low-impact exercise, such as swimming or walking, if recovering from knee pain
- using a knee wrap or bandage for extra support
- wearing shoes that offer proper support during physical activity
- doing warm-up and cool-down stretches before and after exercise
- increasing exercise intensity gradually
Exercises to help prevent knee injuries
If a person is healthy and active, other exercises that may help prevent knee injuries include:
- running drills, such as zigzag running and changing directions
- core strength exercises, such as the plank
- other knee strengthening exercises
Relieving knee pain
To help relieve knee pain, people may find the following actions help:
- taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce swelling
- applying a warm compress, unless the knee injury is new
- following the RICE method — rest, ice, compression, and elevating the knee may benefit people in rehab for acute injuries
Knee exercises should not cause additional or worse pain.
People should stop any knee exercises and see their doctor if they experience:
- severe pain
- no improvement after a few weeks
- inability to move knee or put weight on it
- knee locks or clicks painfully, or gives way
People may need to see a physical therapist for a specialized stretching program.
Knee exercises may help strengthen the muscles that support the knee and may help increase mobility and reduce the risk of pain or injury.
People may be able to treat knee pain with home remedies. However, if someone is experiencing continued or worsening pain, they should see their doctor.
Some exercises may be suitable for certain knee conditions or injuries. However, always check with a healthcare professional to find out which stretches are safe to do.