Strenuous exercise can tear the meniscus, a layer of cartilage in the knee — and certain gentle exercises may help with recovery.

Meniscus tears are fairly common; research suggests that around 61 in 100,000 people in the United States have this health issue.

Below, we look into this injury and describe nine exercises that may help strengthen and rebuild a torn meniscus. Be sure to consult a doctor before trying them.

Person outside exercising holding their knee because of meniscus tearShare on Pinterest
Image credit: Kittima Krammart / EyeEm/Getty Images

The meniscus is a layer of cartilage in the knee that has several important functions. It helps:

  • the knee joint fit together correctly
  • absorb shock from walking and other activities
  • provide stability to the knee

A tear can occur due to too much strain, sometimes as a result of exercise. Common symptoms include:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • clicking
  • catching
  • locking
  • weakness

This injury is more common among military personnel on active duty and other people who are very active. The risk is generally higher among males over 40 years old.

Recovery times

Less severe meniscus tears can take 4–8 weeks to heal. Others may require surgery and take as long as 6 months.

For people with less severe tears, doctors may recommend gentle exercises.

It is normal for these exercises to cause a little discomfort. If any exercise causes pain, however, stop doing it.

1. Mini squats

Mini squats can help strengthen the quadriceps, large muscles at the front of the thigh, without putting too much pressure on the knees.

To perform mini squats:

  • Stand with the back, shoulders, and head against a wall.
  • The feet should be shoulder-width apart and about 1 foot away from the wall.
  • Slightly bend the knees, bringing the buttocks toward the ground.
  • At around 15 degrees of the bend, stop.
  • Hold the position for 10 seconds, then slowly bring the body back up to the starting position, keeping the back and shoulders against the wall.
  • Perform 2 sets of 8–10 repetitions. Rest for between 30 seconds and 1 minute between the sets.

Keeping the back and shoulders against the wall is key, as it reduces stress on the knees.

2. Quadriceps setting

This is isometric, meaning that it exercises the muscles by keeping the body in a static position.

To perform the quadriceps setting:

  • Sit or lie flat on the ground, with the legs extended away from the body.
  • Contract the quadriceps, using them to push the backs of the knees toward the floor.
  • Hold this position for 10–20 seconds.
  • Perform 2 sets of 10 contractions, resting for between 30 seconds to 1 minute between sets.

3. Straight leg raise

This exercise stretches the hamstrings and strengthens the quadriceps.

To perform straight leg raises:

  • Lie on the floor with the left foot flat and the right leg extended.
  • Keeping the back and pelvis in a neutral position, flex the right foot and tighten the right thigh muscles, slowly lifting the right leg off the floor.
  • After lifting the right leg to around 45 degrees, slowly lower it back to the floor.
  • Perform 2 sets of 10 repetitions before switching to the left leg.

4. Prone hang

This exercise works to increase the knee’s range of motion.

To perform the prone hang:

  • Lie facedown on a bed, with the legs extended over the edge.
  • Let gravity slowly pull the left knee down until it is fully extended.
  • Hold this position for 15–30 seconds, before bringing the left knee back up.
  • Repeat this three times, then do the same for the right knee.

5. Hamstring curls

This exercise strengthens the hamstrings, which are muscles at the backs of the thighs.

To perform hamstring curls:

  • Lie on the stomach, keeping the legs straight.
  • Slowly bend the right knee, lifting the right foot toward the buttocks.
  • Slowly lower the right foot.
  • Perform 2 sets of 8–10 repetitions, resting for around 30 seconds.
  • Repeat this with left leg.

6. Hamstring heel digs

This is another hamstring exercise, and it can help build strength in the abdominal muscles.

To perform hamstring heel digs:

  • Lie on the back, with the knees bent and the feet flat on the floor.
  • Flex the feet so that only the heels touch the floor.
  • Dig the heels into the ground, slowly sliding them about 5 inches from the body.
  • Slide the heels back, returning to the starting position.
  • Perform 2 sets of 8–10 repetitions, resting for between 30 seconds to 1 minute between sets.

7. Standing heel raises

This exercise is good for building strength in the calf muscles.

To perform standing heel raises:

  • Stand with the feet hip-width apart, with the hands resting on a heavy, solid piece of furniture for support.
  • Slowly lift the heels off the floor as far as is comfortable.
  • Pause in this position, then slowly lower the heels to the floor.
  • Perform 3 sets of 8–10 repetitions, resting for 30 seconds to 1 minute between sets.

8. Clams

This exercise works many different muscles, including the hip abductors and the muscles of the buttocks.

To perform clams:

  • Lie on the left side, keeping the hips and feet aligned at all times.
  • Bend the knees 45 degrees, and slowly raise the top knee as high as possible without moving the lower back or pelvis.
  • Slowly lower the top knee to its starting position.
  • Perform 2 sets of 8–10 repetitions, resting for around 1 minute between sets.
  • Repeat on the right side.

9. Leg extensions

Leg extension exercises build strength in the thighs. A person can safely perform them multiple times a day.

To perform leg extensions:

  • Sit on a chair or bench with the feet flat on the floor.
  • Flex the right foot then lift it, straightening the right leg.
  • Slowly lower the right foot to the starting position.
  • Repeat this 10 times, then do the same with the left leg.

Some exercises are too strenuous for people with meniscus tears. A person should not:

  • do deep squats
  • do any exercise that involves pivoting or that otherwise twists the knee
  • use free weights to make any of the above exercises harder

Anyone with symptoms of a torn meniscus should seek the advice of a doctor, especially if the symptoms do not improve.

Only begin gentle exercises, such as those above, after consulting a doctor to make sure that it is safe.

A torn meniscus can be painful and inconvenient.

However, certain exercises can help speed up the recovery process. They can also make it less likely for the injury to return.