Strenuous exercise can tear the meniscus, a layer of cartilage in the knee. Gentle exercises may help with recovery. Examples of meniscus tear exercises include mini squats, standing heel raises, and hamstring curls.

Around 61 in 100,000 people in the United States experience a torn meniscus.

Below, we look into this injury and describe nine exercises to help strengthen the knee joint and reduce stress on the 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 with several important functions. It helps:

  • distribute loads across the knee joint
  • absorb shock from walking and other activities
  • provide stability to the knee

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

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

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

Learn more about a torn meniscus.

Recovery times

Less severe meniscus tears can improve in 4–6 weeks with rest and physical therapy. Others may require surgery, and recovery can take up to 6 months.8

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 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

Quadriceps setting exercise gif

This exercise is isometric, meaning it works 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 5 seconds.
  • Perform 2 sets of 10 contractions, resting for 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. Hamstring curls

Hamstring curls exercise gif

This exercise strengthens the hamstrings —the 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 the left leg.

5. Hamstring heel slide

Hamstring heel dig exercise gif

This is another hamstring exercise that also helps build strength in the abdominal muscles.

To perform hamstring heel slides:

  • Lie on the back with both legs out straight.
  • Bend the knee and slide one heel up towards the bottom as far as comfortable.
  • Hold at the end of 5 seconds before returning to the starting position.
  • Perform two sets of 8–10 repetitions, resting for 30 seconds to 1 minute between sets.

6. Standing heel raises

Standing heel raises exercise gif

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.

7. Clams

clam exercise gif

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.

8. Leg extensions

leg extension exercise gif

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 ensure it is safe.

A torn meniscus can be painful and inconvenient.

However, certain exercises can help speed up recovery. They include standing heel raises, mini squats, and hamstring heel slides. They can also make it less likely for the injury to return.

People with a torn meniscus should discuss exercising with a doctor or physical therapist to ensure it is safe.