In any given year, 1 out of every 5 people experiences knee pain. And if you have osteoarthritis in your knee, there’s a 60% likelihood that you’ll experience knee instability in your basic daily activities.
Knee pain is such a common complaint because it affects all kinds of patients: old, young, athletic, sedentary, and everyone in between. Many times knee pain results from high-impact activities such as running or jumping, but you might also feel it from climbing stairs or getting up and down from a chair.
Besides knee pain, some patients report knee instability, as if their knee might “give out” at times. An unstable knee can lead to a household fall and potential injury, so it’s no surprise that these patients feel apprehensive performing daily activities.
Improving knee strength and stability takes time, using carefully progressive exercises. Go slowly, listen to your body, and consult your physician or physical therapist if your knee pain persists.
Whether your goal is to eliminate knee pain or stabilize your knee, try these three exercises for knee stabilization.
3 Exercises for Knee Pain
Each of these exercises can be modified – made easier or harder. If you tend to lose your balance or need more support, keep a sturdy chair or countertop nearby. As you gain strength, you can progress to more challenging exercises by using a resistance band or standing on an uneven surface. With each exercise, I’ll point out ways to modify!
1. Single-leg Stance
This first exercise is one of my go-tos for all kinds of stability issues. It’s easy to modify or progress, and the concept is simple: stand on one leg!
When you perform a single-leg stance, think about tightening your entire leg, including your glute muscles. Your hips should stay level and your trunk upright – don’t lean forward or to the side.
Hold for 5 to 10 seconds, then switch legs.
To make it harder:
Standing on one leg is considerably more challenging on an uneven surface, such as a balance pad or yoga mat.
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To advance the movement further, try including some toe taps. With your elevated foot, tap the ground in front of you, behind you, and beside you. As you alternate these three directions, focus on maintaining a level pelvis and trunk.
Perform 10 to 12 taps on each leg 3 times a day.
If you’ve ever felt your knee buckle while walking down the stairs, these next two exercises are really important!
2. Banded Squat Progression
Maybe the feelings aren’t mutual, but when it comes to knee stability the basic squat is your friend. You perform a squat any time you get up from a chair or use the bathroom, and it’s the backbone of countless sports activities as well.
By adding some careful squats to your workout routine, you’ll strengthen the muscles that support the knee. The keyword here is “careful,” because poorly-performed squats might actually worsen your knee pain.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and make sure your heels, knees, and hips are all in line. Slowly lower yourself to a chair level and stand back up without using your hands for support. As you lower and rise, watch that your knees don’t buckle inward! If you’re worried about your knee giving out, squat over a chair.
Perform 3 sets of 10 squats.
To make it harder:
Unless a basic squat is strenuous enough, a resistance band will help you get the most out of this exercise. I recommend using one of these bands from my fellow PT buddies Bob & Brad.
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Place the band around your legs, either above or below the knee (below is harder!) In order to keep the band in place as you squat, you’ll have to engage your lateral hip stabilizers. These muscles play a huge role in leg movement and can make a big difference on your knee pain or instability.
Perform 3 sets of 10 banded squats.
Bonus: If you’re feeling up to it, add heel raises in between sets, totaling 3 sets of squats and 3 sets of heel raises. To perform a heel raise, simply rise onto the balls of your feet while standing upright. This simple exercise will help strengthen your calf muscles and improve circulation throughout the entire leg.
3. Lateral Stepping Pattern
Lateral stepping or “side-stepping” will engage your leg muscles while challenging your balance. The key is to perform this exercise both ways so that you work both sides of your body.
Start standing, with your knees slightly bent and shoulder-width apart. Step one leg out to the side without turning or collapsing your knee, then follow with the other leg to complete one step. If you’re worried about stability, sidestep alongside a counter, couch, or sturdy table.
Perform 4-5 steps in one direction, then reverse the direction for 4-5 steps. Repeat this set 3 times.
To make it harder:
When you’re ready to advance this exercise, grab your resistance band and place it over your knees as before. Watch your squat technique, and let the band remind you to keep your knees straight as you creep-crawl side to side.
Bonus: In case you didn’t get enough of your friend the squat, you can add a few banded squats to the end of each lateral stepping pattern.
Other Techniques for Knee Pain
Each of these three, simple exercises will help you strengthen the muscles of your legs and improve your stability. But don’t forget to add some stretches to your workout so you can expand the range of motion in your hips and knees.
I also rely on soft tissue mobilization or massage techniques in between workouts to help muscle recovery and reduce knee pain. A massage gun is the perfect tool for this purpose, and you can read more about how to use one here.
But no matter your goals in combating knee pain or instability, the name of the game is consistency. Keep making progress towards your goals every day, and I guarantee you’ll be successful!