Top 5 exercises to strengthen the knee

This blog breaks down and discusses our top 5 favorite exercises to help strengthen the knee joint. (videos included)

As a physical therapist, I see my share of knee problems and pain. The best way to reduce your risk of knee injury is proper strength training. However, if you have knee pain, consult a physical therapist to get to the root of your issue!

Whether you deal with knee pain or not, here are our top 5 exercises to help strengthen the knee:

1. Squats

This exercise may seem basic, but it’s been around forever for a reason! It’s a great one to help strengthen the quadriceps, gluteals, and hamstrings. These muscles all help support the knee joint!

Keys to performing this movement correctly:

  • Start with feet more than hip width apart, toes pointing forward.
  • Load weight into your heels.
  • Sit weight back like you’re sitting in a chair.
  • Keep back flat and upper back tall. Note: Not everyone’s posturing. and body angle will look the same, and that’s okay!
Goblet squat is a variation of the squat, which incorporates a dumbbell or kettlebell to load the legs and strengthen the knee.

2. Lunges (and lateral lunges)

I’m counting these two exercises as one, because they are both lunges. Side lunges are important because they move the body side-to-side, out of our normal plane of movement. 

Keys to performing this movement correctly:

  • Step forward or backward with one of your legs (and to the side for side lunges).
  • Make sure you step out (or back) far enough to get knees at 90 degree angles (one leg to 90 degrees for side lunges).
  • Most of your weight should be loaded in the front heel, not back toe.
  • Alternate legs or perform all repetitions on one leg and switch legs.
Reverse dumbbell lunge is a variation of the lunge, which incorporates dumbbells to load the legs and strengthen the knee.
Dumbbell lateral lunge is a variation of the lateral (side) lunge, which incorporates dumbbells to load the legs and strengthen the knee.

3. Step-Ups

Step-ups change the plane of the body, which challenges balance, strength, and cardio.

Keys to performing this movement correctly:

  • Step up onto a box of comfortable height.
  • Drive the back knee up without letting the hip dip.
  • Hold the movement at the top with body tall and leg extended.
  • Step down slowly and avoid letting the supporting knee dive inward.
Step-ups with dumbbells is a weighted variation of the step-up. This helps strengthen the knee and challenge stability.

4. Single leg Romanian Deadlift

This may be one of the most difficult movements in our top 5 movements to strengthen the knee. I would argue it’s one of the most important to master! Single leg balance is challenged as well as single leg strength.

Keys to performing this movement correctly:

  • The upper body and traveling leg must stay on the same plane.
  • The supporting knee should not be locked, but slightly bent.
  • The goal is not to touch the ground, but remain balanced and engage the core.
  • Avoid letting the knee dive into the midline of the body.
  • The hamstrings and hips should feel it most.

5. Step-Downs

This is a sneaky good exercise for loading the knee joint. It’s sneaky because it incorporates gluteal control and stability as well as strength. This is why it is one of our top 5 exercises to strengthen the knee. But if loaded improperly, can lead to increased pressure in the front of the knee.

Keys to getting this movement correct:

  • Keep weight loaded in the heel
  • Step forward and down with the opposite leg straightened. Note: keep the supporting knee from diving in toward the center of the body
Step-downs load the muscles supporting the knee. This movement also helps with knee stability as well as strength.

Try out our top 5 exercises to strengthen the knee! Your future knee joints will thank you.