Maintain Healthy Knees with These Expert-Approved Training Tips

As one of the major load-bearing joints of the body it pays to make an effort to keep a strong pair of healthy knees. The knee is usually a leading culprit for chronic pain or acute injury in the typical lifter—even worse if you’re someone who might not be “built” for certain lifts that may be harder on the knees (like deep squats for tall lifters, which tend not to mix too well).

In the 17 years I’ve been working as a personal trainer, and the double reconstructive knee surgery I went through at age 30, it’s safe to say there’s a thing or two I’ve learned when it comes to getting or keeping a pair of healthy knees. The truth is, knees are one of those joints that we beat up and take for granted in and out of the gym.

It usually happens the same way: Our knees are fine, until one day they’re not. Getting ahead of the imminent injuries can transcend just “focusing on good technique” when training, and come down to engineering a smarter program and respecting the entire body and its role in healthy knees. Remembering the following tips can help.

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Warm Up By Working Out the Hamstrings

It’s rare for someone to complain of knee discomfort for pull-based lower-body exercises like deadlifts, compared to push-based lower body exercises like squats or lunges. Knowing this, get the knee joint lubricated and the muscles surrounding the knee active by hitting the hamstrings first in your workout – before your big squats or leg presses you have on the menu.  This sounds counterintuitive, but it’s a smart choice, even if you fatigue them slightly before the real stuff begins.

Doing three to four sets of 10-15 reps on a prone hamstring curl machine, or a few eccentric Nordic curl sets can be a game changer for how your knees perform for the balance of your leg day. Definitely a worthwhile tradeoff if it means a few pounds off your squat in the name of  uninjured , healthy knees.

Get Unilateral for Creating Healthy Knees

One of the problems contributing to knee discomfort could be the fact that you’re doing too many bilateral stance exercises, like squatting, leg pressing, and so on. If you’re disallowing the knee stabilizers like the glute medius and adductors group from truly getting their chance to be involved and strong, you’re putting a real ceiling on how stable and healthy your knees can get. Top unilateral movements to consider adding to the routine:

  • Rear-foot-elevated split squats
  • Walking lunges
  • Stepups
  • Copenhagen planks
  • Single-leg deadlifts
  • Skater squats

Healthy Knees Also Means Healthy Feet

The feet—especially the arches—can be very telling as far as their impact on knee health goes. A fallen arch makes a flat foot, and oftentimes that collapse cascades similar issues up the chain. As a result, the knees can be misaligned and cave inwards, reducing the optimal involvement of muscles of the upper leg (and leaving behind some chronic pain while at it).

Focus on creating a “tripod” with the feet during loaded movements—both single leg and bilateral in nature to help “stack” the joints the correct way. To do this, begin by creating an arch in your foot deliberately. That will come by scrunching the foot up tight, and planting the heel and ball of the foot on the ground, looking for a space under the mid foot (where the arch should be).

Next, spread the toes out wide, and grip the ground with them. What you’ve just done is known as the tripod and it’s essential to connect to the ground and produce better alignment during bigger movements. As your foot strength improves, this will become easier to establish.

If you’ve been in the habit of doing your big lifts wearing a pair of running shoes or sneakers, consider wearing minimalist shoes. They’re more appropriate for lifting.

Top 3 Exercises For Healthy Knees

Keep in mind that directly above and directly beneath the knee joint lie two joints with tremendously more available range of motion (the hip joint and the ankle joint), and in the big picture, their health and mobility are going to be a massive deciding factor in the stress, performance and load tolerance of the knee joint. Within reason, the knee only has one main role: To flex and extend. Ankles and hips, however, have the ability to rotate and pivot to create plenty of leg and foot angles.

With all that said, it’s important to ensure your ankle and hip mobility are up to par. Performing the following mobility exercises will help keep healthy knees:

1. Half-Kneeling Dorsiflexion

Aim for the knee to travel far over the toe with the heel remaining on the ground. The setup here should make for a good dynamic stretch to the inner thigh also.

2. 90/90 Hip CARs:

Aim to sit tall and avoid twisting to get the leg up and around. Make it your goal to pull the foot off the ground first, rather than the knee. This will help avoid the tendency to let the foot drag on the ground.

3. Spiderman Walks

This is more than just an ankle and hip mobilizer, as it incorporates the shoulders and thoracic spine also. But it’s a smart warmup protocol before nearly any lower body movement pattern to get prepped for using all available strength. One key tip here is to ensure the hips are pushed in toward the floor, rather than sticking the butt up and back on each rep.


Lee Boyce is a personal trainer, college professor, writer, and speaker based in Toronto, ON. He travels around the world delivering seminars and workshops helping fitness professionals improve their skills, His book Strength Training for All Body Types (co-authored with Melody Schoenfeld) is available everywhere.
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Also, visit to apply to work with him directly.

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