Knee pain

Too often, a set of lousy knees can get in the way of a “good performance” in the gym on leg day. I always hear the classic line, “My muscles are strong enough to lift it, but my joints can’t take it.” Even worse, egocentric behavior coupled by social pressure makes a lifter attempt to work through the pain, which is never a good idea.

In my opinion, the most common joints that get no love are the knees. They’re involved in any major lower body movement, and unlike the shoulders, they’re responsible for less range of motion, making their susceptibility to injury that much higher.

A good first step is to get a practitioner to assess the damage if your knees are in a constant state of pain. Ensure that the issue isn’t too serious. Tendonitis, Patella Femoral Syndrome, and other chronic injuries like it are definitely things that can be curbed through proper training and tissue quality methods. The choices you make in the gym on leg day will be make-or-break factors for pesky knees. And don’t worry – I’m here to help.

Rule #1: Tissue Quality Matters

Looking at the condition of the muscles that surround the knee joint is important when it comes to alleviating undue stress. Stretching can do some good, but what’s more effective is to use a dense foam roller. This won’t be the most comfortable thing to do, but pay special attention to the muscles of the quads, IT band, hips, and inner thighs when rolling. When your muscles get a chance to relax and “let go,” the knees won’t be pulled as far out of position and maintain proper tracking. Remember, if the foam rolling feels like a cakewalk, it’s time for a denser roller!

Knee pain 2

Rule #2: Know the Mechanics

The knees will take on more or less stress depending on the angle at the shin while lifting weights. The further forward the knee tracks over the toe, the more quadriceps (and by default, the more knees) you’ll hit in your exercise. Doing your best to keep your shin’s perpendicular to the ground while training the lower body is important when it comes to keeping knee pain at bay. Here are some exercises to help with that idea.

Box Squats

This movement encourages a lifter to keep the knees where they start, and “reach back” with the hips to allow for more posterior chain activity. It’s okay to lean forward slightly to facilitate the movement. If typical barbell back and front squats give you a hard time, it may be a good idea to switch to box squats.

Lunge Backwards!

For the same reasons, lunging forwards can cause unwanted knee stress. It takes an activation of the quad and hip muscles to start the motion by stepping forward, so it makes more sense to make the opposite happen. Initiate the movement by making the glutes and hamstrings start you off in a step backwards. It may be difficult to do walking lunges backwards, so instead, here’s a great exercise that will kill the glutes and quads. 

Think “Posterior Chain” Whenever Possible

This is a simple, yet effective rule for leg development. When it comes to leg training, 9 times out of 10, lifters spend too much time thinking about the quads. Even exercises that are compound in nature can have plenty of emphasis on the quads – especially if the lifter already has an existing muscle imbalance or dominance issue in favor of the quads. Posterior chain movements like deadlift variations, glute bridges, and GHRs are all great ways to hit the glutes and hamstrings to make your wheels grow, without having to put a ceiling on how much you can lift due to bum knees. Here’s my favorite PC movement. 

Knee pain 3

The Knee Friendly Leg Workout

Taking these tips and exercises to heart, here’s what it would all look like from start to finish:

Pre-workout: Foam rolling and stretching to all major leg muscle groups (quads, IT, hamstrings, hips, glutes) and mobility work – 10 minutes

A1) Box Squat – 8 reps
A2) Reverse Lunge from Deficit – 10 reps/leg

Perform 4 rounds. Rest 2 minutes between rounds.

B1) Romanian Deadlift – 10 reps
B2) Leg Press (high foot position) – 15 reps

Perform 4 rounds. Rest 2 minutes between rounds.

C) Barbell Hip Thrust – 4×12.

Rest as long as necessary between sets.