You get up out of your car, walk into work and climb your office stairs. After work, you stand in a long line at the grocery store, patiently waiting to check out. Then on the weekend, you climb aboard your bicycle and ride several miles.
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All of these activities have one thing in common: They force you to engage your quadriceps muscles, one of the key muscle groups necessary for knee function.
In fact, your quadriceps, or quads, play a vital role in nearly all of your leg movements, so it’s important to keep them strong and flexible. Having weak quads not only can diminish your knee’s function, but research shows it also may put you at risk for knee cartilage loss, the hallmark trait of knee osteoarthritis.
“The quadriceps are the primary muscles that help support the knees. If you have weakness in your quads, that can lead to a degree of instability in your knees,” says physical therapist Tim Bungo, PT, SCS.
If there’s instability in your knees, that’s likely to lead to a greater amount of wear and tear within the joint.
Improving the strength and flexibility of your quadriceps can go a long way toward boosting your knee function, but it’s important to do the right exercises in the right amounts, Bungo cautions. And be sure to focus on other muscle groups that support your knee and help you carry out your activities of daily living.
Why quad strength matters to your knees
The quadriceps are made up of four muscles on the front of your thigh. Their main function is to extend, or straighten, your knee, and they’re involved in several important tasks of daily living, such as transitioning from sitting to standing and supporting your knees while you’re standing or walking.
In a recent study, researchers performed isometric strength testing on 163 people, ages 40 to 79, and categorized them as having normal or weak quadriceps. About 12% of the participants had quadriceps weakness when the study began, and they were more likely to report higher levels of knee pain.
Over a mean follow-up period of 3.3 years, 15.5% of the participants experienced loss of knee cartilage, as viewed on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This loss of cartilage occurred in 44% of those with quadriceps weakness, compared with 11.7% of those with normal quad strength — a threefold increased risk of cartilage loss in those with quad weakness — the study authors reported.
“With the quads being the main muscles that support the knee joint, if you don’t have good muscle strength there, that can lead to further problems,” Bungo adds.
Focus on your whole knee
The quadriceps may be the body’s “natural knee brace,” as the study authors referred to them, but they’re not the only muscles that are critical for good knee function. Equally important are the hamstrings on the back of your thigh and the gluteal muscles of the buttocks. Like the quadriceps, these muscles not only help you sit and rise from a seated position, but they also enable you to complete other everyday activities. These include climbing stairs, lifting heavy objects and getting into and out of your vehicle.
Unfortunately, many people tend to focus on increasing quad strength and flexibility, at the expense of their hamstrings and gluteal muscles, Bungo says. “We see that a lot, and that creates a muscle imbalance, which can predispose you to injury. It’s important to have that balance.”
Several complications can arise from having weakness or poor flexibility in your quads, hamstrings and gluteal muscles. For instance, you might alter your gait to compensate for these deficiencies, and in doing so, you can put stress on other parts of your body, such as your hips and lower back. Plus, poor leg strength can impair your balance and increase your risk of debilitating falls.
“Balance is a combination of lower-body strength and your sense of balance,” Bungo explains. “Knee weakness, and lower-extremity weakness in general, absolutely can increase your fall risk.”
How to help your knees
Bungo recommends a four-pronged strategy to promote good knee function and help reduce wear and tear on your knees:
- Choose low-impact aerobic exercises — biking, cycling, elliptical training, swimming or walking — instead of high-impact activities, such as jogging, running or singles tennis. If you are passionate about running for exercise, consider alternating between running and performing low-impact activities throughout the week.
- Do lower-body strengthening exercises on at least two nonconsecutive days of the week, targeting the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteal muscles and calves. Avoid leg-extension exercises at the gym — leg presses and seated hamstring curls are better options, Bungo advises.
- Perform flexibility activities daily. (See below).
- Minimize high-risk activities, such as repetitive squatting, repetitive heavy lifting, or working for extended periods in a kneeling position (especially without some sort of padding).
“We’ve definitely seen lots of success stories and improvements in function. Folks are able to get back to tolerating a round of golf or being able to play tennis,” he says. “Building strength to create a more stable joint can reduce pain and improve function. You’re probably not going to see yourself get better if you’re not doing stretching or strengthening or modification of your activities.”
Stretching + strengthening exercises for your knees
Here, Bungo recommends five easy exercises to improve the strength and flexibility of your quadriceps and other muscles that support your knees:
Bad knees can put a real downer on your fitness routine. But while it may seem intuitive to rest painful knees, the better solution is actually to strengthen them with gentle movements.
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Your knee is supported by two main muscle groups: the hamstrings and the quadriceps (quad). The quad is found on the front of your thigh, while the hamstring muscles make up the back of the thigh. Injury or knee pain often occurs because the muscles supporting the knee are weak. By strengthening the muscles which brace the knee, you will have better support and stabilization for your knees. This in turn will help reduce the amount of stress positioned on the knee joint.
To strengthen your knees, you must keep your quad and hamstring muscles strong. There are several quad exercises for bad knees that you can do for this purpose.
What Is The Quad Muscle?
The quad is attached to the kneecap (patella), which, in turn connects to the shin bone (tibia). There are four distinct muscles that make up the quadriceps muscles. These muscles, on the front of your thigh, are called the vastus intermedius, the vastus medialis, the vastus lateralis and the rectus femoris.
When your quads contract they straighten the knee and extend your leg. Since they extend over the kneecap (patella) they also help to keep your kneecap in its proper position.
Quad Exercises For Bad Knees
Step-ups are good quad exercises for bad knees. They help increase power and coordination in your leg muscles.
How to do them: For this exercise, you will need an aerobic step bench or a staircase. Position yourself in front of the step and step up onto it with your right foot. Tap your left foot on the top of the step and lower it back. As you step up, your knee should be directly over your ankle. Repeat the movement with your left foot. Depending on your comfort with the exercise, you may add ankle weights.
2. Partial Squats
This multi-joint exercise will build power in your leg muscles and is a good, muscle strengthening exercise for bad knees. It targets not only your quads but also glutes and hamstring muscles.
How to do them: Stand with your back straight, your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing either straight ahead or slightly out to the sides. Slowly lower you body, pushing your hips as if you are sitting on a chair, bend your knees at a 90-degree angle if possible and keep your knees in line with your feet. Keep your abs straight and hips clenched as you return to standing position by pushing through your heels.
3. Knee Marching
This is an excellent exercise for bad knees and if you can do it standing up, it will not only strengthen your muscle but also improve stability and balance.
How to do them: Sit in a chair with your feet on the floor and march your legs up and down, one at a time. Lift up and your knee and foot, lower it down, and repeat. Try doing this for about a minute, twice a day. To keep your knee from getting stiff, you can do it any time you find yourself seated for more than twenty minutes.
If you try it standing, try to slightly propel your feet forward in a lunge and then bend. If you are new to this, it’s best not to begin with lunges.
4. Short Arcs
The quads help control the speed of movement when you extend and flex your knees. Short arcs are quad exercises for bad knees which strengthen the quad muscles without much knee movement.
How to do them: Lie flat on your back or sit up with your leg horizontal on a flat surface such as a bed. Place a rolled towel under your knee and pull your toes towards yourself as you clench your thigh muscles. Slowly lift your foot up off the bed until your knee is straight. Hold for 3-5 seconds and slowly lower. Repeat the movement 10 to 20 times daily. Repeat with your left leg.
Only do this exercise if the repeated extending and flexing don’t cause pain.
5. Isometric Quad Exercise
Another recommended exercise for bad knees is the isometric quad exercise which focuses on strengthening the muscle while it’s in a static position.
How to do them: Sit in a chair with your back straight and your head facing forward. Your thighs should be parallel to the floor and your feet flat. Hold on to the sides or the arm rests of the chair with your hands and lift your right leg up, your foot flexed till it’s parallel with the floor and tense your upper thigh muscle. Hold this position for 6 to 8 seconds and release. Repeat the movement with your right leg 8 to 10 times and then repeat with the left. You may increase the intensity of this exercise by wearing ankle weights or a resistance band.
Remember to breathe during each isometric exercise and expect for your quads to get tired. This is a strenuous work out. Steady, even breaths will make quad exercise for bad knees much easier.
6. Straight Leg Raise
This exercise for bad knees strengthens the quad muscles without bending the knee. However, refrain from doing this if you have a history of back problems.
How to do them: Sit with your back against a wall, and keep your left leg straight and your right leg bent, with your foot flat on the floor. Slowly raise your left leg up, about 12 inches off the floor, hold, and then slowly lower. Pull your toes towards yourself and keep the thigh muscles tightened, and your knee straight. Repeat the movement with your right leg. Do this 10 to 20 times daily.
What To Avoid If You Have Bad Knees
Exercises that involve excessive flexing, particularly those with weights, such as full squats or leg presses aren’t suitable exercises for bad knees. Jumping exercises or those which involve sudden stops, starts and pivots such as basketball or tennis can also be tough on the knee joint.
Walking is a good exercise for bad knees. Swimming (apart from the breast stroke) and bicycling are also good, as they aren’t too strenuous or high-impact.
It is important to remember that not all physical activities or exercises will strengthen the muscles you need to support your knee joint. So, when planning your workout, be sure to include hamstring and quad exercises for bad knees.
Consult your doctor before you start any new exercise. Your bad knee may be better or worse than the next person, and you need to choose a workout that caters to your needs.
Bands can be extremely useful to facilitate a solid posterior weight shift and safely strengthen the quads. Here are some different ways you can use them to serve your needs.
For true single leg work like one-leg squats and skater squats, attach one end of a band to a sturdy post and loop the other end behind your knee. From there, do the exercise as you normally would.
Skater Squat With Band
The band forces you to sit back to avoid being pulled forward, thereby loading the hips and taking stress off the knee at the bottom portion of the rep. As you come up, it shifts from a hip dominant movement pattern to a more quad dominant terminal knee extension (TKE), allowing you to strengthen the vastus medialis (VMO) within a more knee-friendly range of motion.
You can also do something similar to split stance work, only it’s better to attach the band to a belt rather than putting it behind your knee. Make sure to set up with a longer stride such that your tibia is perpendicular to the floor.
Split Squat With Band
The band increases the demands on the quads because you have to continually push through your toes to grip the floor and maintain stability, but it does so within safe joint ranges because it’s simultaneously driving you to sit back and maintain a vertical shin to keep from getting pulled forward.
To help groove a good bilateral squatting pattern, try cable hip belt squats.
Hip Belt Squats With Cable
The cable doesn’t drastically alter the squatting pattern but still allows you to practice free squatting while reflexively teaching you to sit. A band also works in a pinch here too.
Miho J. Tanaka, MD, is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon who specializes in the treatment of sports medicine injuries.
The quadriceps (or quads) describe the four muscles located on the front of the thigh. They contract together to help flex (or lift up) the hip and extend (or straighten) the knee.
The quads often become weak after an injury is sustained or surgery is performed on the lower leg or thigh. For this reason, it is important to learn how to strengthen this muscle group for a complete recovery. People with certain conditions often exhibit quadriceps weakness. These conditions may include:
Typically, a specific area of your quad called the vastus medialis obliqus (VMO) may be weak or inhibited from contracting properly in these conditions. Your physical therapist (PT) can show you how to perform these quad exercises with a special focus on the VMO for maximal effect.
Some quad-strengthening exercises place significant stress on your knee joint. Your physical therapist can show you ways to minimize joint stress while still strengthening your quadriceps. Be sure to check in with your healthcare provider before starting these—or any other—exercises.
Straight Leg Raises
The straight leg raising exercise is a simple way to get your quad muscles working properly. Here is how it's done.
- Lie on your back on a flat surface.
- Bend the knee of your uninvolved leg (the one that wasn't operated on, or the one you want to exercise) to a 90-degree angle and keep your foot flat on the surface. Keep your other leg straight without the knee bent and point your toes toward the ceiling.
- Slowly lift the involved leg 12 inches off the floor by contracting the front thigh muscles. Hold for five seconds.
- Slowly lower your leg to the floor. Relax, then repeat 10 to 15 times.
Things to Keep in Mind
The knee of the raised leg should remain straight throughout this exercise—totally straight. Focus on lifting by using the muscles on the front of your hip joint. This exercise can be made more challenging by placing a 2- or 3-pound cuff weight on your ankle before you lift or by placing a resistance band around both ankles.
Short Arc Quads
The short arc quad exercise is a great way to really focus in on properly contracting your quadriceps muscles. Here is how you do it:
- Lie on your back and use a yoga block or basketball to prop your knee up.
- Slowly straighten your bent knee until it is all the way straight.
- Tighten your quad muscle with your toes pointed toward the ceiling and hold it tight for five seconds.
- Slowly lower your leg down.
- Repeat for 15 repetitions.
Things to Keep in Mind
Be sure to lift and lower your leg in a slow, steady fashion and make sure the back of your knee stays against the bolster. When your knee is fully straight, try to contract your quad and straighten your knee all the way. You can also make this exercise more challenging by adding a small two- or three-pound cuff weight to your ankle.
The wall slide exercise works multiple muscle groups, including your quads, glutes, and hamstrings. Here is how you do it:
- Stand upright with your back against a wall and feet shoulder-width apart.
- Slowly bend your knees, sliding your back down the wall for a count of five until your knees are bent at a 45-degree angle. (Do not bend too much further than this, as it will cause increased strain on your knees.) Hold this position for five seconds.
- Straighten your knees by slowly sliding up the wall until you are fully upright with knees straight.
- Repeat the above steps 10 more times.
Remember, stop if you feel any increased pain or difficulty with this exercise.
Things to Keep in Mind
Be sure you lower and lift yourself in a slow, steady way. Make sure you do not squat too low; doing so may place excessive stress and strain on your knees. Squatting too low can also make it difficult to rise back up. Holding onto two dumbbells while you do the wall slide can make the exercise more challenging.
Terminal Knee Extension
Terminal knee extension (TKE) is a simple yet effective way to strengthen your quads in a standing position. The TKE is considered a functional exercise, as your quads will be working while supporting your body weight.
To perform this exercise, you must first obtain a resistance band, like a Theraband, from your physical therapist. Once you have a band, you should be ready to start the exercise. Here's how you do it:
- Tie your resistance band around a stable object so it is anchored around the height of your knee. (The leg of a heavy table is a good place, but make sure it will not move.)
- Step into the loop with the leg you wish to exercise.
- Face the anchor point with the resistance band looped around your knee and your knee slightly bent.
- Slowly straighten your knee, placing tension on the band. The resistance band should provide some resistance as you try to fully straighten your knee.
- Once your knee is straight and the band has tension on it, hold the position for three seconds.
- Slowly allow your knee to bend slightly once again.
- Repeat the exercise for 15 repetitions.
How to Do the TKE Like a Pro
When performing the TKE exercise, be sure to move in a slow and steady fashion. Be sure your knee moves directly over your toes; it should not deviate from the plane of motion over your toes. Doing so can place excessive strain on your knee.
You can make the TKE more challenging by placing a small foam pad underneath your stance foot. You can also make this a balance exercise by doing it while standing only on one foot.
A Word From Verywell
Working to keep your quadriceps strong can help you maximize mobility and may decrease your risk of overuse injury in sports. Check in with your PT to learn which quad exercises you should be doing.
Quadriceps stretches typically involve bending the working leg and drawing the working foot toward the buttocks. While standard quad stretches are highly effective, bending the leg in such an extreme manner can lead to significant discomfort in the knee. If you have limited range of motion in your knees or experience knee pain with standard bent-knee stretches, use an alternate exercise to lengthen and loosen your quads.
The quadriceps — a group of four muscles located in front of your thigh – control knee extension. One of those muscles, the rectus femoris, connects at the hip and assists with hip flexion. The quads can tighten and shorten from overuse or as a result of sitting for long periods of time. If you’re an athlete, tight quads can hinder your performance and leave you susceptible to various sports-related injuries, including quadriceps strain and patellofemoral pain, or runner’s knee.
Stretching when your quads are already warm helps prevent injury and can lead to a deeper, more effective stretch. Ideally, you should stretch after a general physical workout when your thigh muscles are already warm and supple. Alternatively, walk briskly for 10 minutes to raise your core body temperature and increase blood flow to your leg muscles. Complete a series of 10 to 15 low-intensity dynamic leg swings to the front and back to further warm up your quads and loosen up your hips.
Bob Anderson, author of “Stretching,” recommends a quad stretch that requires no bending of the knees. Extend your right leg behind you and place the foot on an elevated surface, such as a bed, desk or table. Keep your torso upright and align your left hip over your left heel. Direct your hips and the toes of your left foot forward. Tighten your gluteal muscles and imagine extending the top of your right leg forward through the front of your hip. You should feel light tension along your right hip and quads. You’re stretching the rectus femoris specifically, so the stretch might feel different than a bent-knee stretch that targets the entire quad group. Hold the stretch for up to 30 seconds, and then repeat on the left.
Tips and Warning
If you have trouble balancing, grasp a nearby chair or wall for light support. Stretch slowly, gradually moving into and out of the stretch position. Breathing throughout the exercise can help you achieve a deeper, more effective stretch, so inhale and exhale deeply and at regular intervals. Avoid bouncing or jerking, which can lead to further tightening of muscles, and minimize movement elsewhere in your body. If you can bend your standing knee slightly, do so if you wish to increase the intensity of the stretch.
- American Council on Exercise: Side-Lying Quadriceps Stretch
- Stretching: 30th Anniversary Edition; Bob Anderson
- ExRx.net: Quadriceps
- Mayo Clinic: Stretching — Focus on Flexibility
Judy Fisk has been writing professionally since 2011, specializing in fitness, recreation, culture and the arts. A certified fitness instructor with decades of dance training, she has taught older adults, teens and kids. She has written educational and fundraising material for several non-profit organizations and her work has appeared in numerous major online publications. Fisk holds a Bachelor of Arts in public and international affairs from Princeton University.
I got a nice hotel room overlooking a baseball stadium in San Diego. Each night, there’s a baseball game, and I find it so cool to work in the room with the window open and listen to the sounds of the game going on.
Today, I will be answering one of the most common questions that my clients ask me is, “Is there a way that I can stretch my quads without hurting my knee?”
These are the four knee-friendly quad stretches that you can do.
Enjoy the exercises!
CLICK HERE to watch the YouTube video.
I got Andrea to demonstrate the stretches.
Traditional Quad Stretch
Stand tall and look straight ahead. Keep your hands on something stable and firm for balance like a chair or a wall so that you can focus on the stretch. Bring your heel toward the seat.
Traditional Quad Stretch
A lot of people can’t handle this position due to it putting too much pressure on their knees.
I will demonstrate some tweaks that you can do to eliminate knee pain and get the benefits from this traditional quad stretch exercise. The first two modifications may require loop tubing. However, feel free to use a skipping rope, towel or anything handy to keep you in position .
# 1 – Light Quad Stretch
Using the loop tubing or rope, perform a quad stretch. You can decrease the pressure on the knees by bringing the heel further up instead of pulling the heel straight toward the chair.
Light Quad Stretch
Perform one set of 2 reps, alternating back and forth with a good stop at the end position for 20 seconds and light intensity .
# 2 – 90-degree Quad Stretch
Again, using the loop tubing or rope, straighten your legs to form 90 degrees at the hip and knee. Bring your heel back as if you are kicking something with your heel and that brings your knee past the hip. You will feel a good quad and hip flexor stretch without any knee pain or knee stress.
90-degree Quad Stretch
Perform one set of 2 reps alternating back and forth with a good stop at the end for 20 seconds and light intensity .
# 3 – Standing Hip Flexor Stretch
Most people with knee pain can’t handle the bend in the legs while performing a hip flexor stretch. They may also feel some pressure on their quadriceps and the hip area. So, we’ll lessen the pain by performing a standing hip flexor stretch instead of a kneeling one.
Take a half step forward and a half step back. Keep your front leg flat and then bend your front knee slightly on the ball of your foot. Keep your abdominal area and glutes tight and bring your hips forward.
Standing Hip Flexor Stretch
Perform one set of 2 reps alternating back and forth with a good stop at the end for 20 seconds and light intensity .
# 4 – Standing Hip Flexor Stretch With Hands Overhead
To intensify the standing hip flexor stretch position, bring your arms overhead and lean back a little bit. This elongates your body as you increase your lever and allows you to get a stronger stretch in the quad and the hip flexor areas.
Standing Hip Flexor Stretch With Hands Overhead
Perform one set of 2 reps alternating back and forth with a good stop at the end position for 20 seconds and light intensity.
I highly recommend doing alternating reps for the above exercises. This allows both knees to get the most benefits from this routine. If only one knee hurts, the other side goes through the stretches as a preventative measure. This gives that painful side a bit of a break on the exercises, eliminating any unnecessary or excess stress in your knee.
If you want to eliminate your knee discomfort once and for all, then check out the Knee Pain Solved program here.
Hey, this is one of the quick videos I posted on the Exercises For Injuries fan page.
Today, I wanted to show you two effective exercises that you can do to stretch your quads and focus on the hips when experiencing knee pain.
CLICK HERE to watch the YouTube video.
I got Jenna to demonstrate the stretches.
Most people with knee pain usually can’t do traditional knee stretches. The best way to avoid irritating the knee and still get the benefit of the exercise is to do a standing hip flexor stretch.
Take a big step forward with one foot and step back with the other foot. Keep your front foot flat and slightly bend the knee. Keep the abdominal area and glutes tight and bring your hips forward.
Standing Hip Flexor Stretch
Perform one set with 2 reps on each leg alternating back and forth, with a good stop at the end for 20 seconds. The intensity is light for this exercise.
Lie on your side with your hips stacked. Bend your knee to a 90-degree angle. Use your glutes and hamstrings to bring the knee back. You’ll feel the stretch in the hip, thighs and quads. If you can’t bend the knee to 90 degrees, you can reduce the angle to 30 or 45 degrees.
Perform one set with 2 reps, with a good stop at the end for 20 seconds. The intensity is light for this exercise. I recommend doing it on alternate sides instead of doing 2 reps on the same side.
Give these two quad stretches a go to help reduce or eliminate your knee pain.
If you are suffering from any kind of knee discomfort and want to eliminate knee soreness permanently, then click here to check out the Knee Pain Solved program!
Most knee pain can be attributed to damage to the ligaments and tendons which connect to the knee joint, notes MayoClinic.com. While conditions such as knee bursitis and meniscus tears require rest and surgery, strengthening the quadriceps, hamstrings and buttocks can often help reduce knee pain with respect minor and chronic knee injuries. Consult a doctor or physical therapist prior to engaging in exercises for knee pain.
This leg lift exercise helps you strengthen your quads, reducing stress on your knee joints. Lie down flat on your back with your legs extended and your arms at your sides. Bend your left knee until it creates a 90-degree angle with the ground. With your left foot fat and right leg still extended, lift your right leg off the ground until your right leg is even with your left knee. Hold for three seconds before returning your leg to the ground. Repeat with your left leg.
- This leg lift exercise helps you strengthen your quads, reducing stress on your knee joints.
- Bend your left knee until it creates a 90-degree angle with the ground.
Causes of Bilateral Lower Leg Pain
This quadricep exercise strengthens your quads and stretches out the ligaments that attach to your knee. Stand directly in front of a wall with your feet flat on the floor and knees hip-width apart. From here, rest your back directly on the wall, bending at the knees until your knees for a 90-degree angle with the ground. With both of your hands resting on your quads, hold this position for five to 10 seconds before sliding up to your original position. Repeat until fatigued.
- This quadricep exercise strengthens your quads and stretches out the ligaments that attach to your knee.
- From here, rest your back directly on the wall, bending at the knees until your knees for a 90-degree angle with the ground.
This step-up exercise strengthens both your quadriceps and hamstrings. Stand in front of a 6-inch-high step or stool with your knees slightly bent. Step up onto the stool with your right foot, allowing your left foot to hang off the back of the stool. Hold this position with your right foot for a count of three to five seconds while slowly returning your left foot to the floor. Once your left foot hits the floor, bring your right foot back down. Rotate legs and repeat until fatigued.