10 Quad Strengthening Exercises for Bad Knees
Page last updated: 11th April 2023
How are your quads linked to knee pain?
When it comes to knee pain, it’s easy to assume that the pain is due to a problem with the joint, but this isn’t always the case.
All the muscles in your body are interconnected so pain in one area can often be the result of other muscles not performing as well as they should be, particularly when it comes to joints like the knees.
Your quadriceps, or quads, are a large muscle group that sits around the front and sides of your thigh and plays a key part in hip flexing and knee extension. Weak or tight quads are a common cause of knee pain; these issues can prevent the muscle from being able to properly support the knee function, leading to a to a lack of stability and, potentially, greater wear and tear in the knee. And it’s not just the quads either - weakness in the hamstrings and IT band area (around your glutes and hips) can also lead to aching, sore or painful knees. In fact, the risk of osteoarthritis of the knees (a condition in which the cartilage of the joint starts to break down) is increased when quad strength is lower, particularly in women.
If you find yourself suffering with mild knee pain, rather than holding off all exercise completely, it could serve you better to work through quad (and glute and hamstring) strengthening exercises to better support the joint.
If your knee pain is extreme or has come on suddenly, consult your doctor before starting or continuing any kind of exercise routine.
10 Quad stretches and exercises for sore or weak knees
Try including some of the following exercises into your workouts to ensure you are strengthening your quads. You’ll need to increase either the weights or reps you do each week to ensure you are progressively overloading the quads, which is key to muscle growth, however, make sure to check in with your knee pain to ensure you aren’t pushing yourself too far.
Most of these exercises have the additional benefit of working your whole lower body, so you’ll be strengthening muscles like the hamstrings and glutes to further support your knees.
Plank Leg Lifts
Planks are another firm favourite for fitness lovers - while simple, planks target nearly all the muscles in your body. By including a leg lift into a plank, you can shift it to include a deeper focus on your quads.
- Start in a high plank position, with arms straight, palms planted firmly on the floor and feet around hip width apart.
- Your body should form a straight line from shoulders to feet, so keep your core engaged and make sure not to dip or raise your hips.
- Keeping your abs tight and leg straight, raise your right leg upwards off the floor to around hip height.
- Pause for a moment before gently lowering to the floor.
- Alternate legs for the required number of reps.
One of our favourite exercises here at PureGym, the humble squat is an excellent compound movement that works multiple muscle groups (particularly in your lower body), builds strength, and promotes balance. Plus it’s incredibly flexible as well, with a host of different variations to try, from the sumo squat to barbell squats. You can easily work these into your day, at the gym, work or at home (they’re a great quad-strengthening exercise to try while waiting for the kettle to boil) and work up to integrating additional weights as you progress. Here we’re describing a classic bodyweight squat, but check out our squats exercise page for more variations.
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and shoulders back
- Keeping your core engaged, bend your knees, and push your hips backwards, sinking them lower to the floor until, ideally, they’re around level or lower than your knees (start higher if you’re just beginning).
- Try not to let your knees thrust any further forward than the tips of your toes - you should feel like you’re sitting back into an invisible chair.
- Hold in this low position for a moment, but pushing through your heels, thrusting your hips forward and straightening your knees.
A close friend of the glute bridge, hip thrusts are an excellent movement for targeting the quads, glutes, and hamstrings. Again, there are a few potential hip thrust variations, but we recommend starting with just your own bodyweight, before building up strength with free weights and, eventually, barbells. Be aware of where your feet are positioned - too far forward and they’ll work your hamstrings more, too far back will focus on your quads. Ideally, you want to find the sweet spot in the middle.
- Sit on the floor with a workout bench (a sofa or bed will work if you’re at home) just behind you, your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, shoulder width apart.
- Position yourself so the edge of the bench sits just below your shoulder blades - you can rest your arms on the bench for balance if need be.
- If you’re using a free weight, position this on your hips.
- Keeping your head and shoulders steady, so you’re pivoting from just under your ribs, thrust upwards through your hips so your bottom lifts off the floor.
- Push through your heels and focus on squeezing your glutes until your body is in a straight line from knees to ribs.
- Make sure that your feet are positioned so that your knees are at 90 degrees when you’re fully extended.
- Hold for a moment before gently lowering back to the floor.
Bulgarian Split Squats
Blending a backwards lunge with squats, Bulgarian split squats are a compound movement that provide extra work for the quads, in turn helping to strengthen your knees. You’ll need a workout bench, high step, or box to place your back foot on. Start with a lower step and build this up higher as you improve your balance and strengthen your muscles. This is another movement that you can begin with just your bodyweight and integrate dumbbells or weights to make this more challenging as you progress.
- Stand with the bench or box roughly a step behind you and feet around shoulder width apart.
- Leaning your weight onto your right leg, step your left leg back so your foot is resting on the edge of the step.
- Keep your legs parallel with your hips and bend your right knee into a lunge.
- Keep your core engaged and your chest high with a neutral gaze throughout.
- Make sure the front knee is tracking over the toes in the lunge.
- Use your quads to drive up out of the split squat position and return to standing.
- Switch sides and repeat on your left leg.
Coming in all types of different styles, deadlifts are a full body compound exercise that can work both your upper and lower body. This weighted exercise can be completed with barbells, although we recommend starting with dumbbells first while you perfect your form, as performing these incorrectly can put unnecessary strain on your back. Here we’ll describe how to complete dumbbell sumo deadlifts, but check out our deadlift variations guide for advice on different options.
- Grab a pair of dumbbells at a weight you are comfortable using – you can always pick higher weights if needed!
- Holding a dumbbell in each hand with palms facing the body, stand with your feet wider than shoulder width apart and feet facing outwards slightly.
- Bend your legs and push your hips back into a wide squat position and keep your back straight as you slowly lower the dumbbells towards the ground without allowing your back to round.
- Return to standing up straight, squeezing your glutes and keeping your core tight
Lunges are another varied, functional exercise; you can pick and choose any lunge option for leg days, but walking lunges are a great way to really target your quads. Start with your own bodyweight and then start including dumbbells as you gain strength and confidence. Make sure to keep your back straight and shoulders back throughout.
- Stand upright with feet around hip width apart, with a dumbbell in each hand if you are using them.
- Step forward with the right foot and then bend both knees until they’re at a 90 degree angle with your back knee towards the floor and your front knee facing forwards, making sure not to let your front knee drive further forward than your toes.
- Stop before your lower knee hits the floor and then drive through both legs to step your left foot forwards into start position.
- Repeat with the other leg and alternate for the required number of reps.
Single Leg Lifts
Perfect for targeting your quadriceps and hip flexors, single leg lifts may seem gentle, but you’ll definitely feel them in the muscles. Single leg lifts are also perfect if you find exercises like squats or lunges place too much strain on your knees, as this exercise doesn’t require you to bend or place any weight on the knees.
- Lie on your mat, with shoulders down and hands by your side, with palms either facing upwards, or flat onto the floor if you need support.
- Bend your left leg so your foot is flat on the floor and knee is facing upwards.
- Engage your core and, keeping your right leg straight and foot flexed, raise it off the ground no higher than the opposite thigh.
- Hold for a moment, before gently lowering.
- Complete the required reps before repeating with the other leg.
The leg press machine at the gym is an ideal piece of equipment if you’re looking to strengthen your quads, glutes, and hamstrings to help beat sore knees. While squats offer a few more benefits in terms of being a functional exercise movement, the leg press is great if you struggle with your balance or want to build up weight without adding strain to your upper body.
- Sit at the leg press, making sure your back is straight and comfortable - don’t allow your back to round out.
- Set to an appropriate weight (start with just the plate to perfect your form if you’re new to these, then gradually add in extra weight).
- Place your feet on the plate hip-width apart. You’ll need to set the leg press to create a 90 degree angle at the knees.
- Push through your quads and legs until your legs are very nearly straight, making sure not to lock your knees.
- Hold for a moment before easing back to the starting position.
Another excellent piece of gym equipment, the leg extension machine almost solely targets your quads, so is a great exercise to include when trying to strengthen this muscle area. It’s a lever-style machine, with a weighted pad at around shin height in front of a seat. Make sure to move slowly and not let your knees lock.
- Sit at the machine with your legs tucked behind the weighted pad in front of you.
- It should sit around ankle-to-shin height on the front of your legs.
- Set an appropriate weight (again, start without any to check your form before gradually building up weight).
- Engage your core and keep your shoulders back and head straight.
- Focusing on your thighs, straighten your legs so you press the pad upwards.
- Hold for a moment at the top, before slowly lowering back down.
This is a full body exercise that looks and sounds easier than it is! The farmer’s carry works your quads, glutes, abs, biceps, triceps and more, making it a great way to strengthen your whole body while helping to reduce quad-related knee pain. You’ll need a pair of kettlebells or dumbbells at a heavy, but manageable weight. You don’t want to lose out on form by picking weights that are too high.
- Stand with feet hip width apart and your weights either side of you.
- Squat down to grasp each weight and, engaging your core, push back up to standing.
- Keeping an upright position, with shoulders back and eyes facing forwards, start to walk forward for the desired distance or time.
- Squat to return the weights back to the floor.
These are just a selection of excellent lower body exercises that could help to strengthen your knees. If you’d like to try these exercises out at the gym, then find your nearest PureGym and sign up today. If you're a keen runner, check out our advice on knee pain from running here.
If you need more detailed advice, the Personal Trainers at PureGym are also on hand to help you keep good form and inspire you for even more fantastic workouts. Exercising at home? Try downloading our free PureGym app - it’s filled with tips, inspiration and videos to help drive your fitness journey.