9 Knee-strengthening Moves for Osteoarthritis
Building strong muscles helps support and protect your joints—which is why strength training is important for people with knee osteoarthritis (OA). “Strength exercise is known to prevent or slow the process of arthritis,” says Soo Kim, M.D., medical director of musculoskeletal medicine at Johns Hopkins. By building muscles that stabilize and support the knee, you take stress off the joint and help keep it aligned. Plus, you boost blood flow to the area, delivering nourishing oxygen and nutrients. Talk to your doctor about fitting these nine strength moves into your treatment plan.
How to Do These Strength Moves
Keep it slow—3 seconds to lift, 3 seconds to lower, says Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at Quincy College and author of Strength Training Past 50. If using weight, use 60% to 70% of your “1-rep max”—the most you can lift one time. (So if you can lift 100 pounds once, do sets with 60 to 70 pounds.) For all moves, do 1 to 4 sets of 12 to 15 repetitions, two or three days a week. (And if it's painful? Try doing moves in the water—you’ll take pressure off the joints while providing enough resistance to build strength.)
Warm Up First!
Warming up tells your body you’re about to work out, prompting it to boost bloodflow so muscles can access more glucose, says physical therapist Janet Bezner, Ph.D., a spokeswoman in San Marcos, TX, for the American Physical Therapy Association. Increase bloodflow to the knee joint with stationary cycling, says Westcott, either on an upright or “recumbent” (lying down) stationary bike. “Begin with very easy pedaling and progress every 2 to 3 minutes to higher-effort levels,” he says. Go for 6 to 10 minutes. No bike? Walking works too, Westcott says.
Squats train the two major muscle groups surrounding your knee: quadriceps and hamstrings, says Bezner.
How to: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes straight ahead or a teeny bit out. Lower your body by pushing your hips back and bending your knees, keeping your weight in the heel and mid-foot. Go as low as you can without pain and push back up for 12 to 15 reps. If you're able, you can hold light dumbbells, says Westcott—or stand on a resistance band holding the ends so the band is taught when you’re in the “down” position. Make sure your knees don’t extend past your toes.
Don’t like squats? The leg press may be less painful, says Westcott. You can do it at home with a resistance band.
How to: Sit on the floor or on a sturdy chair—in the middle, so you can lean back a bit—and wrap the exercise band (securely!) around one foot. Holding the band’s handles, raise the foot with the band around it and straighten your leg, pushing down and forward against the resistance. Do 12 to 15 reps, and switch legs. If you have good balance and control, you can try doing both legs at the same time as shown.
Most people have weak hamstrings, says Bezner. Leg curls can strengthen them.
How to: Stand facing the back of a chair. Slowly bend one leg up toward your buttocks, about 90 degrees, then straighten it again.
Too tough? Try it lying on your stomach. Too easy? Add resistance: Secure one end of that band to a sturdy post and attach the other end around your foot.
This move, also called a knee extension, is especially good for the quadriceps, says Westcott.
How to: Sit in a sturdy chair. Secure one end of an exercise band around the chair’s leg, and the other end around your ankle. Slowly straighten the knee until your leg is straight, and return to the starting position. Do 12 to 15 repetitions with each leg. You can also do this with an ankle weight.
Strength Training: Side Leg Lift
This move works a muscle on the outside of your hip, that travels down to the knee and helps brace it, says Westcott.
How to: Stand with your feet together and your hands in front of you or on your hips, toes straight ahead or slightly out. Keeping your foot flexed, slowly lift one leg out to the side as high as you can without pain, shifting your body weight to your other leg. Lower your leg back down. Make it easier: Hold on to a sturdy chair, or try it lying on your side. Make it harder: Use that resistance band. Do 12 to 15 reps per leg.
Hip adductors are muscles in your inner thigh that attach to the inside of the knee joint. These muscles pull the legs together and work together with your hip abductors to stabilize your knee and keep it from rotating, Westcott says. You can strengthen them with side lunges.
How to: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Lift one leg and take a medium-to-big step out to the side, pushing your hips back as you lower your body and bend your opposite knee. Push yourself back up. Do 12 to 15 reps, and switch legs.
The big calf muscle, or gastrocnemius, crosses the knee joint and attaches on either side of the femur (thigh bone), says Westcott. Strengthen your calf with heel raises.
How to: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Raise your heels so you’re balancing on the balls of your feet. Lower back down. To make it harder, hold dumbbells or do the move on one leg at a time.
Weak glutes can compromise your knees’ alignment. Strengthening your glutes helps shore up your core, which benefits your entire kinetic chain, knees included, Bezner says.
How to: Simply squeeze your glutes together, says Bezner. Hold for a few seconds, release, and repeat. Also try this at-home version of a hip extension: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, hands on your hips. Slowly raise one leg behind you (keep it straight); you should feel your buttocks contract on that side. Lower your leg back down.
Like squats and leg presses, step-ups work several major muscle groups around the knee. They’re also easy to do at home—all you need is an aerobic step or a staircase.
How to: Stand in front of an aerobic step or staircase. Place one foot firmly on the step. Press your heel into the step and push your body up. Tap your other foot on the step, and then lower it back to the floor. Do 12 to 15 reps, then switch legs.