How to Strengthen Knees for Rehab, Prehab, and Explosive Jumps

By on February 4, 2021

Learning how to strengthen knees should be a priority for anyone interested in functional performance. Powerful legs are key to athleticism and agility. Training the knees can lead to amazing jump height, impressive running speed, and powerful kicks.

If you’ve ever had a bad knee on the other hand (I have – I had one for more than two years), you’ll know how it can affect nearly every movement and make you feel about 20 years older.

And yet knee pain is extremely common and very misunderstood. In this post, my aim is to talk you through how to strengthen knees that are in any shape. Whether you are trying to rehab your knees and recover from injury, or build invincible knees like pneumatic pistons.

That said: if you do experience knee pain then I HIGHLY recommend that you speak to a professional first. There are countless things that could be causing knee pain and there’s no way to know what’s affecting you without having someone physically present. It could even be an infection, in which case no amount of weird squats are going to fix you.

Sissy Squat for Stronger Knees

With that out of the way… on with the weird squats!

How to Strengthen Knees to Prevent Injury

When thinking about how to strengthen knees, we must focus on the muscles surrounding the knees. That means the quads and hamstrings: the quads act on the quadriceps tendon, which connects to the patella (knee cap). The patella connects to the tibia (shin) via the patella tendon. Strengthening the quads and hamstrings is how to strengthen knees. However, it’s also important to strengthen the tendons themselves, which is a missing component in many training programs.

How to strengthen knees

Also important are the glutes and smaller, supporting muscles around the ankles and hips. These help to keep the knee straight and prevent twisting and other issues.

See also: Glute Activation – How Butt Training Makes You an Athletic Bad-Ass

Strength Endurance for Injury Prevention

One thing to keep in mind when trying to prevent injury, is that these muscles are always working. This is true of all muscles, but especially those that help us to walk. This is why muscles in the core and the legs are made up primarily from more endurance-friendly Type 1 fibers. The pecs and biceps can afford to be less energy efficient, and thus more explosive, because they aren’t constantly being utilized.

For many of the muscles surrounding the knee, your daily routine is an endurance test.

For many of the muscles surrounding the knee, your daily routine is an endurance test. Accidents can therefore happen when one of those muscles becomes fatigued, resulting in imbalances that can affect the position of the knee or the tracking of the kneecap. Therefore, to prevent injury, we need to focus on strength endurance, not just max strength.

Strengthen knees walking

Likewise, to strengthen our knees we need to counteract the negative impact of sitting for long periods and walking on flat surfaces in big shoes. All this can effectively deactivate key muscles – we “forget” how to use them when walking, running, and jumping.

See also: Batman Training: Injury Prevention and Recovery

Finally, we need to consider the years of damage that comes from running and jumping with incorrect form. This can cause inflammation in the tendons and wear away at the cartilage. While the body does have some capacity to heal cartilage (reference), it’s certainly not easy or common!

This is what we need to address if we want to know how to strengthen knees effectively.

Avoiding Imbalances

Imbalance is the key word here. One job of the hips during running, for example, is to hold the leg straight so that it can properly bend and compress at the knee on impact. Should your adductors be stronger than your abductors, your knees will cave inwards creating the “valgus” knee. This is not a strong position to be squatting or landing from a jump and it can easily cause injury. A spring can’t work properly unless it lands exactly straight.

Gluteus Medius

One of the best ways to fix this issue is by strengthening the glutes. The gluteus maximus is responsible, among other things, for external rotation of the hip. Thus, it helps to keep the legs pointing forward during a long run. The gluteus medius, meanwhile, is the prime mover when it comes to hip abduction (moving the legs apart). The gluteus minimus is likewise a hip abductor. Together with other muscles, like the tensor fasciae latae, these muscles help to keep the knee straight and hips balanced when you’re on one leg.

Running is not the problem here. JUST running is the problem.

The Iliotibial Band and Knee Pain

This can also help to prevent ITB pain. The iliotibial band originates at the crest of the pelvis above the hip and runs to the outside of the knee. It’s attached to the gluteus medius, quadriceps, and hamstrings (among others, such as the tensor fasciae latae). Problems occur when an individual spends all their time running in straight lines – strengthening these muscles in the sagittal plane – but don’t practice any side-to-side hip movement in the frontal plane.

Cossack squat to strengthen knees

Running is not the problem here. JUST running is the problem. To me, this is a great argument for being a generalist and not a specialist. Practice a single sport or form of exercise to the detriment of all others, and you’ll end up with imbalances and weaknesses. Our ancestors did not only move at once speed, in one direction.

If we want to know how to strengthen knees, we need to understand how to strengthen the hips.

The Role of the Ankles and Feet for Stronger Knees

Likewise, ankle and foot stability is another component to look at if you want to know how to strengthen your knees. Ideally, we want these three joints to be stacked so that the leg can properly absorb impact like a spring and so that the patella can track properly over the joint.

Vivobarefoot shoes

Flat feet can cause the foot to collapse inward for instance (overpronate), which tilts and rotates the tibia, thereby misaligning the joint.

Even those of us that don’t suffer from flat feet may be hampering our knee’s ability to absorb impact. Wearing shoes with big, cushioned soles might absorb impact in the short term; but by encouraging a heel strike, they also put the ankle too far forward. This means that the leg is straight with the center of gravity behind it. As such, the knee and ankle are powerless to flex and absorb the shock. Repeatedly running like this can gradually wear down the cartilage in the knees and cause other issues such as tendonitis and shin splints.

How to Strengthen the Knee

So, those are the common problems causing weak and painful knees. But what we want to know is how to strengthen knees.

First then, we kneed to reduce imbalances and strengthen the hips. The most popular way to do this is with hip abduction exercises. Lie on one side and raise the leg on top into the air. If you find this hard, there’s a good chance that hip weakness is a contributing factor for your knee pain (also look out for your waist dropping a lot when you stand on one leg).

This can be effective for reactivating the hip abductors and improving awareness of the muscle so that you use them during movement.

Hip abduction

BUT it is not a highly functional movement. When do you imagine that our ancestors would have raised their legs laterally like this? Moreover, the exercise doesn’t contribute much to hypertrophy owing to the light resistance involved. This is why I feel the exercise is really more about activation than it is building strength. As I’ve said before, hip adductor machines are probably only useful if you’re Xenia Onatopp.

Stronger Toes = Stronger Knees

Likewise, it’s possible to train the flexor digitorum longus, which flexes the four smaller toes, and the flexor hallucis longus, which does the same thing for the big toe. I made a video about this and discussed using bands, for example, or simply digging the feet into the floor. But we’ll see another way to train these muscles that is a little less time consuming.  

Foot anatomy

A great exercise for improving proprioception, mobility, and strength in all these joints is the knee circle. Stand with your hands on your knees, feet together, knees slightly bent. Now just draw circles with your knees allowing your hips and ankles to follow naturally. This teaches the joints to work together and is a great warm up to wake up the legs and get them working. The tip comes from Strength Side, which is a fantastic channel you should watch.

Effective Hip Stabilization Practices

Generally, I prefer to train the muscles as they were intended to be used. In the case of the hip muscles, that means stabilizing the legs. This will better train the movement patterns we want to learn, and it will strengthen them in a useful manner.  

If you suffer from knee pain, and you suspect weak hips are responsible, try the 100-up. This exercise is a secret weapon for how to strengthen knees and was created by Walter Goodall George. George used the technique to become an unbeatable long-distance runner. He also broke the record for the fastest mile in 1886.

Introducing: The 100-Up

The 100-up involves running or marching on the spot with high knees, bringing them up to your chest on each repetition. We’re aiming for high volume here: as the name suggests we want 100 repetitions on each side! But build up to that if it’s too much to begin with.

100-up exercise

If you’re in pain, you can perform this movement by slowly raising one foot only once the other is planted on the ground. The jogging version of the movement is the “major” and the slow stepping version is the “minor.”

You can even hold onto something for balance. As you do though, focus on keeping the hips aligned and ankle straight as much as you can. Return the foot to the same place on the ground, every time. The goal is to move with alignment throughout every rep, even as you begin to fatigue. This will also develop the hip flexors and quads.

Oh, and we want to hit the floor with the forefoot on each rep. More on that in a moment.

Walking and Running for Stronger Knees

Of course, you can also strengthen knees by walking – simply being mindful to keep everything as aligned as possible. And as you become more confident, you can do the same thing with running too.

I always recommend steady state running as a part of anyone’s regime.

This is the reason I always recommend steady state running as a part of anyone’s regime. It’s not just about strengthening the heart, lowering blood pressure, aiding recovery by encouraging circulation, and improving cardiovascular endurance – although that’s all very good stuff! The other thing about running, is that it is one of the most functional, fundamental movements there is. Running teaches you to move your legs properly, to maintain a strong core, to relax the shoulders… Even if you only run once a week, you will get these benefits and you’ll feel much stronger while also boosting your work capacity.

Running for stronger knees

Want to limit impact on the knees further? Try hill sprints! Running uphill removes the impacts that normally come from running and allow you to run much faster and harder without risking injury.

How to Strengthen Knees With Minimal Shoes

The real way to strengthen knees, though, is to use trail running in minimal shoes. These are shoes with a low heel-to-toe drop, thin sole, and wide toe box. This combination forces a forefoot stride, allowing the leg to compress under the center of gravity as it is supposed to. At the same time, the toes are able to splay and spread to contor to the shape of the ground underneath, preventing a twisted ankle. If you are running on off-road terrain, then the uneven surfaces will further train these muscles of the foot and ankle, while simultaneously encouraging more natural side-to-side movement. And don’t just run in a straight line: weave around trees and jump over small obstacles.

Trail running for knees

Again, you need to build up to this. Don’t throw on a pair and then run a marathon! But once you’re confident, you’ll be invincible. While filming a series of training videos for iFit this summer, I jogged, ran, and walked the equivalent of 54 miles (89km) over three consecutive days. That was all up hill, through woods, etc. I did it in Vivobarefoot shoes, and I would never want to try that in traditional running shoes!

I personally ONLY wear minimal shoes now, and I credit this with getting rid of my own 2-year knee pain. Simply wearing barefoot shoes throughout the day is an amazing, passive approach for how to strengthen knees.

Lateral Movement and Direction Changes

This way, we develop resilient legs without worrying about tight IT bands. We can further avoid this by incorporating exercises in the frontal plane. There’s the skater hop or agility ladder on the easier end and movements like the Cossack squat on the more advanced side.

Of course, this stuff is also fantastic for athletes as it helps with direction changes and weaving. You need to practice absorb impact as you jump to the side, or you’ll go down like a sack of potatoes playing football with your kid. ACL injuries happen most often when cutting to the side or rapidly decelerating.

Serape effect sidekick

Loaded Carries

Finally, one more tool for developing powerful hip stability and therefore rock solid knees, is the farmer’s walk. This is especially true if you use an uneven load (carry something in one hand). Now your hips need to stabilize against the weight over a long distance, building massive strength endurance.

Loaded carries

Oh, and of course we can also add any number of one-legged exercises as we become more confident. That means things like the pistol squat, step up, deep lunges (I like lunge walks), and Bulgarian split squat.

I also recommend adding some calf movements in there too, as the gastrocnemius actually contributes to knee flexion and crosses that joint. Of course, we need to use the quads, hamstrings, and calves together if we want to maximally increase jump height.

Knees Over Toes

As well as strengthening the muscles around the knee joint, we can also strengthen the tendons within the knee: the quadriceps tendon and the patella tendon. This will further reduce the risk of injury – tears and inflammation of the tendons. Moreover, this can result in enhanced performance for running and jumping as stronger tendons exert more force.

ATG split squats

To do this, we can use movements that take the knees past the toes; strengthening the joint in the full range of motion. Examples include the Bulgarian split squat, Hindu squat, and sissy squat.

Yes, the knees can pass the toes. And not just a little during a squat.

Knees pass the toes every time you go up or downstairs. They do it when you get up from a chair. Adding resistance in this position will only make them tougher. The body has remarkable ability to adapt. If you place the knee tendons under moderate stress: they respond by getting stronger.

Why Sissy Squats Are Great for Your Knees

Sissy Squats

Saying that sissy squats are bad for the knees because it puts stress on the tendon, is like saying bicep curls are bad for the biceps because they put stress on the bicep. That’s kind of the point! But likewise, if you’ve never done a curl before in your life and you try and curl 30kg, or you climb 50 meters of rope, then you’re looking at a torn bicep.

As with the bicep example, the best thing you can do is to slowly increase the amount of weight to thereby fortify the muscle-tendon-units against future injury.

Saying that sissy squats are bad for the knees because it puts stress on the tendon, is like saying bicep curls are bad for the biceps because they put stress on the bicep.

Likewise, if your knee is twisted, you can still cause injury. So, it’s a case of slowly, slowly catchy monkey. We should focus on strengthening the knee joint itself only once it is moving in a mechanically sound manner. So, if you’re experiencing pain, I recommend doing 100-ups and the walking first, along with some lateral movements like skater hops.

Knees Over Toes Guy

I can’t talk about how to strengthen knees without mentioning the “Knees Over Toes Guy” himself: Ben Patrick.

Patrick is a passionate advocate for moving the knees past the toes

Patrick is a passionate advocate for moving the knees past the toes, which he famously does with his ATG Split Squat. This is a loaded split squat where the knees come over the toes. You start with the front leg elevated but then move to full range of motion as mobility improves. The great thing about this is that it not only strengthens the knee (Patrick went from a 19” vertical to a 42”), but also enhances mobility. That’s because it’s a weighted stretch which, by the way, is also a huge benefit of the Cossack squat. I feel these two would complement each other nicely. Patrick says he can now perform scissor splits despite never training for the move!

Additional Exercises

He pairs this with seated good mornings to provide the “torso benefits” missing from the back squat, and plenty of other exercises. I’ve not done the program but I’ve watched a lot of his videos and I definitely recommend checking out his channel.  The results speak for themselves: Ben has a huge number of success stories and has helped huge numbers of people to recover from debilitating knee pain, not to mention leap high in the air.

Sandbag pull

Of course, Ben doesn’t recommend that you start with the split squat when you want to learn how to strengthen knees. Instead, he suggests that you start much lighter. The first progression is simply walking backward, which you can’t do without bending the knees over the toes. Ben suggests that you cumulatively build up to 100 miles of backward walking. Later, you can add resistance by pushing a sled, or dragging a sandbag (my favorite option).

Two that I personally recommend are Hindu squats for high repetitions and bunny hops. Hindu squats are squats performed on the balls of the feet. Do 100 of these and feel the quad burn! Bunny hops are a travelling exercise that involve bouncing along the ground with legs bent. This builds that elastic springiness that you really need for great jumping. I got this tip from Vahva Fitness, which is ANOTHER great channel.

Immersion

No matter which of these options for how to strengthen knees you choose, you’ll notice they have something in common: high repetition.

Walking with bag

Remember: the body is designed to adapt to the environment it is placed in. When you train, you’re fighting your main stimuli (your daily habits) to trigger change that you don’t technically need. This is why simply avoiding moving a painful joint is a huge mistake as you aren’t creating a need for the body to get healthy. Moving as much as you can comfortably and then gradually building on that is a far better approach.

Performing a few lateral leg raises with a resistance band each week is only going to do so much

Performing a few lateral leg raises with a resistance band each week is only going to do so much if you’ve been forming bad movement habits for years and years. Or just not moving at all. But dedicating yourself to walking 5 miles a day while being mindful of your form is a whole different story. Likewise performing 100 daily Hindu Squats. Likewise walking 100 miles backwards over time. Likewise performing 100-ups or bunny hopping to the shops.

Overcoming the Environment

You must become functional before you can become SuperFunctional!

This is immersion to the point that it becomes part of the norm. That repetition forces the brain to practice and reinforce crucial neural pathways. It builds connections between muscles via changes in the fascia. And it supplies those more-often-used muscles with increased bloodflow. That alone is why low intensity, high repetition is so effective at healing damaged tissue: it floods the area with blood, oxygen, and nutrients.

Rucking

Thus you will actually see profound changes to your physique and your motor patterns.

And it’s from here that you can begin to safely add weight, explosive movements, and challenge. THAT is how to strengthen knees. You must become functional before you can become SuperFunctional!

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. James says:

    I don’t think you’ve ever directly wrote on smoking or regular alcohol consumption so I think that they could be interesting topics. Kasum K. Kharbanda Alcohol Consumption Decreases Rat Hepatic Creatine Biosynthesis Via Altered Guanidinoacetate Methyltransferase Activity 20/11/2013 this was a study done on rats and the effect of alcohol on creatine synthesis and creatine levels, however I couldn’t find any studies on effect in humans. but I think the effects on other bodily functions and performance in humans could be a potential topic you might want to cover in the future

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