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Effective Exercises for Stiff Knees

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT October 26, 2021 0 Comments

man with stiff knee

Stiff knees are common with any sort of knee injuries or natural aging and it’s important to know how to effectively manage this type of issue. With a well-curated exercise program, stiff knees can be a thing of the past, or at least pose less of a strain on your normal routine. Keep reading to learn more about the right exercises for stiff knees. 

Try These Exercises for Stiff Knees

Whether your knee stiffness is from an injury to a meniscus, ligament, rheumatoid arthritis, knee osteoarthritis, or other common causes, an effective home exercise program for your stiff or painful knees should include a mix of modalities Including stretching, strengthening, and general full-body movements.

Don’t forget to pair exercises with conservative treatments for the best results.

1. Seated Hamstring Stretch

Tight or stiff hamstrings can make it hard to properly straighten the knee with standing or walking. Try this stretch after a prolonged period of sitting or lying down.

  • Sit on the edge of your bed or a chair
  • Put the leg you want to stretch straight out in front of you with the heel propped so that your toes are free and pointing up toward the ceiling
  • Bend forward at your hips and bring your chest toward your thighs as you keep your leg in place
  • Continue shifting until you feel a stretch in the back of the leg
  • Hold for 30+ seconds for 2-3 sets on each leg
  • If you don’t prefer this stretch, you can also try a hamstring stretch on your back with a stretch strap or in standing while bending forward

2. Quad Stretch in Prone

In addition to the hamstrings, the quadriceps muscles on the front of the thigh can often get tight. Tight quads can make it feel impossible to bend the knee comfortably and affect proper tracking of the kneecap. Stretching these muscles daily can help.

  • Lie on your stomach with a stretch strap
  • Wrap the strap around the foot of the leg you want to stretch
  • Keep your entire body relaxed and touching the ground, except for slightly tightening the abs to keep the low back from arching
  • With your hands, pull your heel toward your butt as you bend the knee
  • Continue pulling until a strong stretch is felt in the front of the thigh
  • Hold for 30+ seconds for 2-3 sets on each leg
  • If you are having a hard time tolerating this position, you can stand and bring one heel toward your butt with your hand or try a standing/kneeling lunge

3. Knee Range of Motion

Gentle daily knee range of motion is one of the best ways to promote better joint movement and reduce the effects of stiffness. Losing knee range of motion due to lack of stretching or regular activity can exacerbate your discomfort and any pain you're experiencing. Knee range of motion can help combat this and promote optimal knee joint health.

  • Lie on your back in a comfortable position
  • Grab a towel or wear socks so that you can easily slide your feet on the ground (if you’re on a soft surface you might need a grocery bag or piece of plastic under your foot)
  • Keep your heel on the ground as you slide it up toward your butt as far as you can
  • Bend the knee as far as you can without pain and hold for up to 5 seconds
  • Return your heel to the starting position and get your knee as straight as possible for up to 5 seconds
  • Alternate between bending and straightening as far as possible for 10-15 repetitions
  • Repeat for 2-3 sets on each leg
  • For an extra stretch, when your knee is bent or if you need some extra help due to leg weakness, you can also use a stretch strap to guide your movement up and down
  • If you are having trouble tolerating this position, you can also do basic knee range of motion movement in sitting as well

4. Seated Knee Exercise

If your knee stiffness is limiting what you can tolerate for exercise, completing strengthening exercises for your legs in sitting is a great option. Additionally, if you spend a lot of time sitting due to your work or recreation, you can also do sitting exercises while multitasking. Below are a few examples of what you can do:

  • Long arc quad- simply sit and alternate between straightening and bending the knee
  • Marching- alternate lifting your feet off the ground to march in place
  • Hip abduction- place your hands or a resistance band on the outside of your thighs and push outward against them 
  • Hip adduction- squeeze a ball or pillow between your legs
  • Heel slides- throw a towel under one of your feet and bend it under your chair as far as possible
  • And more! For other examples- look here:

5. Walking

Exercise for stiff knees doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, any type of regular movement (that doesn’t aggravate your symptoms, of course) is great for knee health and reducing stiffness. Walking is one of the easiest ways to get moving, promote circulation, and keep the legs strong and balanced.

  • Pick a time of day and area (walking track, treadmill, neighborhood, etc) that you can walk safely
  • Put on appropriate clothing and supportive shoes
  • Choose a distance, time and/or pace that you can tolerate without making your symptoms worse
  • If you are new to walking, start small and progress as tolerated
  • Keep up with your walking program consistently, ideally at least two times per week

6. Swimming

Low impact exercise for stiff and painful knees can help you tolerate movement without making your symptoms worse. It can be tempting to avoid exercise because of stiff knees, however, it’s most important to find activities that you can tolerate. This is because one of the best things you can do for your knees is to keep them strong and active. There are a few different ways that you can utilize a pool to your advantage:

  • Lap swimming
  • Water aerobics (guided or on your own)
  • Water jogging
  • Leg-specific exercises in the shallow end or with the use of a flotation device, such as leg kicks, knee range of motion, squats, etc.

7. Stationary cardio

Use of cardio equipment at your local gym or in the comfort of your own home is another great way to stay consistently active. Since there are many low-impact options for stationary cardio equipment, it can be ideal for managing knee stiffness and pain too. Options include the following (listed from least impactful to most):

Each option is viable as long as your knees can tolerate it. What’s most important is to choose a piece of equipment that keeps you motivated and engaged so that you can exercise consistently.

8. Functional Activities

It is most important for the knees to keep doing the activities that are important for living daily life and keep you doing what you love. Remember it’s crucial to focus on form and modify anything that causes pain or exacerbates your knee stiffness. Some of the top options for functional movement include the following:

  • Mini Squats
  • Mini Lunges
  • Single-Leg Balance
  • Marching 
  • Step-Ups
  • Heel Raises
  • Side Stepping

How Exercise Loosens Stiff Knees

Exercising can seem counterintuitive when you’re feeling stiff and sore. Yet, the right exercises in the right doses can do wonders for loosening up stiff areas. Below are just a few of the reasons that exercise is beneficial for stiff knees:

  • Keep the cartilage of the knee joints lubricated to reduce wear
  • Promote functional knee range of motion (flexion and extension)
  • Increased circulation to promote healing and tissue extensibility
  • Release of endorphins for natural pain relief
  • Improved tolerance for daily activity
  • Weight management to reduce strain on the knees
  • And more!

Exercise Tips for Knee Pain

As you start or continue an exercise program for your knees, there are ways to maximize your outcomes. Keep the following tips in the mind:

  • Having a hard time tolerating exercise? Try seated workouts or jump in a pool to get your muscles working without the strain of weight-bearing

  • Use conservative treatment options alongside your exercise program for joint pain relief and tissue health; including over-the-counter pain medication like ibuprofen or naproxen, temperature therapy ( ice pack or heat), electrical stimulation, and foam rolling.

    More Conservative Treatments

  • Warm-up and stretch your knees before and after your strengthening exercises

  • Support the knee with more strenuous activities that might cause you pain and stiffness, with options like a knee brace or compression sleeve

    See Knee Support Options

  • Avoid overuse of the knees that can lead to strain, such as repetitive stairs, squats, jumping, or other straining high impact moves

  • Change positions frequently to avoid excessive stiffness, particularly a long period of sitting; try to get up and move or stretch from a stagnant position every hour for at least 5 minutes

  • Struggling with your exercises and not sure if you’re doing them correctly? Consider physical therapy to maximize your results with a personalized treatment plan, particularly if you’re dealing with an injury or knee osteoarthritis

Get Rid of Stiff Knees

While joint stiffness of the knees is quite common, you don’t have to settle for living with constant tightness in your joints. Taking the time to give your knees what they need with a little movement can slowly change the way your knees function and feel. As you have now learned, exercises for knee stiffness don’t have to be complicated, just consistent. If your knee stiffness is affecting your quality of life, it’s time to try some exercise and other home treatment modalities.

If that exercise doesn’t seem to be helping, then it’s definitely time to talk to your orthopedic doctor, physical therapist, or another healthcare provider for further medical advice. They may need to order an x-ray or other tests to rule out more serious issues like a fracture or autoimmune disease.


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Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.

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