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Best Exercises for After a Knee Sprain

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT October 07, 2020 0 Comments

after knee sprain exercise

Your level of mobility following a knee sprain will depend on the ligaments affected and the severity of your symptoms. Gentle sprained knee exercises are often initiated quickly after a knee sprain to preserve flexibility and range of motion. This helps with the recovery process to maximize knee function as you heal. Keep reading to learn more about safe exercises for after a knee sprain.

Safe Knee Stretches

Stretching the knee will help address stiff and sore muscles while also improving your tolerance for full knee range of motion. When stretching, go until there is slight discomfort and then stop to prevent excessive pain or aggravation. 

Knee Rotation Stretch

Grab a wooden balance disc or simply wear some socks on a hard surface so that you can easily slide your foot. The movement you will be completing is a very subtle rotation of the knee. Keep the top of your thigh facing the ceiling and bottom of the foot parallel with the floor as you rotate your toes and shin bone back and forth in a small rotation motion. Watch for compensatory moves like tilting of the ankle or rotation of the hip.

Repeat 10-15 times for up to 3 sets. This move should start very small and you may gain a little more range with time.

Heel Slides

Lie on your back with the leg you’re about to stretch out straight on the floor. The opposite leg can be bent for comfort. Then, bend your knee as you slide your heel up toward your butt. Continue sliding until you feel a stretch in the knee and hold for up to 5 seconds. Make sure your knee cap is always pointing up toward the ceiling. You can grab a stretching strap to support your foot or get a little extra stretch too.

Repeat 15-20 times for 2-3 sets.

Knee Extension Stretch 

Sit on a chair with a bolster, ottoman, or other chair facing you. Prop your heel or calf up on the bolster and then relax. Let the knee straighten down toward the floor while keeping the knee cap pointing up toward the ceiling. Alternatively, you can long sit on the floor and complete this stretch with a pillow under the heel.

Hold for 1+ minutes 2-3 times. Do not force the stretch if it is painful. For a stronger stretch, you can add the weight of an ice pack or small 1-2 lb. weight too.

Hamstring Stretch

Lie on your back with both knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Grab a stretch strap, belt, or towel and wrap it around the foot of the leg you’re about to stretch. Then, straighten the knee before pulling the entire leg up toward your chest. Keep pulling until you feel a strong stretch in the back of the thigh. Relax and hold.

Hold for 60+ seconds for 2-3 sets on each leg.

Quad Stretch

Lie on your stomach for this one. Tighten your abs as you bend your affected knee and reach for your ankle. Use your hand to bring the heel closer to your butt until you feel a stretch in the front of the thigh. Do not force the stretch or let the low back arch. If needed, you can use a stretch strap to reach your foot more easily.

Hold for 60+ seconds for 2-3 sets on each leg.

Knee Strengthening Exercises

When the knee is injured, the most evident weakness in the leg is typically in the quadriceps (a major muscle group that gives your leg stability). It will take time and diligence to regain strength and coordination in the knee. As you progress with your exercises, there should also be a focus on building your knee joint’s proprioception, or the ability to coordinate and perceive movement in space. 

Quad Set

This is the quickest and easiest way to start firing these weak muscles after a knee injury. Grab a towel roll or small pillow and place it under your knee to get started. Push the knee down into the towel, squishing it into the floor, as you tighten and hold the top thigh muscles. Hold for up to 5 seconds for each repetition. To add a knee extension stretch to this exercise, place the towel roll under the heel instead and repeat the same move.

Repeat 15-20 times for 2-3 sets.

Leg Raise

For a progression from a quad set, lie on your side with the leg out straight that you will be working. Keep the opposite leg bent and on the floor for stability. Tighten your abs and thigh as you lift your straight leg up toward the ceiling 6-12 inches. Keep the knee straight and motion slow and controlled throughout. If you’re having trouble keeping your knee straight, it may be too soon for this exercise.

Repeat 15-20 times on each leg for 2-3 sets.

Terminal Knee Extension

Grab a looped resistance band and secure it to a sturdy surface or door. Place the other end of the loop around the back of your knee while facing the secured end. Step back far enough so that you feel a moderate pull at the back of your knee into flexion. With control, let the band bend your knee as the heel lifts off the ground and you come onto your toes. Then, tighten the thigh as you straighten the knee and return the heel to the ground and hold.

Hold for up to 5 seconds, repeating 10-15 times for up to 3 sets on each side. Adjust your resistance level as needed.

Single-Leg Balance

Being able to balance on one leg successfully is a great progression for building your leg’s strength. You can simply start on the floor by shifting your weight to the side you want to balance on and lifting the opposite leg. Stand near a counter or chair for safety if needed. To progress the difficulty, you can try standing on a foam pad or adding movement such as head turns, arm reaches or leg kicks.

Balance for 30-60 seconds on each leg for 2-3 sets total.

Assisted Squats

An assisted squat is a great way to get your legs ready for a full squat. Stand with the feet about hip-width apart and good upper body posture. Bend both knees as you shift your weight into your heels and bring your butt closer to the floor. Go as far as is comfortable (start small) and return slowly to the starting position. Do not let the front of the knees shift forward over the toes.

Repeat 15-20 times for 2-3 sets.

Benefits to Strengthening the Knee

Typically, an exercise program should be started as soon as possible (when cleared by your doctor or physical therapist) to gain all of the amazing benefits. These include:

  • Preserving knee range of motion for optimal function
  • Increased healing capabilities thanks to increased blood flow
  • Improved knee stability and coordination 
  • A quicker return to previous levels of activity or sport
  • Fewer complaints of pain throughout the recovery process
  • Expedited recovery when paired with other home recovery options

Getting Started with Knee Exercises

Starting exercise for sprained knee requires a delicate balance. Keep these tips in mind to make sure you’re maximizing your results without risk of aggravation or future injury.


  • Always get clearance from your doctor or physical therapist to start an exercise program and specific exercises.

  • Start small and slow.

  • Warm up your legs before starting any strengthening or in-depth stretching program to ensure the muscles and knee joint are warm and ready to go.

  • Use your symptoms as a feedback loop. While some discomfort is inevitable, sharp pain or a sudden change in symptoms is not. Always stop or modify an exercise if it elicits pain or instability.

  • Focus on restoring balance to the leg. With rest it can be easy to overwork certain muscle groups in legs- always work both legs evenly and address the key muscles evenly too to promote coordination.

  • If you are struggling with a feeling of instability or you’re feeling unsure on your knee, try a knee brace when exercising.

  • Ask for guidance. Having the support of a physical therapist can be huge in the recovery process to feel confident and keep you on track with progressing appropriately.

When Should I Start Exercising?

The rate at which you will progress to deeper stretches and more coordinated strengthening exercises will also depend on the severity and symptoms associated with your injury. If you’re not sure how to start, it’s always a good idea to talk about your options with your doctor or physical therapist.

For a more severe injury, a few days or weeks of rehab may be required first. Otherwise, simple knee stretching and strengthening will usually be started within a day or two of the injury to maximize your recovery. 

How Often Should I Exercise?

With a new injury, exercise is commonly utilized every day. This helps keep the joint limber and promotes healing. With 10-30 minutes of focus on knee strength and flexibility, you will set yourself up for success in the long term. Then, as the injury starts to heal and you start getting back to some of your normal activities, you will decrease the frequency to as little as 1-2 times per week for maintenance.

Is Walking Safe for a Sprained Knee?

Walking is a great way to keep the knee moving and strong. However, you may need to rest or modify your walking to keep your knees healthy. Pain and instability are signaling that your knee needs time to rest before you can resume walking. You may be able to walk with the help of an assistive device or brace to minimize a limp during rehab and still get the benefits of walking.

Choosing Safe & Effective Exercises

Knee sprain injuries are quite common. With an understanding of your injury and good guidance, you can feel confident in your recovery. An exercise program for the knee is all about starting slow and building as the healing process allows. If you experience a significant change in symptoms or they are not improving within a week or two, make sure to seek medical advice immediately to promote optimal healing and rule out other potential problems.

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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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