3 Knee Friendly Quad Exercises That Aren’t Squats

If you have trouble with your knees, give these favorites a try.

My orthopedist told me that I have one bad knee and one worse knee. I’m 27 years old and I’ve got double knee replacements in my future; if I continue doing the things that I enjoy (hiking, skiing, and the occasional 5k) that should happen around age 40. I’m going to get the most out of my knees while I can and hope that over the next 15 years they come up with some amazing knee surgery that is simple, painless, and will get me up and moving again in no time.

My Daily Knee Battle

For the past five years, I’ve dealt with pain, grinding, crunching, and swelling as part of my everyday life. Even after taking a high dose of ibuprofen prior to spending the day skiing, my knees will still swell up to the size of two fat, puffy, jellyfish. The sounds my knees make whenever I walk up a flight of stairs can only be compared to someone crinkling an empty bag of potato chips. When I really want to gross people out, I have them place their hand on my knee cap while I simply flex and extend my knee, with no weight and no resistance, you can feel something popping and grinding beneath my patella.

I’ve seen multiple physical therapists, trainers, and doctors and nobody has been able to figure out what is causing any of my issues. One therapist said my adductors were too tight and I spent my sessions having her stretch out my inner thighs with a rolling pin. My doctor told me my quads were too tight and I should spend extra time foam rolling and stretching. My trainer mentioned something about gluteal amnesia and had me focus on trying to get my glutes to work in combination with the rest of my muscles.

I’ve tried it all. I’ve got buns of steel, my adductors are lengthened, and my quads, well, my quads are basically non-existent. When I tore my ACL four years ago, I was required to have surgery to repair it because my surrounding leg muscles weren’t strong enough to support my knee without it. Since then, I’ve used my resistance loop religiously to continue my PT exercises to strengthen my inner gluteal muscles, I teach four kettlebell classes per week, and I’ve tried all different types of leg exercises to try to specifically target my quads to no avail.

3 Knee Friendly Quad Exercises That Aren’t Squats (and 2 That Are)

Recently I asked a group of fitness professionals if they had any suggestions for new exercises I might be able to try that target the quads and are “knee friendly.” The response I got was incredible. I wrote down all of their ideas, tried them out, and came up with the following list of my personal favorites.

Terminal Knee Extensions

  • Attach a band to a stationary object (I used a squat rack) and place it around the top of your calf muscle, but below your knee joint.
  • Facing the anchor point, alternate flexing your knee forward and extending it back completely against the resistance band.
  • Focus on squeezing your quad and trying to straighten your knee as much as possible.

I personally loved this exercise because I could actually see my quadricep working. I was also able to keep my hand on my patella to keep track of any grinding. There was some popping at first, but keeping my knee in line with my ankle rather than letting it cave in made it go away.

Petersen Step Up

  • Placing one foot on a step, slowly lower the heel of your other foot to the ground, coming up onto the toes of your standing leg.
  • Make sure your standing leg is doing all of the work.

While I definitely felt this directly in the quad of my standing leg, I also felt a significant amount of grinding in the same knee. This is one I’ll have to work on in front of a mirror to make sure my alignment is correct and my knee isn’t caving inward.

Banded Leg Extension

  • From a seated position, wrap a resistance loop around your ankles.
  • Keeping your knees in line with each other, pull your toes back towards your shin and extend your knee out as straight as possible.
  • Lower your foot down while keeping tension on the loop and repeat.

This is a great exercise because you are able to control your range of motion. If you find you’re experiencing pain or grinding at a certain point of the extension, extend to just before it and continue the exercise from there. Pay attention to your starting point, gradually strengthen your quad, and watch your range of motion increase.

Goblet Squats

  • Position your feet wider than hip width with your toes pointing out at about a 45 degree angle.
  • Holding a weight (or use just body weight), stay tall and drop your hips down towards the floor as your knees track over your ankles and toes.

Previously, I’d only focused on my glutes and hamstrings during this exercise. Once I started sending all of my focus to my quads, I definitely started to feel them doing more of the work. When you’re doing an exercise, send your focus to the muscle you’re trying to work and don’t just go through the motions.

TRX Front Squats

  • Stand facing away from the TRX anchor point.
  • Hold the handles with elbows bent and hands just in front of your rib cage.
  • Walk your feet back to about a 45 degree angle, coming up onto your toes.
  • Drop down into a squat, staying up on your toes and drive back up again.

This is a great warm up exercise, it’s great to get the blood flowing in the quads, and I love it. Increase your rep range and feel the burn. This is probably one of the first exercises I’ve done in a while that I can really feel my quads activate and it makes me far happier than it should.