If you’ve been training for an appreciable amount of time, you’ve probably acquired a tweak here or a twinge there that you now have to train around. Whether it’s an old sports injury or a that-was-dumb-of-me injury, it’s now something you have to take into account when hitting the iron.


Today’s article will cover how to train around cranky knees, and you’ll learn alternatives to common exercises that might cause pain. We’ll also do a refresher on form for lunges and squats. As Dan John says, “Squats don’t hurt your knees; the way you squat hurts your knees.”


knees, knee health, knee pain, knee injury

Proper form is one of the best solutions for dealing with knee pain.


Types of Knee Pain

For the most part, people experience knee pain in one of two places:


  1. General anterior pain - Typically this involves issues of the patella tendon, which you’ll feel in the front of the knee just below the kneecap
  2. Medial pain - You feel this in the inside of the knee and it’s typically caused by meniscus or cartilage issues.


I understand there are other forms of knee pain, but given that these are the most common, this article is geared toward them. This article is also not about what causes your knee pain, but rather how to deal with it and train around it in a healthy manner.  


"Without being mindful of your form, you’re going to continue to bother the knee joints and place undue stress on the ligaments and tendons."

If you suffer from cranky knees and consequently less-than-stellar workouts, this article will provide you with the tools to revise and reinvigorate your training. Even if you do not have knee pain, you can cheerfully and confidently pass on the information to someone who does. If nothing else, the exercise variations are a sweet spice to mix in to add flavor to your own workouts.


And always remember the golden rule: “If it hurts, don’t do it.” 


Exercises to Avoid

Your “exercises to avoid” list will be individual to your knees. For example, some people can handle running just fine, but any sort of lunge bothers their knees - again, remember the golden rule. Below, I’ve listed some general exercises that I avoid when I’m working with a client with unhappy knees.


  • Single leg variations with a decelarative nature - For example, walking lunges or forward lunges. Both these variations require the front leg to decelerate the body’s forward momentum and this places greater demands on the knee joint.
  • High-impact movements - This encompasses most jump variations, particularly high-rep jumping due to the fatigue and form breakdown involved. This also includes any activity that involves repetitive pounding, like running, running downhill, or running down bleachers.
  • Squatting or lunging with terrible form - If your squat or your lunges look like the videos below, then you need to avoid them. Without being mindful of your form, you’re going to continue to bother the knee joints and place undue stress on the ligaments and tendons. More often than not, poor form is the source of knee aggravation.



Exercise Selection and Modifications

Continuing to train through pain does not make you tougher. Among other things, it breaks down connective tissue (good-bye cartilage), encourages compensations and faulty movement patterns (which can lead to more compensations and painful joints in other places), and, well, it hurts!


"Exercises that emphasize the posterior chain - deadlifts, swings, glute bridges - are generally knee-friendly."

Training should not leave you feeling beat up. Outside of sports, the main reason most people work out is longevity and health. If your training results in chronic aches and an increased use of pain-relievers - the opposite of longevity and health - something needs to change. Modifying your training isn’t conceding defeat; it’s victory over an obstacle.


Choose single-leg exercises that are accelerative in nature such as step-back lunges and step-ups. Both variations allow the glutes and hamstrings to play a larger supporting role, thus sharing the burden of the quads and lessening the pull on the knee joint overall.



If heavily loaded lunges bother your knee, add a slider to the mix. Performing lunges with a slider on the back foot can provide a challenge without having to pile up the weight.



Split squats and their permutations are usually pretty safe, but if you do experience pain, I’ve found that adding a band distraction to the front knee can provide relief.



Exercises that emphasize the posterior chain - deadlifts, swings, glute bridges - are generally knee-friendly. There’s also the added bonus of strengthening the glutes and hamstrings, which both support the knee and hip. When the hip is strong and functioning correctly, it will absorb the forces that would otherwise be distributed to the knee.


A great single-leg variation is single-leg Romanian deadlift. This nails the glutes, hamstrings, and the musculature of the lateral hip - all of which keeps the hips functioning well and reduces stress on the knee.



Wrap Up

Is it still possible to train hard despite knee pain? Absolutely! You can easily modify your workouts to create safe and effective training sessions. Simply remove exercises that irritate the knees and incorporate exercises that strengthen the posterior chain and have a relatively neutral impact on the knees.


Along with that, keep in mind the golden rule: if it hurts, don’t do it! Training should leave you feeling like a superhero, not limping to the medicine cabinet. Try out these variations and keep your knees happy. Let me now how it goes in the comments below.


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Photo courtesy of CrossFit Empirical.
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