Chondromalacia Exercises to Relieve Knee Pain

Chondromalacia patella occurs when the cartilage at the back of the kneecap begins to soften and break down. This breakdown causes the kneecap to grind against the leg bones that join to form the knee joint, resulting in pain that worsens with activity.

Chondromalacia patella is often referred to as runner’s knee since the condition is common among runners and other active individuals who endure repetitive stress to the knee joint. Injury to the knee, overuse of the knee joint, and muscle imbalances or malalignment of the knee commonly lead to the development of chondromalacia patella.

Treatment for chondromalacia patella includes strengthening the supporting muscles around the knee and hip joints without increasing pressure on the kneecap. Open chain exercises that allow the leg to move freely are often used in the beginning of rehabilitation rather than closed chain exercises, which involve keeping the feet planted on the ground. This minimizes weight-bearing through the knees in order to decrease irritation at the kneecap.

woman doing side leg lift exercise

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Straight Leg Raise

straight leg raise exercise

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Straight leg raises help strengthen the hip flexor and quadriceps muscles to lift the leg while stabilizing the knee. The quadriceps muscles are a group of four different muscles that extend the leg at the knee joint and help stabilize the kneecap.

To perform this exercise:

  • Lie on your back with one leg bent and one leg extended.
  • Contract your quadriceps muscles of the extended leg to tighten your leg and lock out the knee joint.
  • While maintaining this contraction, lift your leg up while keeping your leg straight the entire time.
  • Slowly lower your leg while continuing to maintain a quadriceps contraction to keep your knee straight.
  • Repeat 10–15 times, then rest.
  • Repeat for three sets of 10–15 repetitions for each leg.

To increase the intensity, add ankle weights around your ankles to increase activation of your quadriceps muscles.

Side Lying Leg Raise

side leg raise exercise

Verywell / Ben Goldstein


Side lying leg raises help to strengthen your gluteus medius while stabilizing the knee. The gluteus medius is a muscle on the sides of the hips that moves the leg away from the body and stabilizes the hip and knee joints. If the gluteus medius is weak, the femur, the upper leg bone that forms the hip joint and upper half of the knee joint, can become misaligned, placing increased pressure on the knee joint.

To perform this exercise:

  • Lie on your side with your hips, knees, and ankles stacked on top of each other, keeping your top leg straight and the bottom leg bent.
  • Contract your quadriceps muscles of the top leg to tighten your leg and lock out the knee joint.
  • While maintaining this contraction, slowly lift your top leg up while keeping your leg straight the entire time. Do not let your body or hips roll backward.
  • Hold your leg at the top position for one second.
  • Slowly lower your leg while continuing to maintain a quadriceps contraction to keep your knee straight.
  • Repeat for 10–15 repetitions, then rest.
  • Repeat for three sets of 10–15 repetitions for each leg.

To increase the intensity, add ankle weights around your ankles to increase activation of your quadriceps and gluteus medius muscles.

Exercises that compress the kneecap against the femur with a high degree of force, such as squats and lunges that involve deep knee bending, and high-impact activities like running and jumping should be avoided until pain decreases and strength of the muscles surrounding the hip and knee joints improves in order to stabilize the knee with activity.

Clamshell

clamshell exercise

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Clamshells help strengthen the gluteus medius and deep external rotators of the hip joint. When these muscles are weak, the femur can become misaligned, putting increased stress on the knee joint. 

To perform this exercise:

  • Lie on your side with your hips, knees, and ankles stacked on top of each other, with your knees bent.
  • Keeping your ankles together, slowly lift your top knee up. Do not let your body or hips roll backward.
  • Hold your leg at the top position for one second.
  • Lower to starting position, then repeat for 10–15 repetitions.
  • Repeat for three sets of 10–15 repetitions each.

To increase the intensity, add a resistance band around your thighs above your knees to increase activation of your glute muscles.

Hip Extension Leg Raises

prone leg raise exercise

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Hip extension leg raises help strengthen the glutes and quadriceps muscles to extend the hip joint while stabilizing the knee. The quadriceps help to stabilize the kneecap while the glutes provide overall strength and stability to the entire leg. If the glutes muscles are weak, the knee joint becomes subjected to increased stress and repetitive forces.

To perform this exercise:

  • Lie on your stomach with your legs extended.
  • Contract your quadriceps muscles of one leg to tighten your leg and lock out the knee joint.
  • While maintaining this contraction, lift your leg up while keeping your leg straight the entire time. Use your hips to isolate the movement without arching your lower back.
  • Slowly lower your leg while continuing to maintain a quadriceps contraction to keep your knee straight.
  • Repeat for 10–15 repetitions, then rest.
  • Repeat for three sets of 10–15 repetitions each.

To increase the intensity, add ankle weights around your ankles to increase activation of your quadriceps and glutes muscles.

Semi Squat

semi-squat exercise

Anussara Phromkrasear / Getty Images

While open chain exercises that allow the leg to move freely are often used in the beginning of rehabilitation, progression to closed chain exercises that involve keeping the feet planted on the ground can safely be performed when irritation behind the kneecap has decreased and activation of your quadriceps and glutes muscles has improved.

Semi squats performed halfway through the range of motion to a 45-degree bend in the knees can help strengthen the quad muscles to stabilize the knee and support the leg during weight-bearing without placing too much stress on the kneecap. 

To perform this exercise:

  • Start in a standing position in front of a chair.
  • Push your hips back and bend your knees to slowly lower into a squatting position. Do not let your knees move forward beyond your toes or allow your knees to cave in toward each other.
  • Stop approximately halfway above the seat of the chair to maintain a 45-degree knee bend.
  • Hold this squat position for one second, then stand up to return to the starting position. 
  • Repeat for 10–15 repetitions, then rest.
  • Repeat for three sets of 10–15 repetitions each.

To increase the intensity, increase the range of motion to a full squat as long as you do not feel pain in your kneecaps. Add a resistance band around your thighs above your knees to help maintain good alignment of your hips and knees and increase glutes activation. 

A Word From Verywell 

Chondromalacia patella commonly develops from stress to the knee joint through repetitive and high-impact activities. This occurs because the muscles surrounding the knees and hips are not strong enough to support the demands of the activity. Strengthening the muscles that stabilize the knee and hip can help support proper alignment of the joints and muscle activation patterns to prevent increased strain at the knee and kneecap. That can help you return to moving and exercising without pain.

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  1. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. OrthoInfo. Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome. Updated October 2020.