The Best Leg Strengthening Exercises After Surgery

After surgery to the hip, knee, ankle or foot, the muscles of the leg often become weak from decreased use or from inhibition due to pain. For this reason, it is important to begin strengthening these muscles once your physician gives you the green light to do so.

Gaining back strength that you have lost after injury or surgery is an important step in obtaining full functional mobility and a full recovery.

Physical therapist stretching mans leg
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There are certain benefits of performing leg exercises after surgery. These may include:

  • Start to build back strength
  • Prevent blood clots (the contraction of your leg muscles acts like a sponge, moving blood through your veins)
  • Improve your ability to move in bed after surgery

Working with a physical therapist (PT) to understand which leg exercises are safe for you can be an important step in getting moving again after surgery.

Before you start this or any other exercise program, check with your doctor to ensure that exercise is safe for you to do.

Getting Started

Initial exercises should target all the major muscles of the leg. Here are a few leg exercises to get you started on your rehab.

Gluteal Sets

To perform the exercise:

  1. While lying on your back, tighten your buttock muscles as if you were holding back flatulence.
  2. Hold your muscles tight for 5 seconds, and then relax.
  3. You can repeat the exercise for 10 to 15 repetitions.

Gluteal sets can be done several times per day. Gluteal sets are an isometric form of strengthening your hips, your muscles work while no motion is occurring at your hip joints.

Heel Slide

To perform the exercise:

  1. While lying on your back, bend your knee as you slowly slide the heel of your operated leg up toward your buttock.
  2. Slide as far as you can and hold for 5 seconds.
  3. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat again.

Short Arc Quad

The short arc quad (SAQ) is a simple way to get your quad muscles working after injury or surgery. To do the SAQ:

  1. Lie on your back with a bolster like a towel roll or basketball underneath your knee.
  2. Slowly straighten your knee.
  3. Tighten your quad muscle on the top of your thigh.
  4. Hold this for 3 seconds, and then relax.
  5. Repeat the exercise for 10 to 15 repetitions.

Quad Set

To do the quad set:

  1. While lying on your back, try pressing the back of your knee flat against the floor.
  2. Hold for 10 seconds and release.
  3. Repeat 10 to 15 repetitions.

This exercise helps to get your quad muscles working after surgery or injury, and they help to control the position of your kneecap. This may important to do if you have patellofemoral stress syndrome (PFSS).

Straight Leg Raise

To do the straight leg raise:

  1. While lying on your back, lift your leg straight up about 12 inches off the floor.
  2. Hold for 10 seconds and slowly lower.
  3. Repeat 10 to 15 repetitions.

Be sure to keep your knee joint straight the entire exercise. You can make the SLR more challenging by adding a 2- to 3-pound cuff weight to the end of your ankle while doing the exercise.

Hamstring Strengthening

Your hamstring muscles work to bend your knee and extend your hip backward. Keeping your hamstrings strong after injury or surgery can help you return to normal walking ability. To do the exercise:

  1. While lying on your stomach, raise your leg backward about 12 inches.
  2. Hold for 5 seconds and slowly lower.
  3. Repeat for 10 to 15 repetitions.

You can make this exercise more challenging by adding a 2- or 3-pound cuff weight to the end of your ankle while performing the exercise.

Physical Therapy and Home Exercise

If you have any lower extremity injury or have had surgery, or if you are simply having a difficult time walking or performing normal functional mobility, you may benefit from physical therapy to help you return to optimal mobility.

Your PT may prescribe leg exercises much like these ones as part of your home exercise program. You may progress from simple leg exercise—like these—to more challenging advanced exercises. Don't forget the importance of working on your balance and how that can help your mobility as well.

Working hard doing these leg exercises in physical therapy and at home can help you return to your optimal level of function and mobility quickly and safely.

A Word From Verywell

After surgery, you may feel like moving around a lot is difficult to do, or pain may prevent you from being able to move. As soon as you can, you should check in with your PT after surgery to learn which leg exercises are best for you to do. That way you can quickly and safely return to your optimum level of function.

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