Knee Rehab Exercises

Knee pain is among the most commonly encountered orthopedic problems. While there are many causes of knee pain, most can be helped with some specific stretching and strengthening exercises. Even if surgery is necessary on the knee, rehabilitation exercises will certainly be a part of your recovery process.

Physical therapist working on a patient's knee
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Why Knee Exercises Are a Must

The goal of knee rehab is to prevent weakening of the muscles that surround the knee, to diminish the burden on the knee joint, and to maintain range of motion. People who have stronger muscles surrounding the knee often have fewer problems with the joint. Weaker muscles create more work for the knee joint by providing less support. Conversely, strong muscles of the leg better support and control the knee joint.

Stretching Out

The first and last part of any exercise program should be a simple stretching routine. A few simple leg stretches can get your rehab exercises started off properly. Try not to neglect this step, even if you're in a hurry.

Before you begin any stretching program, be certain you understand the basic rules of how to properly stretch. Improper stretching technique can be counterproductive and may even lead to the development of injuries.

Exercising Muscles that Surround The Knee

The muscles surrounding the knee include the quadriceps, hamstring, and calf muscles. The focus of most knee rehabilitation is on these muscles. When injuries occur, often these muscles become weaker and less supportive of the knee.

Exercises for the muscles that surround the knee include quadriceps strengthening exercises, hamstring strengthening exercises, and calf strengthening exercises. People who have patellofemoral knee pain (Runner's knee) have been shown to have better improvement when rehab exercises are focused on the hip joint rather than the knee. This seems to indicate that a lot of knee symptoms are simply the result of issues that originate in the core and pelvis, rather than just problems just in the knee joint.

Working the Hip Stabilizers

Often neglected, but a common source of knee problems, are the muscles around the hip joint. Remember when someone once told you the leg bone is connected to the hip bone? Research is revealing that knee problems can often be traced to weakness of the muscles that surround the hip. Many progressive physical therapists devote a significant amount of rehab time to strengthening the hip stabilizing muscles.

A program to develop the hip stabilizers should focus on the hip abductors, hip flexors, and gluteal muscles. Most of these exercises can be done without weights and should emphasize proper form.

Increasing Muscle Endurance

Many patients rehab their knees by doing a select number of strengthening exercises a few times each day. But the fact is that just as critical as the overall strength, is the endurance of these muscles. Without endurance, these muscles will quickly fatigue.

Increasing endurance is best accomplished with low-impact cardiovascular activities, among the best of which is riding a stationary bicycle. Also excellent are swimming or other pool workouts. Walking is a moderate-impact that places some stress on the joint, but not as much as running. If you must walk or do other high-impact sports, try to also incorporate some cycling and swimming. Also, avoiding hills, particularly downhill running, can keep the stress on the patellofemoral joint reduced.

A Word From Verywell

Recovery from injury or surgery requires active engagement of the muscles that surround the area being treated. Often these muscles become weak and stiff as a result of injury, and restoring normal function to the knee joint requires more than just allowing for healing or correcting a structural defect. If the muscles don't recover, then the joint cannot function normally. Working with a therapist, trainer, or coach can help to ensure you are doing the necessary activities to restore normal mechanics to your knee joint.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Alnahdi AH, Zeni JA, Snyder-Mackler L. Muscle impairments in patients with knee osteoarthritisSports Health. 2012;4(4):284–292. doi:10.1177/1941738112445726

  2. Page P. Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitationInt J Sports Phys Ther. 2012;7(1):109–119.

  3. Petersen W, Rembitzki I, Liebau C. Patellofemoral pain in athletesOpen Access J Sports Med. 2017;8:143–154. doi:10.2147/OAJSM.S133406

  4. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Total knee replacement exercise guide.

Additional Reading

By Jonathan Cluett, MD
Jonathan Cluett, MD, is board-certified in orthopedic surgery. He served as assistant team physician to Chivas USA (Major League Soccer) and the United States men's and women's national soccer teams.