Fitness

9 Knee Mobility Exercises That'll Keep Your Legs Limber

Give those joints some TLC.

Exercises for knee mobility, straight from fitness pros.
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Knee mobility is one of those things you don’t really think about until you lose it. If you suddenly have knee stiffness that makes it tough to walk, get up out of a chair, or bend down to pet your dog, no worries. There are a few exercises that can help you get your joints back on track.

Essentially, knee mobility refers to how far your knee can move as it bends and straightens, says Helen O'Leary, a physiotherapist and director of Complete Pilates. “Mobility is important as the bend helps you get up stairs, up hills, into deep sofas, or down onto the floor,” she tells Bustle. On the flip side, the knee’s ability to fully straighten is what helps you push off the ground as you’re walking or running so you can move efficiently, O’Leary says.

If you have knee stiffness, a trip to the doctor will be a good place to start so they can check for issues like meniscal tears, bursitis, or arthritis, O’Leary says. But if the problem is just everyday knee tightness — where your knee doesn’t bend properly or move as freely as it did before — then O’Leary recommends doing knee mobility exercises at home most days of the week to strengthen your muscles, increase flexibility, and improve your range of motion. Here’s how to get started.

1

Reverse Nordics

This simple exercise strengthens the muscles on the front of your thigh that go over your knee, O’Leary says. It’s also a great stretch for the upper legs and hip flexors.

- Put something soft under your knees, like a towel or exercise mat, as you get into a kneeling position.

- Untuck your toes.

- Tuck your pelvis under.

- Check that your upper body is in a straight line with your knees.

- Hinge back on your knees.

- Pause at the back and then press into your feet to come back up. You should feel it in your quads and abs.

- Repeat 6 to 8 times.

2

Supported Squat

O’Leary recommends holding onto something as you squat so that you can strengthen your muscles without asking too much of your knees. “This is a also functional exercise that will help strengthen the knees whilst getting them moving,” she says.

- Step your legs out wider than your hips.

- Turn your toes slightly out.

- Hold onto something that doesn’t move, like a counter or couch.

- Sink your hips back into a squat.

- Pause at the bottom.

- Use your arms to support you.

- Take a breath.

- Press into your feet and pull with your arms to raise up.

- Repeat 5 to 8 times.

3

Side-Lying Leg Raises

O’Leary suggests this exercise to ensure the muscles around your knee stay strong and supportive.

- Place a resistance band around your ankles.

- Lie on your side propped up on an elbow.

- Keep your pelvis facing forward.

- Ensure your upper body remains lifted away from the floor so that the space between the side of your body and the floor is as big as possible without raising the hips.

- From this position, lift your top leg to hip height.

- Reach through your toes.

- Lift your top leg a little higher to feel resistance in the band.

- Lower back down to start, hovering your foot just above the floor.

- Do 10 to 12 lifts on each side.

4

Straight Leg Raises

“This exercise is a great way to improve knee mobility as it works to strengthen the muscles around the knee joint and increase flexibility,” says Lalitha McSorley, PT, the lead physical therapist at Brentwood Physiotherapy Calgary.

- Lie on your back with your legs extended straight.

- Slowly raise one leg off the ground until it’s at a 45-degree angle from the ground.

- Hold for 20 seconds.

- Lower and repeat 10 times on each leg.

5

Half Kneeling Quad Stretch

The half-kneeling quad stretch will improve the mobility of the knee joint while stretching the quads and hip flexors, McSorley says.

- Kneel on one knee.

- Step your other leg out in front of you with your knee bent 90 degrees.

- Hold for 30 seconds on each side.

6

Seated Hamstring Stretch

You’ll also want to lengthen your hamstrings. “This helps your knees as it gets the muscles on the back of your hips and knees moving more freely,” O’Leary says.

- Sit on the edge of a chair.

- Shift your hips slightly forward.

- Stick your tailbone out as you hinge forward at the pelvis.

- Feel a stretch down the backs of your thighs as you reach for your toes.

- Hold for 15 to 30 seconds.

- Repeat on both sides.

7

Banded Crab Walks

McSorley also suggests this knee-focused exercise in order to improve mobility in the joint.

- Place a resistance band just above your knees.

- Bend both knees slightly to get into a standing “crab” pose.

- Step to the side with one foot so your feet are wide apart.

- Keep your toes pointed outward.

- Continue to slowly step sideways.

- Make sure to step with one foot at a time before following with the other.

- Take 15 steps in one direction, then 15 steps back.

- Aim for 3 sets of 15 in each direction.

8

Knee CARs

A knee CAR, aka controlled articular rotation, moves your knee through its full range of motion, says Logan Thomas, PT, DPT, a doctor of physical therapy. “Most people don't realize the knee joint has to be able to rotate as well as bend and straighten,” Thomas tells Bustle. Adding a rotational exercise will help mobilize the joint capsule around your knee, he explains, so that it can move freely.

- Sit on the edge of a chair.

- Lift one leg up and bend your knee as far as you can.

- Grab the back of your thigh and pull it towards your chest.

- Keep your lower leg steady as you turn your foot to point out.

- Make sure the rotation occurs from your knee joint, not just your ankle.

- Continue this same pattern to rotate your foot out, then straight, then in.

- Reverse directions.

- Perform 10 rotations in each direction.

- Repeat on the other leg.

9

Banded Terminal Knee Extension

Thomas also recommends this move to help you fully straighten your knee.

- Anchor a resistance band in front of you.

- Loop it around one leg just above the knee.

- Squat down to slightly bend your knees.

- Contract your quad to straighten the banded leg.

- Push your knee all the way back.

- Hold for 5 seconds.

- Repeat 5 sets of 20 reps per leg.

Studies referenced:

Hafez, A. R. (2013). Treatment of Knee Osteoarthritis in Relation to Hamstring and Quadriceps Strength. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 25(11), 1401-1405. https://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.25.1401

Lee, J. H. (2021). Static and Dynamic Quadriceps Stretching Exercises in Patients With Patellofemoral Pain: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Sports Health, 13(5), 482-489. https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738121993777

Raposo, F. (2021). Effects of exercise on knee osteoarthritis: A systematic review. Musculoskeletal Care. doi: 10.1002/msc.1538.

Wang, Y. (2003). Lower-extremity biomechanics during forward and lateral stepping activities in older adults. Clinical biomechanics (Bristol, Avon), 18(3), 214. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0268-0033(02)00204-8

Sources:

Helen O'Leary, physiotherapist, director of Complete Pilates

Lalitha McSorley, PT, lead physical therapist at Brentwood Physiotherapy Calgary

Logan Thomas, PT, DPT, doctor of physical therapy