The Short Answer:
“Bad knees” is a broad term, but in general, the more you can work your knees without jarring them, the stronger they will become and the less pain you will feel. When it comes to your workouts, that usually means eliminating plyometric (i.e., jumping) exercises and performing non-plyometric exercises with better form (e.g., sitting back into your squat instead of pushing your knees forward).
Of course, that advice assumes that your knees aren’t too far gone. Before you continue to exercise, consult your doctor to make sure that your knees are healthy enough for vigorous physical activity. If he or she gives you rehab exercises, do them. If you’re referred to a physical therapist (PT), work with that person. Then, when you’re ready, return to your regularly scheduled workouts, following the advice of your PT. If that activity happens to be a Beachbody program, you’ll find additional advice below.
The Long Answer:
If your knees ache, you’re not alone. Knee pain affects around 18 percent of adults in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Here’s a five-step rehabilitation plan to help you banish it for good.
Step 1 – Talk to your doctor. Some doctors, whether because of laziness or fear of liability, shell out advice akin to “if it hurts, don’t do it.” But oftentimes, if you don’t work through it, the situation not only gets worse, but also your progress toward your fitness goals can be derailed.
Regardless of your doc’s optimism, your rehabilitation begins with a diagnosis. That’s why you need a doctor. Whether your knee pain is debilitating or just nagging, it’s well worth your time to find out exactly what is going on. The alternative solution is trial and error — and that can make your knees worse.
Step 2 – Do your rehab. No matter what your problem is, your doctor will recommend some physical therapy. Like doctors, some physical therapists (PTs) are better than others, but do what they say regardless. Even archaic protocols shouldn’t hurt you. A good PT will just push you harder and take you further. Either way, you must do your physical therapy before moving on. I know, it’s boring (everyone says this), but if you’re serious about fixing your knee issues, you need to take this step seriously. It’s the foundation for everything else!
Step 3 – Think holistically. Chronic knee pain doesn’t always originate in the knees. Unless you’ve had an acute injury, or you’re exercising in a way that directly increases the strain on your knees (more on that in a bit), knee (and back) pain can often be traced to imbalances in the pelvic girdle (i.e., the hips). The simple exercises and stretches in the following videos should be incorporated into your regimen as soon as you’re cleared by your PT. Hopefully, they’re similar to what you’ve been doing with your PT.
Step 4 – Assess your doctor’s clearance advice. This is where the steps diverge, as all knee issues are not the same. Eliminating knee pain follows a “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” rationale, meaning that the more you’re able to handle training-wise, the quicker and more effective your comeback will be. Along with that advice, however, is the more important logic that you don’t want to re-injure your knee. That is first and foremost, and should dictate all of your actions.
For simplicity’s sake, we’ll use the two most common diagnoses: 1) You are cleared for any activity and 2) you are cleared for limited activity.
Step 5, part A – If you are “cleared for any activity,” congrats! Go start exercising! However, if you want to make sure you don’t experience knee pain again, I strongly recommend a round of P90X2, which is by far Beachbody’s most effective workout program for knee issues. It’s designed around protocols used to keep professional athletes on the field — and keeping knees healthy is the biggest challenge they face. The program targets stabilization, especially in the hip area, and can help you build a solid foundation of strength and power.
Whether or not you’re fit enough for P90X2 is a different discussion. It has an extremely modified “hotel room version,” which is designed for dedicated road warriors, but which is also a good option for those who simply find the regular workouts too challenging. If you’re unsure what version is best for you, try the P90X fit test. If you can handle P90X, you should be fine with P90X2. If you can’t complete the fit test, start with an easier program (see below).
A word of caution: If you’re seriously overweight, disregard this advice and skip to the following step. Excess body fat places a huge amount of strain on the joints, especially the knees. So even if you’re cleared for any activity, if you have a lot of weight to lose, proceed as if you’re only cleared for limited activity.
Step 5, part B – If you are “cleared for limited activity,” congratulations as well! (sort of) This diagnosis usually happens after an acute injury or for those who’ve ignored pain for years and lost knee cartilage. You still have the same biomechanical goal of stabilizing your body, but you have to be more careful about how you do it.
How to Work Out With Bad Knees
First and foremost, don’t skip your warm-up. Failing to get your heart pumping, your blood flowing, and your muscles and nervous system primed for action before working out is a bit like asking impatiently to become injured. Indeed, the result is similar to repeatedly driving your car in the dead of winter without warming the engine first — sooner or later, the stress on the system will cause a vital part to fail. In the human body, that failure usually occurs at a joint.
Also, make proper form a priority. If a weight is too heavy to allow you to execute an exercise with perfect technique, grab a lighter one. If you lack the mobility to execute an exercise through a complete range of motion, modify it until you build that mobility. Many people push their knees too far forward when they squat, increasing the strain on their knees, for example. If that sounds like you, do the box squat instead. As its name implies, it requires you sit back onto a box or bench as you squat. In doing so, it conditions you to master the “hip hinge” movement required to execute the traditional squat perfectly.
Sometimes, however, an exercise can cause knee pain even if you perform it flawlessly. And you should avoid those exercises entirely.
The Worst Exercises for Bad Knees
Running and plyometric (i.e., jumping) exercises, both of which are extremely high-impact. The list is literally that short, but you’d be surprised how many workouts contain the latter, including those in such Beachbody programs as INSANITY and 22 Minute Hard Corps. But don’t let that dissuade you from trying them. As mentioned previously, almost any exercise can be modified to make it easier on the knees. In the case of a plyometric exercise, the key is to perform the movement explosively, but do not let your feet leave the ground. In short, don’t jump.
Almost any Beachbody entry-level program can be right for building knee strength, depending on the severity of your condition. The rule to think on is this: Whatever you do that doesn’t make you worse makes you better. So every time you finish a workout without pain, or with less pain than you previously experienced, you’re improving your ability to eliminate the pain altogether. Also, every pound you lose is less stress on your knees, which will help lessen strain, and, thus, pain. So watch your diet, and move as much as you can. Your body will respond in kind.
The Best Workouts for Bad Knees
Here’s a rundown and synopsis of some Beachbody options to consider, from easiest to hardest.
Tai Cheng – This is a great mobility and stabilization program that almost anyone can do. The downside is that it won’t burn many calories or quickly change your body composition. The upside is that, no matter who you are, it will improve your knee issues.
21 Day Fix – Currently Beachbody’s best entry-level, knee-friendly program for those who need to lose some weight. While there is some jumping in this program, and even a “plyo” workout, there are always modifiers you can follow.
Country Heat – Our wildly popular country dance-inspired program is an ideal choice for people just beginning their fitness journey — or veterans looking for a change of pace. Each 30-minute total-body cardio workout is packed with fun, high-energy, low-impact moves virtually guaranteed to get your heart pumping and sweat pouring.
Hip Hop Abs – This predecessor to INSANITY takes jumping out of the equation, combining basic hip hop (you don’t need to know how to dance) and a lot of ab and hip work in this entry-level weight-loss program.
Brazil Butt Lift – There is some light jumping, and a lot of squatting, but if you can handle it, this program focuses on your butt and hips and greatly improves the stability of your pelvic girdle. This makes your body “track” better, reducing the strain on your knees.
Body Beast – Controlled weight training is a great way to change your body composition without putting a lot of stress on your knees. If you want to lose weight, don’t follow the “bodybuilding” focus of the nutrition guide. You can both lose weight and strengthen your knees effectively pumping iron with Sagi.
PiYo – Chalene Johnson’s combination of yoga and Pilates is great for hip stability and core strength, both vital for combating knee pain, making it a good choice for those who don’t have specific ACL/MCL (or lateral) knee issues, as there is a lot of twisting at speed.
P90X3 – While it’s a hard program, you can modify every move in every workout and have it serve as an effective entry point. This program, like X2, builds a super-solid foundation. It lacks the targeted stabilization movements (because it doesn’t use stability balls), but that also makes it a bit easier to adapt to.