Feeling weak in the knees is only a good thing when it’s over your latest Tinder date. Experiencing joint pain is an entirely different sensation — and one that’s not quite so magical.
Knees top the list of common problem areas for pain, along with the legs, neck, and back, according to James Rippe, MD, a cardiologist and joint pain specialist.
Knee pain can be caused by a variety of factors, like a short-term injury from twisting your knee the wrong way during exercise. It could also be a sign of your joint cartilage wearing away over time from high-impact activities, like running on concrete.
Factors like inactivity, carrying too much body weight, poor posture, improperly treated injuries, and insufficient nourishment can all contribute to knee pain, Rippe says.
And if your pain is interfering with daily activities, you’re not alone. About one in four Americans now has severe joint pain related to arthritis, according to the CDC. A 2013 study also reported a 162-percent increase in knee replacements over the last 20 years.
Luckily, by taking better care of your knees throughout your life, starting as early as your twenties, you can strengthen them and potentially save yourself from years of daily pain and discomfort.
If you have knee pain, Rippe recommends low-impact activities, like swimming, brisk walking, or cycling. You can also consider taking supplements that provide glucosamine and chondroitin to strengthen and lubricate knees.
On the flip side, too much movement can be hard on your joints. So if you’re one of those people who just can’t quit their HIIT habit or long-distance runs, there are some simple moves and stretches you can try that will help alleviate pain.
Since multiple muscles overlap your knee joint — including your calf, thigh, hamstrings, quadriceps, gastrocnemius, and soleus — and work together to flex, extend, and stabilize your knee, the exact source of pain isn’t always obvious.
“This means you want to think about stretching all the tissues around the knees,” says Lauren Williams, a certified personal trainer and owner of Chisel Club.
Here, Williams shares six of the best (and simplest) moves that target all those muscle groups. Try to do these stretches after every workout to keep your knees healthy now and in the future.
1. Wall calf stretch
Calf muscles often get neglected during our stretching efforts. However, for those who run, do high-impact workouts, or spend a lot of time on their feet, calf stretches are essential, Williams says.
Calves can get extremely tight from impact and need to be stretched to relieve any pain that might travel up the knee.
Find a wall you can lean against. Facing the wall, flex your right foot and position your heel right where the floor meets the wall. Your toes should be elevated while your heel remains on the floor.
Keeping your heel on the floor and your leg as straight as possible, lean toward your front leg, holding the stretch at its deepest point. Lean in for 5 seconds at a time before releasing, working to deepen the stretch.
Repeat the same stretch with your left leg. Aim for 10–15 reps on each leg — or more, if you’re still experiencing tightness.
2. Calf smash with lacrosse ball
This move allows you to work out tension in your calf and your hamstring, Williams says.
Sit on the floor and pull your right foot close to your butt so your knee is bent. Wedge a lacrosse ball (or a yoga/massage ball) below your right knee, sandwiching it between your calf and hamstring.
Create a “compression force” by pulling your shin toward you, and then rotate your foot in alternating circular movements to help create space in your knee joint. Continue until you feel tightness in these areas being relieved, and then switch legs.
3. Half-kneel hip and quad stretch
This stretch not only feels amazing but also does double-duty for your hip and quad muscles, Williams explains.
Kneel on one knee with your other foot planted on the floor in front of you. Create a 90-degree angle with both of your legs. Lean forward toward your front leg, stretching the front of your hip downward.
Next, grab the ankle of your back leg and pull it toward your butt for a deep hamstring and hip stretch down the front of your leg, all the way to your knee. Move in and out of this stretch for 10–15 reps or more, depending on your level of tightness.
Pro tip: Put a folded towel or mat between your knee and the floor.
4. Quad foam roller stretch
Stretching your quads is vital, since our quads get adaptively short from all the sitting most of us do every day. They’re often under constant tension. To get this large muscle group back to functioning at its best, Williams suggests using a foam roller.
Lie facedown. Place a foam roller under your right leg, right under your quad. Put the majority of your body weight on your leg and roll slowly. Instead of simply rolling up and down, roll your leg from side to side too, focusing pressure on the tighter spots in your muscles.
Switch legs. Continue rolling until this feeling is no longer painful. If that’s impossible (as it might be for some runners), do it for at least 5 minutes.
5. Wall hamstring stretch
Your hamstring muscles affect your knee more than you might think and can be the source of discomfort or pain.
Lie faceup with your left leg flat on the floor, foot flexed. Take your right leg and prop it straight up on a wall or table, or use a resistance band.
This stretch should radiate down the back of your leg, beginning in your knee. Once you find the deepest point of the stretch, alternate in 5-second sequences between contracting and relaxing your right foot.
If you have greater flexibility, hold your right ankle and pull it toward you. Aim for 10–15 rounds of 5-second holds and continue if you still feel tight. Repeat with your left leg.
6. Straight-leg raise
Easy strengthening exercises, like leg raises, put little to no strain on your knee but also activate and strengthen your quadriceps.
Lie faceup with one knee bent and the other leg on the floor in front of you. Lift your straight leg approximately 1 foot, rotating it outward (so your toes point on a diagonal instead of straight up toward the ceiling).
Do 3 sets of 10–15 reps, alternating legs. As you get stronger, add ankle weights of up to 10 pounds.
There’s no doubt about it: Knee pain sucks. But remember, one of the best things you can do for knee health is simply maintain an active lifestyle throughout your life.
“Your joints thrive on movement,” Rippe says. “Always try to remember that some activity is better than no activity.”