tips to fix knee pain with single-leg exercises

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“I can’t do single-leg exercises because they hurt my knees.”

If you’ve ever said that about a single-leg exercise, or all single-leg exercises, you’re not alone. Many trainees lament the sight of single-leg exercises in their workouts because they experience knee pain when doing them.

The good news is that you can often eliminate pain or discomfort by making a few adjustments to the workout or exercises. Below are some tips and modifications you can make to single-leg exercises so you can perform them confidently, without discomfort.

To be clear, there are no “Avoid this at all costs if you don’t want your knees to explode!” mistakes, and there is no “one thing” that will cause discomfort or pain for everyone (e.g., saying that the heel coming off the ground will “wreck” or “destroy” your knees isn’t true — it may cause pain for some people, but none whatsoever for others). The tips you’ll see below are simply the modifications and adjustments I’ve implemented with trainees over the years to help them perform single-leg exercises without pain. If one thing doesn’t work for you, move on to the next one.

The tips are explained and demonstrated in the video below, or simply continue reading.

1) Warm up before single-leg work with a bilateral exercise. You may not be able to go straight into single-leg exercises when you train your lower body; you may need to get your legs and joints warmed up first. Try this simple warm up: Perform a few sets of bodyweight squats (something like 3 sets of 10-20 reps) and then move on to the single-leg exercise. This simple warm up is not only excellent to help you squat lower, but it may be all you need to perform single-leg exercises pain free.

2) Control the lowering portion of the exercise. Too many trainees basically drop down to the ground when doing split squats and lunges. Don’t do that. Control the lowering portion of the exercise — take 2-3 seconds to lower down. Then smoothly reverse the motion to return to the start position. This tip too has alleviated many knee pain issues for trainees.

3) Keep your heels on the ground. (Note: There are some exercises that require your heels to come off the ground, like sissy squat variations, but I’m not referring to those here.) When doing single-leg exercises like lunges and split squats, the heel of the front foot should not come off the ground.

heel off the ground

Pay attention and see if you’re doing this, and it may not be terribly egregious; it may be subtle. If your heels have been coming off the ground with single-leg exercises, you may notice your knees feel fine when the heel stays planted on the ground. There’s nothing “wrong” or “dangerous” about the heel coming off the ground, but for some trainees it can cause knee pain.

4) Adjust your stance. Sometimes a little adjustment can make a tremendous difference. For example with a rear-foot-elevated split squat (which can have problems of its own that are easy to fix), your front foot may be too far away from the bench, or too close. While there’s no shortage of trainers claiming there’s only one “perfect” way to do an exercise (which isn’t true), it’s okay to play around with your stance to find what feels best for you. You may discover your knees are completely pain free with a narrower, or wider, stance.

adjust stance

The picture above is an example of a wider versus narrower stance with the rear-foot-elevated split squat. Having the front foot a few inches further or closer to the bench can make a difference in how the exercise feels to you.

5) Stop fighting to balance. It’s possible you feel discomfort in your knees because most of your focus and energy goes into balancing and not toppling over. If balance is a key issue, then take it out of the equation so you can focus on the exercise. If you’re doing split squats, rear-foot-elevated split squats, or a reverse lunge, hold on to something like an upright weight bench, power rack, or a barbell set securely in a power rack. This way you don’t have to work so hard to balance and can focus on the movement.

single leg balance

If you need to add weight to the exercise to make it more challenging, hold a dumbbell in one hand while holding onto something with the other, as pictured above. (Another option is to perform single-leg exercises with a Smith machine so you can easily add weight while also removing the balancing component of the movement.)

6) If you’re using external loading, don’t go too heavy. Some people can perform heavy single-leg exercises for 5-8 reps; others can’t without discomfort or pain. You can try increasing the rep range so you have to use less resistance. For example, if you’re performing walking lunges with 25-pound dumbbells for 8-10 reps each leg and you experience knee pain, drop down to 10- or 15-pound dumbbells and perform 15+ reps per leg and see how that feels.

7) Don’t force an exercise variation. Make all the adjustments you want, but there may be an exercise that at times just won’t work for you. For example, regardless of your stance, lowering under control, or using less external loading you may not be able to do forward lunges without knee pain. Don’t try to force it. Perform a different variation instead like reverse lunges, or step-ups. As you get stronger and better conditioned, or simply as some time passes, you may be able to perform forward and walking lunges.

lunge variations

If you have knee pain with certain single-leg exercises, implement the tips above and see if that helps. Just remember, what works for someone else may not work for you. Don’t be afraid to play around a bit until you discover what’s best for you.

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