Smart Exercise Modifications for Knee Pain

By , Karyn D. Klein, M.A.
For many of us, exercise is the part of the day we look forward to. But for those who struggle with chronic pain, working out isn't enjoyable. It hurts.
Knees are particularly vulnerable to pain during exercise (and afterwards).  There are several common exercises (from lunges to those performed in kneeling positions) that are known to cause knee discomfort. But rather than skip some of these very effective moves, you can modify your workouts and still get great results—minus the pain.  
Here are four exercises that can cause knee pain, along with some simple tips to modify the exercise so that you can perform it safely and effectively.
Lunges are notorious for producing twinges or uncomfortable sensations in the knees. Sometimes that cause of that pain is nothing more than improper form: allowing the knee to push past the ankle during the lunge for example. Performing lunges while holding heavy hand weights during this exercise can further aggravate the problem. To fix it, watch yourself in a mirror and make certain the knee is aligned directly over the ankle during the movement. Click here for a proper lunge exercise demonstration

Squats are a great exercise for the lower body, but they can also cause pain if you let your knee push past your ankle.  A couple of things you can do that will help: 1) Push your weight back into your heels—not on the balls of your feet—during the squat. This will help you to target your glutes and quads. 2) You can also place a wedge or five-pound weight plate under your heels if you are tight in your calves. In addition, if you are using a weighted bar or hand weights, try the exercise with less weight or none at all while you master your form. Click here for a proper squat exercise demonstration.
Child's pose is meant for relaxation, but it can wreak havoc on your knees. The extreme degree of knee flexion (bending) in child's post is too much for many people. Get the most from child's pose by opening your knees to a diamond shape rather than keeping them close together. Sometimes, this small change is enough.  If not, place a rolled up towel/mat or small pillow under your thighs (so your thighs rest on the prop instead of your calves) to maximize the distance between your glutes and heels while still benefiting from this yoga pose. Click here for a proper child's pose demonstration.
Quadruped exercises (where you rest on hands and knees on the floor) are common in Pilates, yoga and even traditional strength training. For some people, simply placing weight on their knees like this causes a lot of pain when the kneecap is in direct contact with the floor.  Cat/Camel stretch, for example, is a wonderful way to warm stretch the spine, but many people complain that their knees hurt while doing it.  A cushioned surface can help lessen or alleviate discomfort. The DOD Knee Donut is an excellent option in providing cushion while still offering plenty of support.  Unlike rolling up a towel or mat and placing it under the knee, the knee donut has a hole in the center so the kneecap never touches the floor. It allows you to focus on moving your back rather than how much your knees hurt.
Exercise shouldn't be painful, and pain shouldn't stop you from exercising! Be mindful of the number of repetitions you perform, select the proper amount of weight, and focus on your form. Whatever exercise you choose to do, there are always modifications that can be made so you do not have to miss your daily workout.
Karyn Klein has a master's degree in dance from UCLA and is an adjunct professor of dance, Pilates and injury prevention at Glendale Community College in Glendale, California. She owns a Pilates/Gyrotonic studio in South Pasadena and is the co-owner of Do Or Die Fitness, a company devoted to creating innovative products for anyone who exercises. She is offering SparkPeople members an exclusive 20% coupon off of all DOD fitness tools. Get yours here.
Do you suffer from knee pain? How do you modify your workouts to make them more comfortable on your knees?