No matter your age or activity of choice, it seems like almost everyone deals with knee pain at some point. Stretching, however, offers one possible solution to avoid it. “Light stretching can help reduce muscle guarding or tension as a result of pain and help restore joint mobility,” says Lauren Loberg, DPT, a physical therapist at TRIA Orthopaedic in Bloomington, Minnesota.
While stretching won’t resolve knee pain, it can offer short-term relief to make movement and exercise more enjoyable, she adds.
To start, stretching is most beneficial when your knees are stiff or immobile. To ease stiffness and improve mobility, it’s important to target the muscles and joints that surround the knees. This means focusing on the hips, quadriceps, hamstrings and calves, according to Philip Higgins, DPT, clinical director of Bespoke Treatments in Seattle, Washington. When these areas are flexible and mobile, your knees will be better equipped to bend, straighten and rotate safely and effectively.
According to these experts, the following five knee stretches check all the necessary boxes to reduce knee pain. Do them daily or incorporate them into your post-workout cooldown routine to reap the benefits.
SUPINE HAMSTRING STRETCH
Tight hamstrings limit movement at the knee, which adds pressure to the joints. The supine hamstring stretch increases flexibility, helping relieve tightness and pain.
How to do it: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Loop a towel, belt or strap around your right thigh and grip the ends with both hands. Without lifting your head or shoulders off the floor, slowly pull on the towel, belt or strap to raise your right leg toward your chest. Straighten your right leg or keep it slightly bent. Lift your leg until you feel a gentle stretch in your hamstring. Hold the stretch for 10–20 seconds before releasing. Repeat for 5–10 reps and switch to the other leg.
HALF-KNEELING QUAD STRETCH
Constricted hip flexor and quadricep muscles in the front of your thighs may limit knee flexion or compress the knee cap, leading to knee pain over time, says Higgins. This stretch may ease pain and stiffness by lengthening tight hip flexor and quad muscles.
How to do it: Begin in a half-kneeling position with your left knee on the ground, and your right knee bent 90 degrees in front of your body. You might want to place a cushion or towel under your bottom knee. Reach back and grip your left foot with your left hand. Gently pull your foot up until you feel a gentle stretch in your left quadriceps. Intensify the stretch by squeezing your right glute to press your hip forward. Hold for at least 30 seconds before switching sides.
SEATED IT BAND STRETCH
The iliotibial (IT) band is a thick piece of fascia that extends from the outside of your hip to the side of your knee. It can become tight and inflamed when overused, says Loberg.
How to do it: Sit on the ground with both legs extended out in front of you. Bend your left knee and cross it over your right, placing your left foot flat on the floor. Keeping your legs in place, rotate your torso to look to your left until you feel a stretch. To assist you in the stretch, you can hook your right elbow on the outside of your right knee and place your left palm on the floor behind you. Hold for at least 30 seconds. Release and repeat once or twice on the same side before switching to the other side.
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When your hips can’t rotate the way they’re meant to, your knees tend to rotate instead. “Much of the rotational stress on the knee comes from the hip and its inability to move well,” says Higgins. The figure-4 stretch reduces rotational stress on the knee by increasing the range of motion in the hips.
How to do it: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Cross your right ankle over your left knee and bring your left knee toward your chest. Interlace your fingers behind your left hamstring or left knee and gently pull toward your chest. Stop when you feel a stretch in your right glute and hip. Hold the stretch for up to 2 minutes. Repeat on the other side.
STANDING CALF STRETCH
Moves like the standing calf stretch can help knee pain if ankle stiffness is causing changes in knee mechanics. To see this in action, imagine if you’re trying to squat with tight ankles. Tightness at the ankle can cause your knees to creep over your toes when you get into the bottom of the squat, which puts more load (Read: stress) into the knee joints, according to Loberg.
How to do it: Stand with feet hip-width apart. While keeping both legs straight, step one foot back and press your rear heel into the ground until you feel a gentle stretch in your calf. Hold for 30–60 seconds. Switch sides. Repeat 1–2 more times.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Stretching can offer short-term relief, but in order to fix your knees for good, you have to address the source of your pain. Your best bet is to work with a physical therapist to pinpoint trouble spots and find long-term solutions. This is especially important if you have arthritis or an injury like a torn ligament or tendon. Make sure to steer clear of any stretch that worsens the pain.
Make progress every day while you work on mini fitness and nutrition goals, like walking more steps or learning to track macros. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app for daily coaching and easy-to-follow tasks to keep you motivated.