The Best Cardio Exercises for Bad Knees

6 step-by-step cardio exercises for bad knees, plus 4 more low-impact ideas

Cardiovascular exercises are essential to any fitness regimen, but they can be painful for bad knees. Only certain knee workouts are safe and effective for bad knees. Your capabilities will depend on your injury, but the following knee exercises can often be done with ease, even with bad knees. Check with your doctor or physical therapist before beginning any "bad-knee" workout.


Works: Gluteus, hamstrings, quads

  • Standing in front of a staircase, place one foot flat on the bottom step. (You also can use a step bench.)
  • Make sure your entire foot is on the step and your knee is directly above your ankle.     
  • Putting your weight on the heel of your elevated foot, step onto the foot, lift the opposite foot and tap the step and the floor.
  • Switch when you've completed at least 10 reps.

To make this bad-knee workout even more effective, do curls with light weights each time you step up.

Partial squats

Works: Knees, quads

Although full squats are among the worst bad-knee exercises, partial squats are actually one of the best.

  • Start by positioning your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed forward.
  • Flex your abs while lowering your upper body as low as comfort will allow. Your knees should remain behind your toes throughout the exercise.

Find a good knee support product before attempting this exercise, and never workout alone.

Calf raises

Works: Lower-leg muscles

Also known as "toe raises."

  • Stand up straight with the front of your feet on a flat surface.
  • Keep your ankles, hips and shoulders in perfect alignment, toes pointed forward.
  • Lift your heels very slowly, then lower them at the same speed.

The slower you raise and lower your body, the better the workout. Start with 25 reps.

Scissor kick

Works: Abs, hip flexors, thighs

  • Lie flat on your back with your legs together and arms by your sides.
  • With your forearms on the ground, lift your legs six inches and your shoulders one inch.
  • Holding that position, spread your legs apart, bring them back toward each other, then cross one leg over the other.

This is one rep. Start by doing sets of 50 reps. Don't let your legs or shoulders rest on the floor during the set.


Works: Upper, mid and lower body muscles

Swimming is one of the best exercises for people with bad knees. It's low-impact and versatile, and it burns calories fast. Proper form is crucial, especially in kicking.

The knees should not be tensed. Techniques that put stress on the knees (e.g., the frog kick) should be avoided. Also, avoid the traditional pre-lap push off the wall.

Speed walking

Works: Upper, mid and lower body muscles

Running and jogging put stress on bad knees, but speed walking is low-impact and great exercise for the whole body. Beginners should stick to flat, smooth surfaces. After your walking muscles are strengthened, you may even be able to take low-impact hikes.

Cardio exercise for bad knees doesn't have to cause even more knee pain.

Low-impact cardio ideas

While cardio is important to achieve your fitness goals, it can be hard on your body. Over time, high-impact cardio, like running, can give way to muscle and joint injuries. To minimize the risk of injuring yourself, try different methods of low-impact cardio. Here are five low-impact cardio activities that will give you the results you want, while taking it easy on your body.

Take a dance class

Whether it is ballet, tap, salsa or modern, dance classes are wonderful low-impact cardio activities that keep your heart rate up for long periods of time. By requiring you to warm up first and stretch your muscles throughout the class, dance classes are also good for your body.

Use the elliptical instead of the treadmill

You will burn roughly the same amount of calories using an elliptical trainer as you would in the same amount of time on a treadmill. Plus, your feet never leave the pedals, so there is less chance of injuring your knees, back, neck or hips. This is an exercise that your body will thank you for, as it is essentially running on air.

Dust off your bike

Grab your bike out of the garage or storage and go for a bike ride. If you don’t have one, you can use the stationary bike at your gym. Bicycling will build your endurance and, depending on how fast you go, will burn between 250-500 calories in 30 minutes. If you are bicycling indoors, using the traditional stationary bike instead of the sitting stationary bike will burn more calories, as it engages more of your muscles in the exercise.

Walk it out

Going for a good, old-fashioned walk has numerous health benefits and is a classic form of low-impact cardio. Make sure to stretch first, wear supportive footwear and keep your pace brisk to get the maximum results from this low-impact exercise.

Finding the right kind of cardio for you is important. You can be challenged and stimulated without hurting yourself or taking your body beyond the point it can handle. Try switching back and forth between these low-impact cardio exercises throughout the week to keep your muscles engaged and your workout routine challenging.


Related Articles:

5 Ways to Boost the Bone Building Power of Your Workout

4 Yoga Mistakes that Can Cause Knee Pain

Knee Pain? Work Your Butt

Does Your Knee Pain Shoot from the Hip?


Related Products:

Strong Knees DVD 

Therapeutic Knee Brace

Leslie Sansone: Walk Away The Pounds: Fat-Burning Miles DVD 


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bear2973's picture
User offline. Last seen 4 years 9 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 05/22/2012

are you out of your blasted minds? step up for bad knees? power walking? biking? dancing? toe raises? WHAT PART OF "BAD KNEES" DID THE AUTHOR OF THIS PIECE NOT UNDERSTAND?????? if i could do that stuff, would i be looking up excercises for bad knees? Crimeny! would i even be looking up excercises?

JJii's picture
User offline. Last seen 4 years 4 days ago. Offline
Joined: 07/23/2012

Bear2973, you are so right that I went thru the effort of signing up so I could tell you that you're right. Plus, maybe my complete agreement will prompt someone knowledgeable to describe exercises that a person with bad knees could actually *do*.

My left knee is almost unbendable -- I do a weird sideways straight-legged walk, gripping whatever rails or arm-level objects are available when I have to climb steps or get into the shower. I have trouble walking within my apartment -- flat surface! -- bc my left knee is so bad. And I don't even represent the extreme -- I know people whose knees are worse than mine. Meaning, there is NO WAY that I, or anyone with bad knees, could do those exercises. Please don't waste our time; please consult with a reputable expert before "writing" another "article" in order to ensure that you don't post more garbage.

bionic-knee's picture
User offline. Last seen 3 years 51 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 08/05/2012

I am no expert but I've been on the receiving end of six knee surgeries. I've been to multiple rehab facilities afterwards and these are the exercises that I performed. The exercises are progressive meaning that one builds on the other. I started out on a recumbant bike until I had enough mobility to move to the strength exercises such as the step ups. It took me about two good weeks to start seeing results but it was worth it. Also keep in mind that the hip is a key part of knee strength. It was explained to me this way. Think about how you stand or walk. If your hip is weak then your knee has to compensate to keep you straight. Thats alot of force on a relatively small joint. My Dr also pointed out that for every pound over your ideal weight, you are adding approximately 7 extra pounds on your knee joints. That really hit home when I did the math and realized that my knees are carrying the weight of two people. Thats when I found out how much 30 lbs over weight really is. The authors of this article did put the disclaimer at the top. You should consult a Physician if you cannot do the any of these exercises. Good luck.

aevelez81's picture
User offline. Last seen 3 years 6 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 06/11/2013

Just want it to point out to the first to comments(bear2973, J Jii), that this article hit right on point on what kind of exercises are good for bad knees. I just got surgery last week on a meniscus tear and yesterday went to my first physical therapy session and those exercises where what the therapist have me starting on, with the exception of swimming that him and the doctor said to wait two weeks before starting because want them the incisions to heal before it. Thanks Thank you author for the great article and to bionic-knee hopefully you dont get injured again. Wish you all good health!

John R
John R's picture
User offline. Last seen 3 years 4 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 06/28/2013

Thank you for the exercises for bad knees. I have a bad left knee and a little stronger right knee. I agree with all you said in the 6 exercises. I do partial squats, calf raises and swimming. I will add step ups, scissor kicks and maybe speed walking. I do the eliptical, biking and stepper.

sugarbear's picture
User offline. Last seen 3 years 5 days ago. Offline
Joined: 07/23/2013

Just floating out there to the enraged Bear2973 and JJii that every single one of these exercises are prescribed by physical therapists to deal with minor knee issues such as patellar tendinitis, calf strain, bursitis, etc. If your knees are so bad that you can't do even a short set of these exercises carefully, you really need to see a doctor.

Kneed's picture
User offline. Last seen 2 years 32 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 12/11/2013

I agree with bionic-knee, if you are unable to do these exercises you should consult a physician. I just had arthroscopic surgery on both knees and the exercises described above are what I have been doing in physical therapy. Strengthening the muscles that control the knee is the goal in order to keep the knee as stable as possible.

Anonymous's picture

That is true! I had a TKR on right knee and left knee is about ready for another one. Exercises using knee
Bends and weight bearing Swuats are totally out of the question. However, the one best advice I did see was
To shed some pounds for some real true relief. Bicycling and swimming is probably the most effective anti-pain
Low impact Exercise for those painful knees. Knees need the support but at th same time the extra weight
Is definitely not helping matters at all. Get on the bike at least 4-5 times a week , get fit but for crying out loud
avoid impact on those knees or you'll be wishing you never did!! I use the stationary bike at the gym and when I
Get bored of that I take my bike out for about an hour and feel fantastic I skip the foods
That cause inflammation , I drink a lot of water and don't let those joints stiffen by being sedentary! Know your limits
But also know you can move without hurting yourself! Use the stationary , It's better than doing nothing.

Anonymous's picture

I think this article is very irresponsible. The author uses the umbrella term "bad knees." That covers a very broad range of things and while some of what she wrote my be appropriate for people with certain knee problems it can be poison for others.

Anonymous's picture

Indeed! I have Patella Alta in both knees, and I've been through all kinds of doctors. The only ones I can do are swimming, working on the elliptical and walking. As for step ups or whatever makes my knee cap grind with my phemur is totally forbidden. So I agree! it depends on your condition.

Anonymous's picture

I'm a competitive swimmer, and I've been doing pull for about a month because of knee pain. I understand our competitive sets are vastly different than what recreational swimming would entail, however, when I first injured my knee and attempted to swim warmup (which is an easy set of laps, for anyone who doesn't swim competitively), even the small motion of freestyle kick, accompanied by pulling, hurt. For swimming, I recommend using a pull buoy!!

Anonymous's picture

At least you're moving! I have bad left knee and just had X-rays done on both- both have arthritis and left knee has bone spur- ouch! Had acupuncture - helped some. Star Ed doing yoga for 1st time a month ago and it's helping ! The yga basics class for beginners is good but too strenuous for my knee, so started just doing their Yin Yoga deep stretch class which helps with connective tissue and all sorts of other stuff. Also, one of the instructors told me Pilates is good for knees, too.

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