5 Simple Stretches That Will Soothe Your Knee Pain

Achy joints? These expert-approved stretches will make you feel so much better.

knee pain stretches
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Your knees are one of the largest and most complex joints in your body—so it’s no wonder that nearly 20 percent of U.S. adults deal with some kind of knee pain, according to the American Academy of Pain Medicine. And when you’re constantly deal with swelling, weakness, stiffness, or even crunching noises, it can really set you back.

A lot of things can lead to achy knees, like carrying too much weight or starting a new workout plan, but injuries are a huge culprit, according to the Mayo Clinic. When you tear your ACL or meniscus, fracture bones in your knee, or develop exercise-induced inflammation that turns into tendinitis, you’re bound to feel it.

Knee pain doesn’t discriminate, either. While you may associate creaky knees with getting old, anyone of any age can deal with it. The most important thing you can do? Keep moving, says Donna Williams, PT, MHS, director of rehabilitation for Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush. Many knee injuries come down to a lack of flexibility and strength in and around the joint. That’s why building and maintaining muscle is so important, especially in your quads, hamstrings, and hips.

But that doesn’t mean you should go all out during your workout if your knees are uncomfortably swollen and achy. In fact, some simple stretching can work wonders. We talked to both Williams and exercise physiologist Rachel Straub, MS, CSCS to find the best movements you should incorporate into your routine. Here are their go-to stretches for sore knees.

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Supine Hamstring Stretch

Why it helps: Your hamstrings run from your hips to your knees and actually cross your knees, so getting more flexible in these large muscles can help ease pain, says Williams.

How to do it: Lie on your back in front of a doorway with your hips in line with the entryway. Keeping your left leg straight out in front of you, place your straight right leg up on door jam, keeping a small bend in your right knee. Inch your way forward for a deeper stretch or back if you need less sensation. Stay here for 10 to 15 slow, deep breaths, and then switch sides. If you can’t find a quiet doorway, loop a belt or yoga strap around the ball of your foot, which will give you more of a stretch across the entire back of the leg.

Pro tip: Focus on keeping your spine stable in order to get the most effective stretch, says Williams. “If your spine isn’t stable, it’s more likely you’ll stretch other leg muscles.”

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Standing Calf Stretch
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Why it helps: When your calves are tight, it can lead to an inward movement of the knees, says Straub, which can cause pain.

How to do it: Stand on the edge of a curb or step and place your left foot on the ground, keeping the ball of your right foot on the step. Allow the right heel to drop below the step and hold here for 30 seconds, then switch sides.

Pro tip: You can also place both feet on the curb, step, or a calf machine and drop both heels at the same time. Just be sure to hold on to something in front of you for extra support.

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Hip Flexor and Quad Stretch
Brooke Benton

Why it helps: When you’re in pain, doing the go-to standing quad stretch (you know, the one where you hold onto one ankle and pull it close to your glutes) can be really challenging, if not impossible, says Williams. This version incorporates a yoga strap, towel, or belt loop to make things a bit easier.

“If bending your knee is difficult, this stretch can be really effective,” she says.

How to do it: Lie on the floor or a bed on your stomach, and loop a belt or yoga strap around your right foot, holding either side with each hand. Gently pull the belt or strap so your heel moves toward your butt. When you feel a stretch in your hip flexor and quadriceps, hold for 30 seconds, and then repeat on the other side.

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IT Band Foam Roller
Brook Benton

Why it helps: It’s incredibly common for the illiotibial band—the ligament that runs along the outside of the thigh, from the hip to the shin—to become tight and inflamed, which in turn can lead to knee pain. The best way to stretch it out is to use a foam roller on the whole outer thigh area, says Williams.

How to do it: Lie on your right side and place a foam roller just below your right hip. Cross your left leg over and place it on the ground in front of you. Keeping your right hand or forearm on the ground, move your left foot up to roll down the side of your right thigh, stopping when the foam roller is just above your right knee; then move your left foot down, coming back to the starting position. Repeat on the other leg.

Pro tip: If the sensation of the foam roller causes pain for any reason, go for one that has a softer density (like this one from OPTP) until you can work up to a firmer one.

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Figure Four Glute Stretch

Why it helps: Stretching the muscles that rotate the hips (specifically, the glutes and piriformis) can have a positive domino effect on the knees, says Williams.

How to do it: Lie on your back with your feet on the floor, then cross your right ankle over your left knee and clasp your hands behind your left thigh. Slowly and gently pull your left knee toward your chest. Repeat on the other side.

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