If you suffer from chronic knee pain, the real problem may not be your knee.
While many athletes and physical therapists like to blame chronic pain on the knee itself, science points to other root causes. Unless you suffered a traumatic knee injury (like an ACL or meniscus tear or chronic osteoarthritis), knee pain is often caused by tight muscles surrounding the knee joint — particularly the quadriceps. However, knee pain can also be caused by tight hamstrings, glutes, hip muscles, and even calves.
Below, I explain the root cause of knee pain, and why stretching the muscles surrounding your knee can help relieve it.
Why You Need To Stretch Your Quads, Hamstrings, and Hips To Relieve Knee Pain
To treat knee pain, you need to address the root cause of that pain.
Here's how it works: Every muscle, joint, and bone in your body works together. If one piece of the human body puzzle becomes damaged or compromised, it forces the other surrounding pieces to pick up the slack. When a piece (i.e., a muscle or joint) is forced to double-up on its workload, it often becomes injured.
Still with me? Great — now let's refer back to your knee joint.
Knee pain is often caused by tight quads — particularly pain near the sides and front of the knee. Your lower body muscles are all intertwined. For example, your quadricep is made up of four muscles that connect near your knee and are responsible for stabilizing your patella (i.e., your kneecap). When your quad muscles get too tight, or you perform certain exercises without proper form (like backsquats), it can throw off the alignment of your patella. This problem is exacerbated by exercise. When you run, jump, or otherwise pound on your misaligned and, therefore, unstable kneecap, you push against a weakened foundation, causing injury.
That is what causes knee pain. And therefore, to treat knee pain, you need to shift your focus away from your knee and onto the root problem: The tight, seemingly unrelated muscle groups that started this entire domino effect.
6 Stretches for Knee Pain
Now that you understand how knee pain happens, it's time to loosen up the sore muscles that cause pain in the first place.
But first, please note that this post is meant for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. If you suffer from chronic knee pain, book a one-on-one consultation with a CPT (certified physical therapist). Only a healthcare professional can pinpoint the root cause of a chronic injury.
1. Quad Stretch
To stretch your quadriceps, begin from a standing position, with your feet hip width apart. Shift your weight onto your left foot, allowing your right foot to come off the ground. Bring your right foot behind you, bending your knee so your right heel almost touches your butt.
To get the most out of this stretch, squeeze your glute and core muscles (this will also help with balance and stability). Use your right hand to hold your right heel near your butt, trying to deepen the stretch. Hold for 15-20 seconds, then switch legs.
2. Hamstring Stretch
To stretch your hamstrings, lay flat on your back, with your lower back pressed into the floor (think about tilting your pelvis in). Extend both legs straight out in front of you.
Raise your left leg so it's perpendicular to the ground. Use both hands to grab hold of the back of your leg, holding onto your calf muscle or hamstring (do not hold the ligaments behind your knee) to deepen the stretch. Try to keep your right leg pressed into the ground (if you are incredibly tight, bend your right knee so your right foot comes into contact with the ground). Hold for 15-20 seconds, then switch legs.
3. Runner's Lunge
A runner's lunge stretches both your quads and your hip flexors. To set up your stance, come into a seated lunge position. Your right knee should be bent, with your right quad parallel to the ground and your right foot flat on the ground in front of you. Your left leg should extend behind you, with your left knee and the top of your left foot connected with the ground.
Now, deepen the stretch by shifting your weight forward so you feel a deep stretch in your left glute and hip flexor. If you have the balance and flexibility, you can raise your left knee off the ground. Want to deepen the stretch even further? Lower your upper body so your forearms rest on the ground, inside your right foot. You should feel a stretch in your left hip and inner thigh.
4. Side Lunge Stretch
To relieve knee pain, you'll need to stretch all sides of your quads — the front, inside (inner thigh), and outside (around your IT band). Performing a side lunge stretch helps you stretch your inner thigh muscles.
Stand with your feet wider than shoulder width apart. Now, step your left leg outward — as far as your range of motion allows. Bend your left knee, sending your left glute backward to the wall behind you (this prevents your left knee from extending beyond your left foot, which can make your injury worse). Shift your weight into your left glute, keeping your right leg straight as you do so. If you have the flexibility, allow your right toes to come off the ground, so only your right heel is connected with the floor. Continue to deepen the stretch, feeling a pull in the inner thigh of your straight leg. Return to your starting position and switch legs.
5. Figure Four Stretch
A figure four stretch stretches the outer thigh (IT band), hamstrings, and glutes. To begin this stretching exercise, lay with your back straight against the floor and your left knee bent. Cross your right shin over your left thigh, so your right foot hovers near your left knee.
If you are incredibly tight, you will already feel a stretch from this position. If you want to deepen the stretch, use both hands to grab hold of your left hamstring. Pull your left knee toward your chest, feeling a deep stretch in your glute and hip flexor. Perform one rep for 15-20 seconds, then switch legs.
6. Calf Stretch
Tight calves can cause pain in the back of the knee. Therefore, it's important to keep your calves loose.
To perform a calf stretch, face a wall. Place both palms firmly on the wall, keeping both arms straight (you may need to back up if you can't straighten your arms). Bring your right foot halfway between the wall and your left foot, and bend your right knee (keeping your left leg straight). Your weight should be shifted to your left foot.
Push against the wall, trying to get your left foot to make a 45-degree angle with the wall. You should feel a nice stretch in your left calf muscle and Achilles tendon. Hold the stretch for 15-20 seconds, then switch legs.
Perform These Knee Stretches To Help Relieve Knee Pain
As you just discovered, a "knee stretch" may not stretch your knee at all. Instead, stretches for knee pain help loosen the muscles surrounding your knee joint — such as your quads, hamstrings, and inner thigh muscles.
As your knee hurts, remember this: Doing one thing will rarely, if ever, cure an injury. To truly rid yourself of knee pain, you will need to take a well-rounded approach to wellness. Strengthening your quads, performing glute activation, and doing a proper warm up will take pressure off the knee, and improve the stabilization of the joint.
In addition, switching to low-impact activities (particularly for cardio workouts), will help your knee joint prevent overuse, giving your knee time to heal. Lastly, revise your recovery routine, foam rolling your quads, hamstrings, and IT bands to relieve knee pain.
To develop a well-rounded fitness routine that helps you prevent future injury, consider signing up for the Premium plan for the Build Bullet-Proof Health program. You'll get detailed strength, cardio, recovery, and nutrition plans, plus monthly check-ins with me to discuss your progress.
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