If you’re someone who wants a comprehensive, full-body fitness routine, then you don’t want to sacrifice one muscle area just because you have bad knees. Knee pain can be frustrating. But, it doesn’t mean you can’t target certain areas such as your glutes. There’s a number of glute exercises that work your butt without putting strain on your knees. They just require some thinking beyond the typical squat.
“Most people think of squats or lunges as the only exercises to work glutes. Although these are both great exercises, they can also put a lot of pressure on your knee joints,” says Aaptiv Trainer Kenta Seki. “If you have any type of knee injury or just have sensitive knees, it’s important to avoid overdoing exercises that can put a lot of strain on your knees.”
The knee is the largest joint in the body and one of the most vulnerable to injury. This makes maintaining proper form and technique during any exercise crucial to knee health. “Optimal organization of the entire body is required for knee function to remain excellent,” says personal trainer Becky Behling, M.S., G.C.F.P., C.P.T. (ACE).
It’s important to pay attention to your knee health and avoid any glute exercises that could cause harm. But there are alternative options to work that behind. Here are six of the best glute exercises for people with bad knees.
Instead of regular squats, try them with the assistance of a chair. “I recommend starting with a sit/stand from a stable, flat-seated chair without arms,” Behling says. Scoot forward to the front edge of the chair, place your feet on the ground, hinge at the hips, and float up. “Return to sit with the same hip hinge, retracing the trajectory of the rise to stand,” she continues. “Help [yourself up] by placing your palms on your thighs when both rising and sitting.” You can increase the challenge by crossing your arms over your chest, raising your arms in front of you, or raising your arms overhead.
One of the better glute exercises for bad knees is a deadlift. “Your knees stay in the same softly bent position the entire exercise, so they generally aren’t too affected by this exercise, even if you lift really heavy,” Seki says. Stand upright and hold weights hanging down in front of you with your elbows straight. “Bow forward and reach the weights toward your feet until the weights come just below your knees, then stand back up and squeeze your glutes at the top,” he explains. “Keep your back arched and knees softly bent the whole time.”
If you want to take your deadlifts to the next level, try a one-legged version. “In addition to the benefits you get from regular deadlifts, your gluteus medius is very engaged in this exercise because you’re balancing on one leg,” Seki says. For this exercise, use the same form as the regular deadlift but perform it on one leg. “Extend your opposite leg behind you and try not to let the foot touch the ground,” he adds. “Keep your hips squared forward, and stand up fully at the top of the movement.”
Lying on your back enables your hips to be the primary mover of this exercise. This isolates your glutes without overly engaging your knees. “Lie on your back and bend your knees, with your feet flat on the floor,” Seki says. “Drive into the heels of your feet and lift your hips up as high as possible, holding for a moment at the top and squeezing your glutes. Lower down without resting and repeat.”
With donkey kicks, you’re on all fours facing downward. So, your glute is lifting the weight of your leg instead of pushing all your bodyweight through your knees, like you would in a squat. “From an all-fours position, lift one knee off the floor and kick that heel upward,” Seki says. “Then lower it down and repeat, without letting the knee touch the floor. Keep the knee bent at a 90-degree angle and your foot flexed the whole time, making sure to squeeze your glute and hold the contraction at the top for at least a second.”
This exercise isolates your gluteus medius and doesn’t utilize movement of the knee joint. “From an all-fours position, lift one knee off the floor and raise it out toward the side,” Seki says. “Then lower it back down toward the floor without letting it touch the ground. Try to lift it parallel to the floor while keeping it bent at a 90-degree angle the whole time. Make sure to squeeze your glute and hold the contraction at the top for at least a second.”
Bad knees are frustrating, but these glute exercises should take the strain off your body and help you develop muscle.