The Best Cardio Exercises for Bad Knees

by Shannon Beineke & Vanessa Sofia

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 knees in need of some extra TLC. Your capabilities will depend on your injury, but the following knee exercises can often be done with ease. Check with your doctor or physical therapist before beginning any “bad-knee” workout.


Works: Glutes, 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 ten 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 aren’t recommended for those with tender knees, partial squats are a great exercise to build strength while protecting the joints.

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

Find a good knee support product before attempting this exercise, and it’s always best to work out with a buddy.

Calf raises

Works: Lower-leg muscles

Also known as “toe raises.”

  • Stand up straight with the front of your feet on a flat surface.
  • With toes pointed forward, keep your ankles, hips, and shoulders in alignment.
  • 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 side.
  • 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 a set of 50 reps. Don’t let your legs or shoulders rest on the floor during the set.


Works: Upper, mid and lower body

Swimming is one of the best exercises for people with bad knees. It’s low impact and versatile, and it burns calories quickly. Proper form is crucial, especially while 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 injury, 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 a great way to get in shape.

Use the elliptical instead of the treadmill

You will burn roughly the same amount of calories using an elliptical trainer as you would 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 without the impact.

Dust off your bike

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

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 its natural limits. Try switching back and forth between these low-impact cardio exercises throughout the week to keep your muscles engaged and your workout routine challenging.