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April 18, 2022
So you've been doing lunges with bad knees and decided that maybe you should give your knees, and lunges, a rest. That may be the case, but typically just because one exercise causes knee pain doesn't mean all exercises will. If you can find a good lunge alternative that doesn't aggravate your bad knees, you definitely want to keep training (unless you have a serious issue going on with your knees). This will help you strengthen your knees and get them back up to par. That said, you'll need follow some guidelines.
In this article, we'll go over those guidelines and a lot more:
Note: These lunge alternatives are not just good for those with knee pain, they are also great for those who want to switch things up in order to add new stimulus to their legs and build more muscle!
Whenever we talk about alternatives to an exercise, we like to first go over what that exercise is. This is simply to allow you to see what the benefits are of the exercise and why the alternatives we suggest make sense. That being said, let's talk about lunge real quick.
The lunge is classified as a unilateral exercise even though you're working both legs. While it doesn't really matter what it's classified as, it is important to know that the lunge is probably the third-best leg exercise, right after squat and deadlift. In fact, the lunge is one of the fundamental movement patterns that need to be included in everyone's program.
Starting from the standing position, lunges involve stepping one leg out in front with a big step. You then allow your body to drop to the ground until your back knee is just above the ground and your front thigh is parallel to the ground. From this position, you push your body back up into the original starting point, which you repeat with the opposite leg.
You can also perform walking lunges, which start the exact same way as the lunge by stepping one foot out. However, instead of pushing your body back, you will pull your back leg forward. Don't confuse these with similar-looking movements such as a split squat (see the differences between split squat vs lunges in this article) or Bulgarian split squats. Those are great exercises too, but they differ from lunges as the leg placement stays the same for the entire rep.
The primary muscles worked with the lunge are going to be the quadriceps and glutes. However, the hamstrings also play a significant role, and using slight variations can cause more activation, such as reverse lunges. Further, lunge exercises are easy to load as there are multiple options to increase the intensity. While we prefer using dumbbells or kettlebells, you can also place a barbell on your back, use resistance bands, or even just your body weight.
There are a ton of reasons as to why your knees could hurt when doing lunges. Some of these could include:
If you are experiencing knee pain, your primary goal is to fix the root issue behind the pain. It needs to be addressed whether it's a problem with mobility or a weak set of glutes and quadriceps. That being said, you don't want to just stop training. Therefore, here are the best lunge alternatives you can use to substitute the lunge so you can keep training.
The reverse lunge is an excellent modified lunge for bad knees. As the name implies, it's a lunge where you take a step behind you rather than forward. Generally, this is the first lunge alternative many top coaches will turn to when someone is experiencing slight knee pain due to the forward lunge.
Although the movement looks very similar, the reverse step can take a significant load off of the knee. When we step forward doing a lunge, we put the braking forces on that front leg, which means that the knee will experience more force. Conversely, that forward knee is stationary during the reverse lunge, and the braking forces are transferred to the back leg. For a large majority of trainees with minor knee issues, the reverse lunge seems to work very well.
While not quite a modified lunge, the split squat is another movement very similar to the lunge that also has good success with bad knees. The working mechanism is similar to the reverse lunge in that force is taken off of the forward knee as the feet are stationary. Split squats are an excellent lunge alternative for bad knees as the form is so similar. You will receive very similar muscle activation while working on your balance and mobile strength as well. However, due to the legs being stationary, there should be less force applied to the joint.
Yep, the sled drag. In fact, this is one of our favorite leg exercises for bad knees. Heavily used in the sport of Strongman sand other strength sports, this is a bit of a secret. However, the quad workout you can get by dragging a sled is like no other you will ever feel. To be clear, you need to set up a harness to face the sled and take small steps backward. Once you get set up, you will lean backward at an angle and let the weight of the sled catch you. You then simply take small steps back, which will ultimately consist of repeated leg extensions.
Why this is such a fantastic lunge alternative is because it works! With sled drags, you move the weight, the weight doesn't move you. That makes it significantly easier on the knees. Moreover, walking backwards is proven to be great for building up strength in the quads and hamstrings, and thus your knees.
Other than that, when dragging a sled, your steps are accompanied with a small range of motion in the knee joint. As a result, less stress is placed on the knee, significantly reducing any discomfort. At the same time, even with the small range of motion, you will be placing a very large load on the muscle leading to an intense pump. We can say go try it once and see how you like it. Your quads will thank you. And your knees.
Learn more about how sled pushes and pulls strengthen your knees.
As you can likely only use a smaller load, the goblet squat is a great movement to use for muscle hypertrophy as an alternative to lunges for bad knees. When looking at the biomechanics of the goblet squat, it looks very similar to the front squat as it's performed with an upright torso which places greater emphasis on the quadriceps (the reason the front squat isn't on this list is that you should already be doing it!). It's extremely easy to set up, and generally speaking, most trainees report seeing an improvement in knee discomfort. We love to use goblet squats as a finisher with high volume towards the end of a workout.
Biomechanically, sumo deadlifts are quite different from conventional deadlifts, resulting in different muscle activation of the lower body. Due to the more upright torso and greater knee flexion, the sumo deadlift sees much higher activation in the quadriceps when compared to the conventional deadlift.
However, as we are looking for lunge alternatives, we are going to choose to use a dumbbell or kettlebell sumo deadlift. Even though there is significant knee flexion, the movement starts with the concentric portion rather than the eccentric portion. Still, when you do get to the eccentric part it’s usually done more like a controlled drop rather than slow and controlled. This is important because the pain in the joints usually occurs during the eccentric portion, as this is when you are loading the joints. By taking this out of the equation, you should see a significant decrease in knee discomfort.
Again, we like to use these towards the end of a workout for more volume work.
To be honest, we were reluctant to put box squats on this list. That's because you should already be doing them with or without bad knees! However, they are an excellent exercise that are known for being easier on the knees while allowing you to lift heavy loads. Therefore, we wanted to include them for those who aren't aware.
Basically, a box squat is a regular squat performed to a box that you will actually sit on top of. After fully settling, you will then pop off. There are a few reasons that make the box squat knee-friendly:
Further, you can place the box at your desired height. While many people will prefer to put the box just below parallel, you are able to use a taller box to lessen the range of motion, which can reduce forces on the knee.
Even though these exercises make great lunge alternatives for bad knees, you still need to be mindful. The best way to do this is to follow a fundamental principle; Find a movement that doesn’t hurt and use that.. While quite basic, this does seem to be a pretty good guideline to follow when “training around the pain”. Pain is a way for our body to signal that something is wrong. Therefore, if you have pain with exercise A but not with exercise B, it's safe to assume exercise B is a better alternative.
That being said, you are going to want to start a new exercise with light intensity and monitor how your body responds. You definitely don't want to start trying to max out or work until failure. Always start light and work up using progressive overload. While it may seem like you're wasting time, injuring your knee can put you out for a very long time. Depending on how much your knee hurts, we don’t think it would be a waste of time to start at 50% of intensity in your first session and work up from there.
You could also look at using some knee sleeves or wraps when training. Knee sleeves can help through several mechanisms:
Knee sleeves can definitely provide some relief and are worth looking into.
However, if you are experiencing more significant discomfort or prolonged discomfort, we strongly advise you to seek out professional medical treatment. Joint pain is never a good thing, especially in the knee.
We just laid out the best modified lunges and lunge alternatives for those with bad knees. Therefore, we never want to see you doing lunges with your knees again. Nor do we want to see you ignoring your legs either. These lunge alternatives are able to be used for both strength and hypertrophy, so there's no reason you need to sit out. Still, we want to emphasize that these lunge alternatives do not fix the main issue that's going on. We definitely want you to use them, but we also want to see you working on whatever issue it was in the first place that caused your knees to hurt. That being said, keep training and be smart!
If you want some exercises that can help fix knee pain, check out these 6 resistance band knee exercises.
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