4 Cardio Exercises for Bad Knees

Written by Tihomir Stefanov | 09 December 2019

Updated: February 23, 2021

cardio for bad knees featured image

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and not medical advice. If you have knee pain and are unsure of what exercises you can do, seek advice from a medical professional because the level of knee pain can vary from person to person, and I am only qualified as a personal trainer.

This guide contains some of the best cardio exercises you may be able to do when you have bad knees.

Use the links in the table of contents below to jump down to your area of interest:

Table of Contents

Low-impact Cardio Exercises

Swimming

A man swimming the butterfly stroke in the swimming pool

You may already know from personal experience how swimming is, without a doubt, one of the least impactful forms of cardio exercise. In addition, it feels amazing while you are doing it as the whole body is engaged.

If you are looking to develop an athletic physique instead of a bulky one, water aerobics is the go-to choice.  There aren’t that many other best exercises that can develop the musculature of your body as well as swimming does.

Wide shoulders, a wide rib cage, and a well-toned physique are the results that you can achieve with regular swimming routines.

That’s only the visual part of the activity. With swimming, you not only spare your joints but improve your cardio endurance and lung capacity at the same time.

We consider this to be the number one form of low-impact cardio when the main goal is sparing the knees and developing the body simultaneously.

Stationary Bike

slow cycling during sunset

Depending on your level of knee pain, a stationary bike may provide a near-flawless motion pattern with little to no stress on your knees.

If you don’t like the idea of riding a stationary bike in a gym, you can get your own stationary bike and ride it from the comfort of your own home.

You can also get a normal bike and cycle in the park or around your neighborhood. This is a highly recommended option as the exposure to the elements, such as the natural plant life and sunlight, make your ride much more enjoyable and even a bit healthier (sunlight provides you with a natural way of getting vitamin D, something your body needs on a daily basis).

If that doesn’t appeal to you, then try using an elliptical machine as both of these exercises take you through your full range of motion without much strain on your knees.

Outdoor Rowing

A young girl with blonde hair gently rowing across the lake on a warm, sunny day.

If you are looking for something that’ll give you a solid aerobic workout but still engage your upper body musculature, outdoor rowing is a great thing to try.

Rowing is one of the stepping stones to the success of many CrossFit regimens and healthy individuals because you’re able to target the arms and back whilst also engaging your core musculature.

So, when you’re looking for something more dynamic that is also a low-impact exercise on your knees, give rowing a shot.

Seated Battle Ropes

Doing battle ropes while seated is a great upper body cardio workout when you have bad knees, mostly because the knees are hardly involved. If you’re seeking a high-intensity workout that conditions your upper body, battle ropes are a top choice.

The battle ropes will give both your musculature and lungs a great workout. Not only will every swing and slam of the ropes burn a good amount of energy, but you will also tone your arms, shoulders, back, and core ― all at the same time.

We recommend doing high-intensity intervals of battle ropes as they are made for that. These high-intensity intervals will trigger the fast-twitch muscle fibers and provide you with a mixed anaerobic/aerobic zone of training.

Now, let’s move on to the anatomy of the knee to learn more.

Knee Anatomy

anatomy of knee muscles, joints, cartilage, bone with labels

The knee is one of the most complex joints of the human skeletal-muscular apparatus as it is the link between two big bones: the femur and tibia (upper and lower bones of the leg). There is also a smaller bone that runs next to the tibia, which is known as the fibula.

Along with the kneecap, or patella, those two are the other components of the knee joint. Finally, the knee tendons connect it to the muscles of the legs, and there are ligaments that provide the knees with stability. These ligaments are the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), medial collateral ligament (MCL), and lateral collateral ligament (LCL)[1].

Knee anatomy animation

Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL)

The ACL prevents backward-sliding motions of the femur onto the tibia. An ACL tear is perhaps one of the most common knee injuries for football players. The ACL can get torn during rapid and repetitive twisting and turning motions as well as frequent changes in directions[2].

Posterior Cruciate Ligament (PCL)

The PCL prevents the tibia from sliding back onto the femur. This ligament is commonly damaged upon a hyperextension of the knee[3].

Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) and Lateral Collateral Ligament (LCL)

The MCL and LCL[4] are located on the inner and outer sides of the knee, respectively. Their main function is to prevent the femur from sliding from side to side. These ligaments commonly are injured when excessive force is applied to the outside of the knee.

Besides the ligaments listed above, there are two “C”-shaped pieces of cartilage. Those are the medial and lateral menisci, which act as shock absorbers between the upper and lower leg bones. Additionally, there are numerous fluid-filled sacs in the knee that help it move smoothly.

Kneecap

The kneecap[6] is an independent bone located at the front of the knee joints. The patella is attached to the quadriceps tendon as well as to the tibia.

Posture and Resistance Training

The more you sit, the more your lower body atrophies. Many people are simply unaware of their posture[7] because the more we slouch, the more comfortable and more natural it becomes. However, if this is neglected for a long time, your body will evolve to meet the pressure exerted in this position, thereby causing several negative issues. These can include:

  • Poor circulation
  • Poor digestion
  • Spinal curvature

Here are some steps that you can take to avoid these issues from occurring:

  • Include resistance training in your workout regimen, such as hip thrusts, bodyweight squats and lunges, calf raises, and resistance band exercises
  • Practice good posture and maintain your awareness of it by setting notifications to sit up straight

Weak muscles and bad posture can result in more stress on your joints. This includes your knees but can extend to your hips, ankles, and other joints as well. Avoiding sitting for long periods of time is essential to prevent these issues. Even getting up for five minutes every hour is a start in the right direction.

Conclusion

I hope you have found this post useful. Now I’d like to turn it over to you.

What low-impact cardio are you going to try?

How did your knee feel when trying it?

Perhaps you have a question?

Let us know in the comments below

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Tihomir Stefanov

Tihomir Stefanov (Tisho) is a qualified personal trainer and content writer with a dedication to helping fitness enthusiasts around the world. In his spare time, he enjoys rock climbing, photography, and working out at the gym.