Best Cardio Workouts and Exercises for Bad Knees

Best Cardio Workouts and Exercises for Bad Knees

Dealing with knee pain or a knee condition doesn’t mean you have to give up on cardio. There are numerous exercises that are safe for your knees.

But before you begin any exercise program, consult with your healthcare provider if you have knee pain so that they can provide a treatment plan and recommendations based on your specific concern.


Swimming emerges as one of the best exercise choices for individuals with knee pain, as the buoyancy of water relieves pressure on the knees. This allows for an effective cardio workout while simultaneously strengthening the muscles supporting the knees. Optimal knee-friendly swimming strokes include freestyle and the backstroke, but you can also incorporate other drills and exercises.

To increase the intensity of your swimming workout, try extending the duration of your chosen exercise and/or aim to move through the water more quickly while maintaining proper form.

Upper Body Ergometer

If you’re seeking a knee-friendly cardio workout without impacting the lower body, consider incorporating an upper body ergometer. Many gyms (including CKO Kickboxing, Koko Fit Club and Fitness First)  and physical therapy clinics have this machine, which functions similarly to a bicycle for the arms. It provides an effective means of elevating heart rate without placing strain on the knees, making it an ideal choice for individuals with severe injuries or those recovering from surgery.

You can design your workout on the upper body ergometer with different approaches:

  • Interval training: Begin with a low speed and intensity for 5-10 minutes as a warm-up, then increase the speed and intensity for 30-60 seconds. Follow this by reducing the speed and intensity for 5 minutes before repeating the cycle.
  • Steady-state cardio: Choose a comfortable intensity level and sustain the exercise for 30-60 minutes. This is particularly suitable for beginners.
  • Time trials: Set a distance, intensity level, and speed and measure the time it takes to complete the exercise.


Walking without pain opens up the option of using a treadmill for your cardio workouts. The moving belt provides cushioning that concrete sidewalks lack, allowing for a more comfortable walking experience. Wearing appropriate shoes with adequate support is essential.

To increase the intensity, consider incorporating speed walking or walking on an incline. Alternate between walking at a slow pace or low incline for 2 minutes, and walking at an increased speed and/or incline for up to 5 minutes. Repeat this cycle for up to 30 minutes, and conclude your workout with a cooldown period.

The Rowing Machine

The rowing machine presents another knee-friendly option as the motion primarily engages the quadriceps and hamstrings, contributing to stronger knees. When using the rowing machine:

For beginners, aim to use this machine at a moderate intensity for approximately 10 minutes. Gradually increase the duration and intensity each week to improve endurance and strength.

Advanced exercisers should begin with a warm-up and then alternate rowing 300 meters at a moderate pace with a two-minute period of slower rowing. Repeat this sequence for three sets and conclude with a cooldown.

It is important to note that the repetitive nature of rowing can either alleviate or exacerbate knee pain, depending on the individual. Begin with a gentle approach and gauge your body’s response. If you experience discomfort, it might be best to avoid this exercise.

Home Cardio Workout for Individuals With Knee Pain

If you don’t have access to a gym or prefer home workouts, there are plenty of exercises you can do with minimal equipment.

Equipment required: A resistance band, a medicine ball weighing 4–10 pounds, and an exercise ball.

Instructions for the workout:

  • Begin with a light cardio warm-up, such as marching in place or around your house, for at least 5 minutes. You can also use the first couple of exercises in this routine to warm up your muscles.
  • Once your body is warmed up, stretch any tight muscles in your lower body, focusing on the hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves.
  • Perform each exercise for 30–60 seconds, transitioning smoothly from one move to the next with minimal rest in between.
  • Aim to work at a moderate intensity. If you desire more intensity, increase your speed, use a larger range of motion, add impact (if it doesn’t cause knee pain), or use a heavier resistance.
  • You can complete one circuit for a quick 15-minute workout or repeat the circuit multiple times according to your preferences.
  • End the workout with a cooldown period and ensure you stretch your lower body muscles.

To decrease the intensity of the workout, take longer breaks between exercises, perform the moves at a slower pace, use less resistance, and reduce the number of repetitions.

1. Step Touches

The workout begins with simple exercises that gradually increase in intensity. Start with step touches:

  • Step out to the right while extending your arms out to the sides.
  • Bring the left foot in, touching the floor next to the right foot, and immediately step to the left with your left leg.
  • Keep your legs relatively straight—this is not a side lunge or squat.
  • Continue stepping to the right and left, gradually widening your steps and increasing the range of motion of your arms to warm up your body.
  • Repeat for 60 seconds. To decrease the intensity, repeat for 30 seconds.


  • Perform step touches while traversing the entire room and then return to your starting point.
  • Elevate the intensity by circling your arms overhead during the exercise.
  • Instead of step touches, balance on your right leg and step your left foot out and in for 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.

2. Low-Impact Jumping Jacks

Gradually increase the intensity with low-impact jumping jacks:

  • Take your right foot out to the right, slightly pivoting on the left foot so that your body faces the left side of the room. Simultaneously swing your right arm up.
  • Return to the starting position and pivot to the right, taking your left leg out and swinging your left arm up.
  • Continue alternating sides for 60 seconds, or reduce the duration to 20-30 seconds for a lower intensity.


  • Add circular arm movements. Instead of raising one arm at a time, raise both arms together, creating a circular motion resembling a rainbow in the air.
  • Intensify the exercise by attempting full jumping jacks if your knees tolerate the impact.
  • If pivoting causes knee discomfort, perform the exercise while facing forward.

3. March With an Exercise Ball

Incorporate an exercise ball into this next exercise:

  • Hold the exercise ball with both hands, extending it straight up overhead.
  • As you bring the ball down to your right knee, lift your right knee up.
  • Raise the ball while lowering your right leg, and repeat the movement on the left side.
  • Continue for 60 seconds. To decrease the intensity, perform the exercise for 20-30 seconds.


  • If the exercise is challenging for your upper body, hold the ball at chest level while marching.
  • Increase the intensity by performing the exercise at a faster pace.
  • To decrease intensity, execute the movement without an exercise ball.

4. Medicine Ball Knee Lifts

To introduce variety, incorporate a medicine ball weighing between 4 and 8 pounds:

  • Hold the medicine ball with both hands and march, similar to the exercise with the exercise ball.
  • Begin with the medicine ball extended straight up and lift your right knee, making contact between your knee and the medicine ball.
  • Lower your leg and repeat the movement on the left side, alternating between sides for 60 seconds. Reduce the duration to 30 seconds for a lower intensity.


  • If the upper body portion of the exercise feels too challenging, hold the ball at chest level while marching.
  • Increase the intensity by performing the exercise at a faster pace.
  • For a more intense workout, use a heavier medicine ball.

5. Straight Leg Kicks With a Medicine Ball

With the medicine ball still in hand, intensify the workout with some long lever moves:

  • Raise the medicine ball above your head while taking a slight step back with your right leg. Keep your front knee slightly bent.
  • From this position, kick your right leg forward while lowering the medicine ball toward your toes.
  • Repeat for 30 seconds and switch to the other side.


  • If bending your front knee causes discomfort, keep your leg straight.
  • Hold the ball at chest level for a lower intensity.

Cooldown and Stretching

Always end your workout with a cooldown that gradually lowers your heart rate. Walk around slowly or perform light stretching exercises for your lower body, focusing on the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, and hips.

Here are some exercises to get rid of knee pain:

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