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High knees are a quick way to get your heart rate up. Here's how to do them

High knees are a go-to cardio move frequently used to warm up the body. Are you doing them correctly?
Illustration of young woman doing high knees
TODAY Illustration / Stephanie Mansour

High knees are often used as a cardio exercise and are usually incorporated into warmup routines or in between bodyweight exercises to keep your heart rate up.

Although high knees are meant to keep your body moving, I often see my clients moving their body too much — and moving it incorrectly. Correct form is critical when performing high knees. Swinging your arms too much or leaning forward not only makes the exercise less effective, but it can place stress on your back and lead to pain or injury,

What do high knees do for the body?

High knees engage the core while also strengthening the muscles in the legs. In addition, this move helps with coordination, flexibility and momentum. And when performed at a fast pace they serve as a cardio exercise, too.

The reason high knees are usually incorporated into warmups or in between other exercises is because they help improve hip flexor strength and flexibility, and they keep your heart rate elevated.

The common mistakes people make when doing high knees

The move looks simple but requires a lot of attention to detail to be performed correctly. Your posture, foot placement and arm movement are all involved in the success of this exercise.

A lot of people lean too far forward while performing high knees. Doing this restricts your range of motion — you won’t be able to pull your knees up as high — somewhat defeating the purpose of the exercise. It’s also a sign that you aren’t engaging your core. Not relying on the ab muscles to pull your knees up can cause you to recruit muscles in your back, which can cause pain.

Another common mistake involves the movement of your arms. Many people end up swinging their arms too far forward. You should have a little bit of arm movement as you would while jogging, but too much movement can make it harder to maintain a solid core. To correct these mistakes when performing high knees:

  • Make sure you maintain good posture. Keep your back straight and look straight out in front of you.
  • Move your arms naturally. Don’t force excessive arm movement that you wouldn’t experience naturally when jogging.
  • Do use your arms to help with stability. Keep your arms tight to your body with fingers extended and elbows bent at 90 degrees. This helps you maintain balance and control of your body during the exercise.
  • Think of pulling your legs up with your abs. Focusing on your lower abs, and the pulling motion, will help ensure you keep your core engaged and maintain proper posture.

How to do modified high knees

If you’re not used to intense cardio exercise, performing high knees at a fast pace can be a lot to handle. However, it is easy to slow this move down so that you can build up the strength to steadily increase speed.

When performing a modified version of high knees, take it slow. Begin by marching in place while you lift one knee to your chest and then the other. Practicing this move in slow motion will decrease the intensity of the workout, allowing you to focus on proper form.

How to perform high knees correctly

High knees are a great addition to your cardio workout or warmup routine. Here are step-by-step instructions to perform the move correctly.

  1. Begin standing straight with your spine long and your shoulders back and down, maintaining good posture.
  2. Balancing on the left leg, lift the right leg up so that your knee is higher than your waist; keeping your foot flexed and your knee bent at a 90-degree angle.
  3. Switch legs, returning the right leg to the ground while lifting the left above waist height.
  4. Keep your arms moving in a controlled motion (as if you are running), being careful not to swing them. The opposite arm and leg should raise at the same time (for example, while you pull the right leg to the chest, raise the left arm up in front of you.
  5. Continue to alternate between each leg; remember to breathe.

4 exercises that will help you master high knees

If you find yourself making some of the common mistakes, don’t worry. There are plenty of exercises that will help you build up the muscle strength and endurance needed to perform high knees correctly.

Jumping jacks

High knees can put a lot of pressure on your knees. If you’re looking for something a little less intense to warm the body up and raise your heart rate, try jumping jacks. Start by standing upright. Jump in the air, moving both feet out to the side so they are wider than shoulder width apart. While you do this, move your arms from the side of your body to the top of your head so that your thumb and pointer finger of each hand make a triangle. Jump your feet back together and return your arms to your sides. Repeat.

Butt kicks

Butt kicks are almost the opposite of high knees, but they move your body in a similar way. Start by standing straight. Instead of bringing your knees to your chest, kick your feet towards your butt, trying to touch your heel to your butt. Pump your arms and take it at whatever pace works best for you. This move will improve your cardiovascular endurance and coordination, preparing you for high knees.

Jump rope

Jump rope can help improve your coordination and endurance. If you don’t have a jump rope, you can simulate the same movements without one. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your arms out to your sides (holding the jump rope handles at waist height if you have one). Rotate your hands, swinging the jump rope so that it begins to move in a circular motion over your head. Jump over the rope so that it passes under your feet and repeat.


Leg strength is important for high knees, and squats are a great to build it while also working core and balance. Begin with your feet hip-width apart. Bend at the hips, sitting back and lowering your body into a 90-degree angle. Stand back up, squeezing your glutes at the top, and repeat.

More ways to master the move: