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Bad knees? This leg-strengthening move can help

If your knees are bothering you, it's time to focus on the muscles around the joint.
Illustration of woman lifting her leg
Leg lifts work the abs, hips and quadriceps — all muscles that support the knee joint.TODAY Illustration / Stephanie Mansour

Our knees are one of the most important joints in our bodies. We use them every day, whether it be to stand up, walk, bend down or reach up for something. That’s why injury in the knees is common and extra painful.

Luckily there are exercises you can do to reduce your chances of getting hurt and improve muscular function and mobility.

When it comes to strengthening your knees, it’s really about strengthening the muscles around the knee to provide them better support. Having stronger leg muscles can help take pressure off the knees, decreasing the chance of injury.

What does the leg lift do for the body?

The leg lift works the quadriceps, hips and abdominals. Strengthening these muscles helps alleviate pressure in the knees during everyday activities like walking, running or jumping. With a strong core, you’ll be more balanced and less likely to misstep and hurt yourself. With strong quads, your knees will be given the support they need every day to prevent injury.

The common mistakes people make when doing the leg lift

The leg lift requires you to engage various muscle groups. I find that a lot of my clients only focus on their quadriceps when lifting their legs. However, because you’re in standing position, engaging the abdominals is just as important. Think about bracing your core as you lift the leg up to help with balance.

The leg lift also works the hip abductors, which is why pointing your toe out at a 45-degree angle is important. In doing so, you’re working your hips, legs and abdominals all at once, which is important in providing your knees with the support they need. Follow these tips to help avoid common mistakes:

  • Engage your abdominals as you lift each leg.
  • Point the toe of the leg you are lifting out at a 45-degree angle.
  • Use your hips as well as your quads to lift your legs straight up in the air.
  • Make sure not to lean back when raising your leg so that you don’t lose balance.

How to do a modified leg lift

In order to reap the benefits of this move, it’s important to be able to engage all of the proper muscle groups. If you’re struggling with the traditional leg lift, it’s okay to perform a modified version. In doing so, you’ll work your way up to the full move safely.

Instead of lifting your leg all the way up so that it’s parallel to the floor, lift your leg only as far as you can go, even if you can only lift it a couple of inches off of the ground. With practice, you’ll be able to lift your leg higher and higher.

How to perform the leg lift correctly

The leg lift is a great move to strengthen your legs and help prevent knee injury before it happens. If you’re ready to conquer the move, follow these steps:

  1. With your feet shoulder-width apart, place your hands on your hips.
  2. Place your weight on your right foot and point your left toe at a 45-degree angle.
  3. Slowly lift your left leg straight up in front of you. Lift it as high as you can until it’s almost parallel with the floor.
  4. Engage your core and use your hips to keep the leg in the air.
  5. Lower your leg back down. Repeat 10 times before performing the same steps with the other leg.

4 exercises that will help you perform the leg lift better

The leg lift isn’t the only move that can help you strengthen your knees and avoid injury. These exercises will also strengthen the muscles that support the knees and help you master the leg lift.

Seated leg lift

Sitting in a chair, place your feet flat on the ground with your knees bent. Hold on to the edge of the chair and straighten your right leg in front of you, with your heel rested on the ground. Point your toe and raise your leg up in the air until it’s almost parallel to the ground. Lower it back down. Repeat 10 times and then repeat with your other leg.

Lying down leg lift

Lie on a mat with your hands at your sides and your legs straight out in front of you. With your toes pointed, lift one leg up into the air until it is at a 45-degree angle. Lower it back down. Repeat 10 times and then repeat with the other leg.

Standing side leg raise

Similar to the leg lift, begin in a standing position with your hands on your hips. Instead of lifting your leg straight out in front of you, lift it out to the side as far as you can. Bring it back to the starting position. Repeat 10 times and then repeat using the other leg.

Prone leg raises

Lie on the ground on your stomach with your legs straight out behind you. Bend your elbows so that your hands are flat on the ground next to your head. Use your glutes and hamstrings to lift your left leg up in the air behind you. Lower it back down. Repeat 10 times and then repeat using the other leg.

More ways to master the move