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Backpacking Fitness

Knock Out Knee Pain With These 3 Exercises

Prep your joints for long miles and big descents with these injury-prevention workouts.

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Does just the thought of hiking downhill make your knees ache? By adding some strategic strength exercises to your training routine, you can give your knees a solid foundation for hiking and prevent pain. Perform the exercises listed below two to three times per week to strengthen your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves, which will ease your knee pain and keep you smiling on the descents. 

Single-Leg Bridge

The single-leg bridge is terrific for building the large hamstring muscles on the back of the upper leg, glutes, and core. This exercise is great as a warmup before your workout or as a cool down at the end of a session. Start with three sets of 12 to 15 reps three to four times per week and build up to four sets.

  1. Lie down with your knees bent and the soles of your feet on the floor. Your arms will rest by your sides. 
  2. Begin by raising your left leg to create a 90° angle between your upper leg and your torso. Your left leg will remain here until the reps are complete. 
  3. With your core engaged, press through your right foot to raise your butt off the floor as high as you can while keeping your hips level and without arching your back. Return to the start position and repeat for the assigned reps. You should feel this exercise in your glutes and the back of your upper leg. Complete all reps for one leg before changing sides.

Lateral Step-down

The lateral step-down will do wonders for your knee health by strengthening the hip and quad muscles. In addition, this movement is the go-to for helping reduce downhill hiking knee pain. For this exercise, you’ll need a step 6 to 8 inches in height. You can also stand on a cinder block or textbook if you don’t have stairs handy. If you experience any knee pain during this exercise, try a lower step height of around 4 inches. Begin by performing three sets of 10 per leg and build up to four sets.

  1. Start by standing with your left foot on a 6-inch step. Bending your left knee, slowly lower the right foot toward the floor and tap your heel. Try not to reach for the floor with your right foot; instead, lower yourself only with the left leg. 
  2. Press through the left foot to return to the start position. Slow and controlled is the key here; fast reps won’t do you any good. Aim for a three-second lower.

Try to keep your hips level during this exercise. Imagine two flashlights on the front of your hips, one on each side. As you raise and lower, you want the flashlights to shine straight forward. By keeping your hips level, you will engage your side hip muscles, which are essential for healthy knees.

Exercise Ball Hamstring Curls

This exercise is ideal for targeting the large hamstring muscles, glutes, core, and even your calf muscles. Start with three sets of 12 to 15 reps three to four times per week and build up to four sets.

  1. Lying on your back, place your heels on top of a physio-ball. With your arms at your sides, tighten your core and lift your hips toward the ceiling. 
  2. Keeping your hips up, pull your heels toward your butt. You should feel this exercise in your hamstrings and glutes. 
  3. Slowly and with control, straighten your knees back to the start position. 

Lee Welton is a physical therapist assistant and personal trainer in Southeast Idaho. He thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018 and has trekked through the Dolomites in Italy. He can typically be found hiking and exploring the trails in Idaho and Wyoming. For more information, videos, and resources from Welton, visit

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