Get Big Legs with Bad Knees

Let’s face it…injuries are sometimes an unavoidable part of life and athletics. Talk to just about any athlete or exercise enthusiast over the age of 25 and he or she is almost guaranteed to have some sort of pain, injury, or limitation.

One of the more common areas of trouble for athletes and exercisers alike are the knees.

The Problem

Often, past or present knee issues limit or totally prevent folks from performing many of the traditional lower body exercises. Movements like squats, lunges, and steps simply place significant force through the knee and demand the knee joint to move through a large range of motion. This is exactly what individuals suffering from knee issues need to avoid. Therefore, these folks are left confused and frustrated as to how they can still train and successfully make gains in the gym.

That is, until now…

The Solution

This article will provide you with a concept that I call Joint Friendly Training or more specifically, Knee Friendly Training.

Knee-friendly training exercises are exercises that maximize results in strength and muscle but place minimal stress on the knee joint. In other words, these exercises will help you get bigger stronger legs without creating pain or discomfort.

“How do I know?”, you ask..

Well, I know that these exercises work because I use them every day with my injured athletes. Every exercise protocol provided below has been battle-tested and proven effective in my gym time and time again.

Plus, as a CEC provider and educator presenting at national fitness conferences, I have been teaching other coaches and trainers these very same concepts for years. Many of those trainers have contacted me to rave about the great results they get using these very same protocols.

This is NOT Corrective Exercise!

Before I provide the specific exercise protocols. I wanted to make a very important point:

The exercises below are designed to work around your pain, injury and/ or limitations. They are NOT designed to be rehabilitation exercises or corrective training. This type of training is best left to a qualified physical therapist.

The Rules!

There are two very basic and very common sense rules when using the knee-friendly training exercises below.

Rule #1 – If it hurts, don’t do it!

If one of these exercises creates pain during or after training, skip it and move on to another variation.

Rule #2 – Change is okay!

Don’t be afraid to modify a movement to better accommodate your specific limitations. For instance, use a lighter weight, shorter ROM, or slower tempo.

The Exercises

After I provide the specific exercises, I will describe a sample program showing how to apply them in your program.

Knee Friendly Exercise #1 – The Single Leg ½ Squat, ½ Deadlift

This exercise is one of my favorite lower body exercises for both injured and uninjured athletes because it’s a very efficient way to train the entire lower body. It combines the benefits of unilateral training and leverages the timing and rhythm of both the quads and hips working together.

Folks with bad knees usually have trouble bending their knees past a certain point. The ½ Squat ½ Deadlift limits the knee bend and allows the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings) to bear some of the load and therefore to de-load the knee joint a bit.

Watch the video below on how to use the ½ Squat ½ Deadlift:

½ Squat ½ Deadlift – Program Design Tips

  • This exercise can also be done bilaterally (two legs) using a barbell or dumbbells.
  • Add load to the 1 Leg ½ Sq/DL by wearing a weighted vest, holding dumbbells, a medicine ball, or barbell.
  • Isometric holds for 3-5 seconds at the bottom position are also an effective training option

Knee Friendly Exercise #2 – Anterior Lunges

Anterior lunges are based on the same principle as the ½ Squat/DL. This lunge variation is knee-friendly because it emphasizes more glute recruitment. By increasing glute recruitment, we automatically bring in more muscular help to the knee.

This exercise also makes a killer glute and athletic performance drill for uninjured athletes. I warn you though, Anterior Lunges will make your butt very sore if you’ve never tried them before! Like any other new exercise, once your body adapts, that soreness goes away.

Here’s how to perform the Anterior Lunge:

Anterior Lunge – Program Design Tips

  • Only go as heavy as you are able while still maintaining optimal spinal alignment (proper lordodic curve).
  • Alternate legs or do all reps on same side, then switch.
  • Shorten your stride or amount of lean relative to pain/knee tolerance levels.

Knee Friendly Exercise #3 – Romanian Deadlifts

RDLs are a very commonly used exercise. Therefore, I don’t think it necessary to cover them in a very indepth manner.

That said, RDLs are a very knee-friendly way to lift big weights and build more muscle and strength.

Knee Friendly Exercise #4 – Monster Walks

Monster walks are one of the most popular exercises I teach to my clients during training and when I present to fitness professionals at national conferences. This exercise is fun, easy to learn, and most importantly, it works!

As in the theme of this article, monster walks require little to no bending of the knee and therefore are very easy on the knee joint. Even my folks with very severe knee issues can use monster walks to strengthen the lower body without pain or irritation.

All you need to perform monster walks is a heavy resistance band like the ones used in band-resisted bench presses and squats.

Monster Walk – Program Design and Coaching Tips

  • Prevent hips (pelvis) from rotating more than a few degrees.
  • Walk while emphasizing movement from your hips (glutes).
  • Stay tall.
  • Monster walks are best performed for time frames of 30-60 seconds.
  • To increase load demand, use a heavier band or walk further out.

Knee Friendly Exercise #5a & 5b – Single Leg Bench Hip Bridge

This is another one of those exercises that is simple to learn, works with anyone, and builds big-time muscular strength and size.

It’s also a personal favorite of my lovely girlfriend, Alli McKee. Alli happens to be an experienced strength coach and competitive figure athlete. You can get all of Alli’s workout for free on her blog – Alli McKee’s Blog

When performing the Single Leg Hip Bridge, there are actually two ways to perform the Single Leg Hip Lift…

You can use a bent leg, as shown in the pictures of Alli below:

5a – Single Leg Bench Hip Bridge – Start position

5a – Single Leg Hip Bridge – Finish position

The other variation of the Single Leg Hip Bridge consists of performing it with a straight leg as shown below:

5b – Single Leg Hip Bridge with Straight Leg – Finish Position

When performing this exercise with a straight leg, be sure to keep your toes pointed straight toward the sky as shown below:

Here’s an example of the wrong foot position:

Single Leg Hip Bridge – wrong foot position

Here is the correct foot position:

Single Leg Hip Bridge – correct foot position

Single Leg Hip Bridge – Program Design and Coaching Tips

  • Place the flat part of the weight plate on your shin. The plate should not be uncomfortable to hold.
  • Lift hips as high as possible and pause for 1-2 seconds at the top.
  • To create more balanced muscular development and add variety to your training, alternate bent leg and straight leg hip bridge variations every other workout.
  • Use a larger plate or multiple plates (stacked) to increase the load.

Knee-Friendly Exercise #6a, 6b, and 6c – Sled Training

With sled training, you get a knee-friendly way to both improve your strength and/or improve your level of work capacity (conditioning).

In this section, I’m going to cover my three most effective knee-friendly training drills using a sled.

6a. Sled Pushes

Sled pushes, when done correctly, will crush even the fittest and strongest of athletes.

Keep your back fairly straight with hips and shoulders close to level with one another.

Check out these two hard-working master figure competitors performing heavy sled pushes:



Sled Push – Coaching and Program Design Tips

  • For strength and muscular gains, go as heavy as possible for 25-40 yards.
  • For improvements in conditioning or for fat loss, use lighter loads for 50-100 yards.

6b. Forward Sled Drag

This drill is a personal favorite of mine for building the legs, burning fat, and developing long lasting conditioning levels.

Since this type of training has become more popular, there are multiple equipment options available depending on your preferred financial investment.

On the high end, you can buy a Prowler. A cheaper option is to buy a weighted sled. Although I have both pieces of equipment, I still prefer the last option…a used oversized tire. The best part about getting a tire is the price…FREE from the junkyard!

Check it out. Here, at Performance U in Baltimore, we perform our Forward Sled Drag using a big tire.



Forward Sled Drag – Coaching and Program Design Tips

  • Stronger athletes need a larger/ heavier tire…DUH!!!
  • Lean forward with a straight back.
  • Take big strides.
  • For improvements in strength, go 20-40 yards.
  • For improvements in conditioning or fat loss, go 40 – 100 yards.
  • For dynamic effort training, cover 15-25 yards as fast as possible.

6c. Reverse Sled Drag

The reverse sled drag is a great knee-friendly way to create terminal knee extension and develop your quads. This exercise is no slouch in the fat loss and conditioning department either.

This exercise can also be performed with the Prowler, a weighted sled, or a giant tire. I like the tire because I can get outside and work on my tan while getting stronger.



Reverse Sled Drag – Coaching and Program Design Tips

  • You can stand tall or drop into a partial squat while performing this exercise.
  • Alternate each position every workout to create balance and add variety.
  • For strength gains, go as heavy as possible for 20-40 yards.
  • For fat loss or improved conditioning, go lighter for 40-80 yards.

Putting it All Together

Now that I’ve provided you with the specific exercises, here’s a sample-training program. This program demonstrates a sample two-day knee-friendly leg training split.

Sample Two-Day Knee Friendly Strength & Conditioning Program

Day A

  • Romanian Deadlifts: 4 x 5-8
  • 1 Leg Hip Bridge (Bent Leg): 3 x 8-12 paired with Reverse Sled Drag (low stance): 3 x 30-40 yds
  • Calves: 2 x 20-25
  • Forward Sled Drag (for conditioning): 100 yds x 2

Day B

  • 1 Leg ½ Squat 1/s DL: 4 x 10-15
  • 1 Leg Hip Bridge (Straight Leg): 3 x 8-12 paired with Reverse Sled Drag (tall stance): 3 x 30-40 yds
  • Calves: 2 x 20-25
  • Sled Push (for conditioning): 50 yds x 4

Note: When pairing exercises, you should perform exercise a, followed by exercise b and then repeat for the subscribed number of sets.

For example in DAY A, the Leg Hip Bridge paired with Reverse Sled Drag should be performed as:

  • Leg Hip Bridge: 1 x 8-12
  • Reverse Sled Drag: 1 x 30-40 yds
  • Leg Hip Bridge: 1 x 8-12
  • Reverse Sled Drag: 1 x 30-40 yds
  • Leg Hip Bridge: 1 x 8-12
  • Reverse Sled Drag: 1 x 30-40 yds


I have always been big on delivering a high value on everything I produce. This article is no exception…I’ve got a very cool bonus exercise for you.

Knee Friendly Cardio / Conditioning

All of the sled variations I provided above are excellent ways of improving cardiovascular endurance and metabolic conditioning.

However, those exercises will gas you out fairly quick. If you are looking for a knee friendly cardio option that you can perform for extended periods of time, watch the video below:




So there you have it! I’ve given the specific exercises, shown you how to perform them safely and correctly, AND I’ve provided you with a comprehensive training program.

You now no longer have the option of using the “I have bad knees” excuse to not train, build muscle, and get stronger or lose fat.

You have all the tools, so…get to the gym and get after it!

Written by Nick Tumminello

About Nick Tumminello

Nick Tumminello, the director of Performance University, is a nationally recognized coach and educator who works with a select group of athletes, physique competitors, and exercise enthusiasts in Baltimore, Maryland.

Nick is rapidly establishing himself as a leader in the field for his innovative techniques and “smarter” approach to training. As a coach, Nick works in the trenches testing, developing and refining his innovative techniques with clients and athletes of all ages and levels.

Go to his website to get your free “Smarter & Stronger” video course.

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Get Big Legs with Bad Knees discussion thread.