What Are The Best Quad Stretches For Knee Pain?
Watch the video to learn 7 quad stretches for knee pain plus my overall pick for the best quad stretch.
What Are The Quadriceps?
Before discussing how to do quad stretches for knee pain, you first need to understand a little bit about the anatomy of the quadriceps.
Your quadriceps are the muscles in the front of your thigh.
Quadriceps literally means "four heads". So you have four different muscles that attach into a common quadriceps tendon.
4 Heads Of the Quadriceps
Vastus Medialis - on the inside or medial side of the thigh
Vastus Lateralis on the outer or lateral side of the thigh
Vastus Intermedius - runs down the middle of the thigh (deep)
Rectus Femoris - superficial to the vastus intermedius
The rectus femoris is different from the other three quadricep heads because the rectus femoris crosses both the knee as well as the hip. That makes it both a hip flexor as well as a knee extensor.
Conversely, the other three quad muscles are ONLY knee extensors, meaning they straighten the knee but don't affect your hip. Therefore, to stretch the 3 vastus muscles, you want to bend your knee maximally.
However, to stretch the rectus femoris, you need to both bend the knee as well as extend the hip at the same time.
Can Tight Quads Cause Knee Pain?
Tight quads CAN causes knee pain, especially kneecap pain (a.k.a. patellofemoral pain).
Your kneecap (patella) is contained inside the quad tendon.
Therefore, stiffness of the quad muscles can compress the cartilage on the back surface of the kneecap against the cartilage on the thigh bone or femur.
This can cause the kneecap cartilage to get inflamed or irritated, a condition known as chondromalacia patella.
Can Stretching Your Quads Help Knee Pain?
Stretching your quads can help some types of knee pain. Stretching your quads is especially good for patellofemoral pain as noted above.
Your quadriceps are really important to the function of your knee for activities such as squatting or going up and downstairs.
So it's important to stretch your quadriceps if they're tight. However, you want to make sure to stretch your quads in a way that won't hurt your knee.
Quad Stretches For Knee Pain
For the remainder of this post, I'll go over how to do the 7 different quad stretches, the advantages and disadvantages of each. Plus, I'll give you my overall pick for the best quad stretch for knee pain.
Stretch #1 - Standing Quad Stretch
Let's start out with the quad stretch that everyone probably knows. Everyone has likely done this one at some point in their life (gym class, sports, etc).
Do do the standing quad stretch, you simply pull your heel up towards your butt until you feel a stretch in the front of your thigh.
There advantages of this quad stretch are that you're both extending your hip as well as bending your knee. Therefore, you stretch the vastus muscles by bending your knees as well as your rectus femoris by extending your hip.
However, there are also several disadvantages to this quad stretch:
- To get your knee all the way back to your butt, you may have to extend your back. That's not good if you have a concurrent back problem.
- If you start with your leg back and then try to grab your heel, you may have to contort your body to actually be able to grab it.
- You may be limited by your rectus femoris flexibility and may not fully stretch your vastus muscles if you cant bend your knee all the way.
One tip to use if you want to use this quadricep stretch is to bend the knee first and then start to pull the hip back into extension.
When you do the stretch like this, you may not get all the way into hip extension... and that's OK.
Start with the knee bent in front of you, and then pull back into hip extension just so you feel a stretch in the front of the thigh or in the quadriceps.
So that's the first stretch. Again it's probably the most common one, but that doesn't mean it's the best quad stretch.
Stretch #2 - Prone Quad Stretch
This is essentially a laying down version of the standing quad stretch. You just lay on your belly and bend your knee up toward your butt.
Note when you do this, your back is arched, much like the standing quad stretch.
Some people with tight hip flexors have trouble laying on their belly anyway, so may need to put a pillow underneath your hips if your hip flexors are tight.
This allows your back to stay in more of a neutral position.
Then you can try to grab your leg, but again you get the back extension.
It can be helpful to use a stretching strap to help when doing this type of quad stretch.
Put the strap around you ankle with your knee bent back. Grab the strap and pull your heel toward your bottom.
Since your hip extended and knee bent, this stretches all 4 quadriceps muscles.
Stretch #3 - Lying Side Quad Stretch
Using the same stretching strap you can do the same stretch laying on your side.
I think this works a lot better than laying on your belly. You don't need a strap to do this. You can just grab the ankle.
Start with the knee bend first and then move back into hip extension.
This a pretty good stretch for all 4 of your quad muscles. It's also a little bit easier to keep your spine in a neutral position with this stretch than with the first 2 stretches.
Stretch #4 - Seated Knee Bend
To really stretch the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, and vastus intermedius, you need to bend your knee all the way.
Most people really don't think of this as a quad stretch.
However, "heel slides" are a VERY common physical therapy exercise for people with knee pain, especially after a knee surgery.
If you're trying to increase the range of motion of your knee bending, then just sitting and pulling your knee all the way into full knee bend is a good stretch for those three quadricep muscles.
Because your hip is really bent or flexed here it doesn't stretch the rectus femoris. However, if your goal is to stretch the vastus muscles and to get more knee bending, then this is a really good stretch for that purpose
Stretch #5 - Quadruped Quadriceps Stretch
Another way that you can stretch the vastus muscles is kneeling on all fours (quadruped) and just rocking back towards your heels.
If you have trouble kneeling on your knees, you can do this stretch on a bed. You can also do it on a mat or put a pillow underneath your knees.
If you get a whole lot of pain kneeling, this may not be the best stretch for you.
However, this does get you to an end-range quadricep stretch in your vastus muscles.
It's not good for stretching the rectus femoris since your hips are flexed.
However, another advantage of this quad stretch is a lot of people with knee pain actually have stiffness in their hips. With this stretch, you both get a stretch of your quadricep muscles as well as your hip muscles.
For that reason, I think this is a really good stretch for people with knee pain.
Stretch #6 - Kneeling and Lean Back
The next stretch builds on #5. What if you DO want to stretch your rectus femoris?
Well you can come up into an upright kneeing position, and then just lean backwards.
Some people who are really flexible and do yoga they can lean all the way back and lay completely flat.
However, most mere mortals are not going to get anywhere close to there.
You can just lean back to the point that you feel comfortable and then hold that position.
Or, you can use yoga blocks or other things to help support you as needed and just lean back as far as you feel comfortable going.
Stretch #7 - Standing Knee Bend/Lunge
The last stretch is a standing stretch where you put one leg on a chair, couch, or other piece of furniture.
First, bend your knee and put the top of your foot on the couch. Then you just go down into a partial lunge so that your knee bends first in order to stretch the vastus muscles. Next, move forward into hip extension in order to stretch your rectus femoris.
The advantage of this stretch is that you get a deep, intense quad stretch. However, if you have trouble balancing on one leg, or get knee pain doing lunges, this may not be the stretch for you.
The Best Quad Stretch For Knee Pain?
So those were the seven quad stretches for knee pain.
So what are my favorite ones?
Overall I think Stretch #3, the sidelying quad stretch, gives you the most control.
It's the least aggressive one because it allows you to control the position of your spine. You can easily bend your knee first before going into hip extension.
It's also good if you can't kneel on your knees.
So for that reason that's my overall top pick.
For people who are a little more active, have better balance, and can do a partial lunge, Stretch #7, the standing knee bend with a partial lunge is also good.
This one gets you a deeper, more intense quad stretch which makes it may favorite quad stretch for athletes.
However, since it is a little harder to do, it's not good for everyone, especially if you have trouble balancing or get pain in your other knee when doing a lunge.
What Else Is Good For Knee Pain?
Doing quad stretches can be helpful if you have knee pain. However, stiff quads aren't the only cause of knee pain. Additionally, stretching your quads doesn't help every type of knee pain.
Furthermore, even if you DO have stiff quads, something caused them to get stiff in the first place.
If you have knee pain that's keeping you from being as active as you want, it's important to first find out what's causing your knee pain so that you can address the underlying root cause.
If you'd like to figure out what's causing your knee pain and what you can do to get rid of it as quickly as possible, tap the button below to request an appointment with one of our specialists.