5 Stiff Knee Exercises To Improve Mobility and Decrease Pain

Do You Have Stiff Knees?

If you have stiff knees and want exercises to improve your knee pain and stiffness, watch this video to learn 5 stiff knee exercises to improve mobility and decrease pain.

Knee Pain Guide by Knee Pain Specialist Dr. Dave Candy. More 4 Life, St. Louis, Manchester, Ballwin, Chesterfield, Des Peres, Ellisville, MO Learn to relieve: knee pain when going up and down stairs, knee pain when sitting, knee pain when walking, and more!

Two Kinds Of Knee Stiffness?

Before I get into the exercises, I should probably define what stiffness means in this context.

There are really two different types of stiffness that you can have in regards to your knee:

  1. You can have an actual joint stiffness where you lack some range of motion in either bending (flexion) or straightening (extension).
  2. Alternatively, you can have a subjective stiffness where you don't really have a range of motion loss but the joint just feels "tight" and "stiff".

Most of these exercises are going to address the types of stiffness that are actual joint range of motion loss.

However, I will include an exercise to help if you don't have any motion loss but your knees still feel kind of stiff.

So here are the 5 Stiff Knee Exercises To Improve Pain and Mobility:

Exercise 1: Improve Stiffness In Knee Extension

This exercise helps improve stiffness going into knee straightening (extension).

Many people try stretching their hamstrings to improve knee extension, but if you have an actual stiff knee joint, that won't help much.

Additionally, when walking, you don't usually get to the end range of your hamstring motion.

Stiff knee when walking? It's probably not your hamstring

Therefore, stretching hamstrings isn't a great way to improve knee extension if you have a loss of knee joint motion.

To tell if you have joint stiffness, lay down on your back and try to flatten your leg.

Test for stiff knee extension

If you can't get the back of your knee all the way down to the table, chances are you have a bit of a stiff joint.

Some people's knees naturally extend more than others.

Therefore, what's most important is that you have an equal amount of straightening of each knee. So find what's normal for you.

If you have motion loss, use a towel behind your lower leg bone or tibia just below the knee joint.

Exercise to improve stiff knee extension

This helps push the tibia forwards as you extend your knee, and your thigh bone or femur needs to glide in a backward direction.

Use your hand to apply downward pressure on your thigh, and hold the position.

You can oscillate or do a sustained stretch.

If you're having pain when straightening your knee, use a slightly thicker towel roll when first starting out to keep your knee a little more bent.

Exercise 2: Improve Stiffness In Knee Flexion

This exercise helps improve stiffness and pain when bending your knee.

You should normally have about 135 degrees of knee bending.

Stiffness in knee bending

If you have a stiff knee when bending it, this exercise can help.

Bend your knee as far as you can comfortably.

Twist your lower leg bone (tibia) inward, pull while pulling directly backward with your other hand.

Exercise to improve stiffness in knee bending

Hold the end range position for 30 seconds to a minute, and then try to bend your knee slightly farther.

Repeat three to five times or until you can't bend any farther.

Exercise 3: For Subjective Knee Stiffness

If you don't have an actual loss of joint motion but your knee just feels "stiff" or "tight", this exercise can help.

Many people get knee stiffness when sitting for a long time. In this case, moving your knees back and forth helps improve blood flow to your knee, stretch your muscles, and lubricate your joints.

Stiff knee exercise 3

Doing this also helps prevent fluid from accumulating in the back of your knee joint capsule

Exercise 4: Stiff Knee Extension When Walking

The last two exercise address knee stiffness in functional weightbearing positions.

If you have stiffness straightening  your knee full when you're going to take a step, this may be due to stiff calves impact your function.

This may not be so much of a joint stiffness but rather calf muscle stiffness.

To address stiff calf muscles, get into the position like you're going to take a step and then drive the back heel down towards the floor.

Stiff knee exercise 4

Lift your heel back up to the starting position and then repeat

This helps improve knee stiffness in the terminal stance phase of walking, just before you push off to take the next step.

Exercise 5: To Improve Stiff Knee Gait

This last exercise addresses the bending of your knee when you're going to walk.

When you go to bend your knee as you're walking, you need to have just enough bending to clear your toes so that you don't trip over them when taking a step.

You usually don't need to bend your knee to it's end range, and therefore, this type of knee stiffness is rarely due to a joint limitation.

However, your quadriceps muscles, and the rectus femoris which crosses the hip, can cause knee stiffness when walking.

Stiffness in the rectus femoris can cause a stiff knee walking pattern

Your kneecap sits inside the tendon of your quadricep muscles.  Therefore, when your rectus femoris is stiff, it compresses your kneecap against your thigh bone which can cause pain on the front of your knee when walking.

If you can't bend your knee, one compensation pattern that people uses is swinging their leg out to the side and walking with a stiff knee.

Walking with a stiff knee gait

So here's a test for rectus femoris stiffness called the Thomas Test.

Lie near the side of a bed and bring one knee up toward your chest. Allow the other leg fall down off the side of a bed making sure to keep your lower back flat on the bed.

In the ideal situation, your thigh should fall all the way flat against the bed, and your knee should bend to 80 degrees.

Thomas test hip flexor stretch

The picture above shows a positive test for stiffness as the thigh is not flat on the table and the knee is not bent enough.

If you have some stiffness in your quadricep muscles, doing the test position is actually a good quadriceps stretch.

However, there's an easier, more functional way to stretch your rectus femoris that doesn't require lying down.

I'm a big believer that if you don't have to take the time to lie down to do your exercises, you're probably more likely to do them more often.

So here's a standing exercise for knee stiffness when walking:

Get in a position as if you're going to take a step so that the toes of your rear foot are on the floor and your hip is extended.

Next, bend your rear knee as far as you can comfortably.

Stiff knee exercise 5

This is not just a leg curl exercise. Make sure to keep your hip in extension and squeeze your glutes as you pick your toes up off the floor.

Bend your knee up as much as you can, and then return to the starting position.


Hopefully, these exercises helped you out if you do have a stiff knee.

Just to review, the 5 Stiff Knee Exercises were:

  1. Exercise 1: Improve Stiffness In Knee Extension
  2. Exercise 2: Improve Stiffness In Knee Flexion
  3. Exercise 3: For Subjective Knee Stiffness
  4. Exercise 4: Stiff Knee Extension When Walking
  5. Exercise 5: To Improve Stiff Knee Gait

Need More Help For A Stiff Knee?

If you live in the St. Louis area and would like to find out how we can help you improve your knee pain and stiffness, tap the button below to learn how we can help.

Here are some other posts about how to relieve knee pain that you might enjoy:

Do You Get Knee Pain At Night While Sleeping?  Check Our our great post on "How To Relieve Back Pain, Hip Pain, & Knee Pain At Night While Sleeping"!

Do You Get Knee Pain When Squatting?  Learn to Squat Without Knee Pain!

Do You Get Back Pain When Standing Up From A Sitting Position?

If so, check our our post "Relieve Back Pain When Standing Up From A Sitting Position"

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