How to Build Strong Quads with “Bad Knees

Knee pain is often seen as a death sentence for an individual wanting to build some big strong quads.

Outside of the stubborn gym rat who will continue to squat through knee pain until his patella’s explode, knee pain is usually so bad that it deters people from even trying to train their legs in the first place. The pain just doesn’t make it worth it.

While I know how incredibly frustrating knee pain can be for your training, I 100% believe you can program around it if you are smart with your exercise selection. Not only that, but with the right movement selection you can train your quads just as effectively as if you had no knee pain at all.

Here’s how you can build bigger, stronger quads with “bad knees”.

1. Sled Pushes/Drags

Sleds are often viewed solely as conditioning equipment. However, load them up with enough weight and you have just as effective of a leg training tool as you would with a standard issue barbell. In fact, some of the most brutal Strongman events are just simple sled push/pull movements taken to the extreme.

As far as knee pain goes sled training benefits from two variables. 1. The load is not being placed on your spine and 2. The degree to which you need to bend your knees is significantly less than your standard squat and lunge patterns.

While I lumped both movement together I would give each a fair shot as sometimes an individual can experience pain pushing a sled but not dragging a sled and vice versa.

2. Hatfield Squats

A Hatfield squat is a squat variation performed using a safety squat bar and instead of holding the SSB you hold onto a barbell placed in the rack as support. If you’re thinking that sounds an awful lot like a belt squat that’s because it is. Hatfield squats were created before belt squats became such a prolific piece of equipment, you can use either or in this case.

The reason a Hatfield squat can be so useful for training around knee pain, is because you have that extra point of contact. Typically, the goal of a Hatfield squat would be to use your arms as little as possible to help you in the lift but in a knee pain situation you can go ahead and throw that rule away.

By supporting yourself with your upper body you can use just enough assistance to the point where you no longer experience knee pain, effectively allowing you to perform the full ROM squat movement pattern. Your goal overtime being to use less and less assistance from your upper body.

3. Box/Pin Squats

In plenty of knee pain cases the pain doesn’t actually set in until a lifter hit’s a certain degree of knee flexion. The solution? Cut yourself off before you hit that point.

If you start feeling knee pain about 3/4ths of the way through your squat setup either a box or pins that cut you off at a half squat. Yes I know, cutting depth on squats is sacrilegious in the lifting world but this is SIGNIFCIANTLY better than you not squatting at all.

By holding yourself to a ROM in which you don’t feel pain you are going to be able to train and that’s all that truly matters. Over time you can try to progress the pins/box to lower heights and slowly work your way back to a full range of motion squat.

4. Biking 

If you’ve ever landed yourself in a physical therapists office for knee pain, you know one of the first things they’ll do is throw you on the stationary bike.

This is for good reason biking is a fantastic low impact knee pain exercise, and is a great starting point for people who can’t do other typical knee flexion movements. What I think a lot of people don’t realize is that their bike can also effectively be used for resistance training as well.

Instead of plodding along with zero resistance for an hour at a time, trying cranking the resistance up as high as you can tolerate for around 20-30 seconds. Doing a few hard sets at this high resistance can help you mimic the same quad contractions you’d get out of similar lunge movement patterns.

Alternatively if you want this to be even closer to lifting, try single leg biking counting each full rotation of the pedal as 1 rep. Shoot for sets of anywhere from 10-20 reps for a solid hypertrophy like workout.

5. Deadlifts 

If you have bad knees you may have already gravitated to this movement yourself.

Even in the worst of knee pain cases it’s very rare the person is unable to perform the conventional deadlift, in fact they usually report feeling no pain at all while doing it.

While this is commonly seen as a “posterior chain only movement” you’re still getting a lot of great quad activation from having to drive the bar off the floor. No it’s not a squat, but again if your choice is between deadlifting and doing nothing…taking some time to become a deadlift specialist doesn’t sound so bad to me.

Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.