Top 5 Better Alternatives to Lunges for Bad Knees

It is estimated that a staggering 25% of all adults suffer from some kind of knee pain or instability. With that in mind, should you do lunges if you have bad knees? And if not, what is a good alternative for lunges? Let’s find out. 

1. Single Leg Press

When looking at what the lunge trains, it is essentially the entire upper leg, maybe with the aversion of the adductors. When looking at the Single Leg Press, it trains exactly the same muscles. However, the adductors might be active, which is good! 

The single leg press might place less strain on the knees because you have control over the weight, meaning you can start lighter than your bodyweight. With time, this exercise could also help rebuild the cartilage and other connective tissue causing you pain. 

This movement will target the quadriceps, adductors, hamstrings, and glutes

How to do it: 

  1. Set the backrest of the machine to a point where the angle between your upper and lower body is around 45 degrees
  2. Take your position in the machine and place one foot at shoulder width on the pressing pad, toes pointing slightly outwards.
  3. Rack the weight and make sure you are stable while grabbing hold of the handles on either side of your torso 
  4. Slowly lower the pressing pad down by bending your knee.
  5. You should go as deep as your knee and mobility allow. Once this depth is reached, press the pad to the starting position. That’s one rep.

Pro tips:

  • As you press up, remember to breathe out. This will keep your core engaged.
  • By pointing the toes out slightly, you will be able to achieve more depth, so find the perfect angle for your toes.
  • If you feel your pelvis or lower back lifting off the back pad, consider increasing the angle of the back pad. 

Sets and Reps: 

As it is a primary movement, you should put this in the first part of the workout and do 3 – 4 sets. Your rep range can be anything from 10 to 15 reps. 

2. Trap Bar Deadlift 

The Trap Bar Deadlift might not be the first place your mind goes to when you think of replacing the lunge, but it does work! Both will train the entire leg, but with the trap bar, you can adjust your heel elevation to shift more of the load onto specific muscle groups. This could also take some pain off the knees. 

This movement will target the quadriceps, adductors, hamstrings, and glutes. You will also feel it in the lower back, upper back, core, and biceps.  

How to do it: 

  1. Place the weights on the bar and climb “into” the bar with your feet shoulder width and toes pointing out slightly.
  2. Squat down and grab the bar firmly on either side of your body
  3. With your neck in a neutral position and your chest pushed “outwards” to allow the back to be straight, stand up while still holding the bar. 
  4. Once you stand up straight, lower the bar slowly and set it down on the ground. That’s one rep (do not let go of the bar before doing the next rep. Only let go when the set is finished!) 

Alternative: 

The exercise becomes an elevated trap bar deadlift by placing a lift or a weight under your heels. This will shift more of the load to your quadriceps and might take some load off your knees. 

Pro tips:

  • Take a good amount of time to warm up before using reasonable resistance.
  • Remember to keep the back straight, as failing to do this could lead to injury. A good cue is to think shoulders back and armpits down.

Sets and Reps: 

After doing at least 2 – 3 warm-up sets, you can complete 3 sets (with increasing weight) of 10, 8, and then 6 repetitions. This is called pyramid training. 

3. High Feet Leg Press

The second leg press on the list! What is the difference, you might ask? Well, this one uses both legs and requires you to shift your feet upwards on the pressing pad. Unlike a regular leg press, this will stop your knees from bending as much (which is good if they hurt!) and will shift more of the load onto the posterior muscles (hamstrings and glutes).

Most leg press variations are great substitutes for lunges for someone with bad knees., However, if you still feel pain when leg pressing, you should see a healthcare professional. 

This movement will target the quadriceps, adductors, hamstrings, and glutes.

How to do it: 

  1. Set the backrest of the machine to a point where the angle between your upper and lower body is around 45 degrees
  2. Take your position in the machine and place one foot at shoulder width on the pressing pad, as high as you can comfortably. Your toes should still be pointing slightly outwards.
  3. Rack the weight and make sure you are stable while grabbing hold of the handles on either side of your torso 
  4. Slowly lower the pressing pad down by bending your knee.
  5. You should go as deep as your knee and mobility allow. Once this depth is reached, press the pad to the starting position. That’s one rep.

Pro tips:

  • Whereas with a normal leg press, you press through the balls of your feet, here you will be pressing with the heel of your feet. 
  • You will feel quite a stretch in the hamstrings and glutes, which is normal. Do not attempt this exercise as the first exercise of the day, and make sure you have a spotter.

Sets and Reps: 

You should aim to complete 2 – 3 sets here with 8 – 15 reps. As time goes on, you might increase the volume by adding one or two sets. 

4. Dip Machine Leg Press

You might have seen quite a few people do this exercise to increase their glute size, and what a movement it is! The Dip Machine was originally invented to aid in dipping and pullups. However, since the resistance is still “there for the taking,” we might as well use it! Please note that this might take a few sets before you “feel it,” so be patient and focus on the muscles making the actual movement happen. 

This movement will have the knees bending through quite a large range of motion. Still, because a lot of the movement is engaged by the glutes via the movement of the femur (upper thigh bone), you’re less likely to feel knee pain. 

This movement will target the quadriceps, adductors, hamstrings, and glutes.

How to do it: 

  1. Set the backrest of the machine to a point where you can comfortably set one foot on the pad and one foot on the floor 
  2. Grab hold of the railings on either side of you to maintain stability 
  3. Shift slightly to the side so that your leg (that is raised) comes across your body ever so slightly (this will cause your glute to stretch nicely) 
  4. Press the pad down until your leg is straight, and slowly return it to the starting position. That’s one rep.

Pro tips:

  • This movement will feel much better if you keep your body upright, so fight the urge to bend at the hips.
  • If you need to stand on one of the foot pads on either side of the machine, you may. Just make sure to keep your balance (falling off is never fun…) 

Sets and Reps: 

3 Sets should be plenty here. Make sure you focus on good form and aim for 10 – 15 reps. This movement becomes harder ergonomically the heavier you go, so progress slowly.

5. Hyperextensions with Glute and Hamstring Bias

This last exercise will not make your knees move at all! This is a brilliant exercise if you wish to do hip hinge movements that do not cause strain on the lower back or knees. Hyperextension can be done with a bias towards the lower back or the legs (hamstrings and glutes). Because lunges target the latter, we will do the version biased toward the legs. 

This movement will target the adductors, hamstrings, and glutes.

How to do it: 

  1. Set the machine up so that the supporting pad is just below your pelvis, and ensure the feet pads are secure.
  2. Get into the machine (looking towards the ground) by placing your feet into the feet pads, with a slight bend in your knees.  
  3. Slowly lower your upper body by pivoting around the supporting pad. Once you cannot go any deeper, squeeze your glutes to raise your body to the starting position.
  4. That’s one rep. 

Pro tips:

  • While this is a great movement, it is certainly one that you should do towards the latter end of your session.
  • If you wish to target the lower back, you can move the supporting pad up or straighten your legs. 

Should You Do Lunges If You Have Bad Knees?

Firstly, you don’t have to do lunges. Lunges provide nothing you cannot get with several other exercises, like the ones listed here. That said, if you feel pain when doing lunges, it might indicate an injury, and injuries that are ignored usually get worse. Address it sooner rather than later. 

Alternative to Lunges for Bad Hips

Ideally, you would want something that requires as little hip hinging as possible. Squats and deadlifts are out as a result. This leaves you with isolation movements to target the muscles used while lunging: leg extensions for the quads, seated leg curls for the hamstrings, adductor machine for the adductors, and cable kickbacks for the glutes. 

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Author
Chris Thompson
Hi, I'm Chris. I'm a personal trainer, writer & co-founder of OxygenFitnessCT. I've been writing hundreds of articles on strength training & muscle building for several fitness websites & apps since 2017. Our goal with OxygenFitnessCT is to help you pick the most effective, suitable exercises to improve your workout & achieve your fitness goals.

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