Squats and lunges are the typical go-to exercises for strengthening the muscles in the lower body. While they are extremely common, they may not be a safe option for everyone. Some people feel pain while performing lunges and squats from bending at the knee joint, which can aggravate the knee. Thankfully, there are many other exercises that provide similar benefits without so much pressure on the knee joint. Even if your knees can handle squats and lunges just fine, doing the same ol’ exercise all the time can get boring.
Adding the exercises below to your lineup is a great way to change up your lower body routine! As always, move within your comfortable range of motion and pay attention to proper form.
Hip extensions: Stand with your feet underneath your hips and hands on your hips. Place one foot behind you and put your weight in the opposite (front) foot with a slightly bent knee. Keep your hips pointing forward and use your glute muscles to lift your back leg off the floor. Height doesn’t matter, but you should feel your buttock muscles engage. Lower down with control and exhale to lift back up.
Side leg raises: Lie on your side and rest on your elbow, or lie all the way down. You can press your top arm onto the floor in front of your torso for stability. Keeping your legs straight and the rest of your body still, lift your top leg up to hip height. Keep your foot flexed and toes pointing forward. Lower down with control and exhale to lift and repeat.
Bridges: Lie on your back with legs bent and feet flat on the floor. Squeeze your buttock muscles to lift your hips, keeping your upper back pressing into the floor. Lower towards the floor (don’t touch it!) and exhale to rise back up.
Clamshells: Lie on your side and rest on your elbow, or lie all the way down. With your knees bent, keep your feet stacked on top of each other and your lower leg planted on the floor as you squeeze your buttock muscles to open your knees. Lower down with control, then exhale to open as far as you possibly can.
Deadlifts: Stand and hold a pair of dumbbells down in front of you, with palms facing your body. (Begin with a heavier weight than you would use for arm exercises. For most people, 15 pounds in each hand is a good starting weight.) Keep a slight bend in your knees and tilt forward, with your arms straight, bringing the weights just below the knees. Make sure to keep your spine long and shoulders pulled back. Exhale and, with arms straight down, use your buttock muscles to rise, keeping a flat back.
Good mornings: Perform the same motion as a deadlift but without the dumbbells. Bend forward like you’re folding your body in half, stopping when your spine is parallel to the floor - with your hands crossed at your chest. Exhale as you rise with your buttock muscles, making sure to keep your spine long.
Banded lateral walks: Place a resistance band loop 2 inches above your knees. Bend your knees slightly so you’re in a mini squat position and press your hips back. Walk two steps to the right and two steps to the left. Alternate walking side to side and make sure to keep tension on the band the entire time.
Calf raises: Stand with your legs hip width apart and come up onto your toes. Lower your heels toward the ground, but don’t let them touch the floor in between. If you need help with balance, hold onto a wall or sturdy surface.
Kettlebell or dumbbell swings: Stand hip-width apart and ground into your feet. Hold the kettlebell with both hands in between your knees and start to gently swing it so you can gain some momentum. When you’re ready, power through your hips, buttock muscles, and core to swing the weight up to shoulder height, then bend your knees, swinging it back to start. Remember that you are NOT using your arms to lift the weight; this is pure butt and core power. Every time the weight goes up, make sure you’re strongly exhaling.
Wall sits: This exercise does involve standing flexed at the knee, so if you know that bothers you, please skip this one. Stand against a wall and slide your back down it until your thighs are parallel to the floor. You can also do a “min squat” in this position and stand up more to reduce the bend in your knees. Make sure your knees don’t extend beyond your toes -- you may need to walk your feet out a little -- and spread your weight evenly throughout your feet. Hold for 30 seconds or as long as you can!