9 Best Squat Alternatives For Bad Knees

September 7, 2023

At some point in your lifting career, you will have some form of knee pain. Or depending on your training history, you may suffer from bad knees. I’ve dealt with knee pain throughout my lifting career and have found squat alternatives that work well and don’t cause pain.

But as always, see a physical therapist to confirm it’s tendon pain and not serious structural damage. Tendons need load to heal, so these squat alternatives are perfect for bad knees.

9 Best Squat Alternatives For Bad Knees

Wall Sit

Isometric exercise is one area to focus on when you have bad knees. Isometric contractions are where muscle tension is created without a change in muscle length. Essentially, you are exerting force without any movement.

The wall sit stresses the quads and provides an analgesic or numbing effect on the patellar tendon, making it a perfect warm-up exercise before a lower-body session [1]. Here’s how to do it:

  • Place your back against the wall and your feet in front. Your legs should create a 90-degree angle at the hip and knee. Hold the position for the prescribed time.

Long Duration Isometric Split Squat

This is an advanced isometric exercise for the quads and knees. But it is incredibly effective at reducing knee pain. I use this if I have bad knees and hold for 60 – 90 seconds each leg, and it significantly reduces pain when squatting.

The same mechanisms apply as the wall sit, creating a numbing effect with the patellar tendon. This is assuming your bad knees are tendon-related. Here’s how to do it:

  • Descend into the bottom of the split squat. Hold the position for the prescribed time.
  • Pull with the front leg and push with the back leg like you’re trying to close scissors to increase the difficulty.

Reverse Nordic

Eccentric exercise is the other weapon in your arsenal for combating bad knees. While it directly affects the tendon, similar to isometric exercise, it has further benefits at the muscular level.

The eccentric contraction lengthens the muscle while improving its ability to produce force at longer muscle lengths [2]. This potentially reduces knee pain long term. Here’s how to do it:

  • Kneel onto a soft pad. Do not do this on a hard surface, as your knees will hurt. I prefer to be on my toes versus having my feet flat.
  • Slowly lower yourself backward with the hips extended in a straight line from the knees to the head. You should feel an immense stretch and tension in the quadriceps.
  • Once you get to a point where you feel you cannot control the fall, break at the hips so you are sitting your bum on your heels. Return to the starting position.

Box Squat

If you’re deadset on squatting even with knee pain, the box squat is the variation for you. What makes it a squat alternative to try? The goal when box squatting is to push the hips back to create a near-vertical shin.

Since the knees don’t travel forward, there is less knee stress and more placed on the hips. Therefore, you may experience some relief when squatting in this manner. Here’s how to do it:

  • Place a bench or box of your desired height where you will squat. Unrack the barbell and ensure you’re close to the bench or box.
  • Break at the hips and push them back toward the box. Slowly descend, keeping weight on your heels.
  • Lightly touch the box and drive through your full foot to the starting position.

Backward Sled Drag

With the explosion of Knees Over Toes, the backward sled drag has become a popular exercise among all populations. But it tends to be a friendly exercise for knee pain sufferers.

I programmed this extensively as part of a warm-up circuit for my athletes who had bad knees so they could complete the rest of the workout without issues.

It helps in a few ways. Firstly, it’s a short range of motion, so it’s like performing many mini-leg extensions that typically don’t cause pain. Secondly, it pumps a lot of blood to the muscle and tendon to facilitate recovery.

Thirdly, there is no eccentric contraction reducing pain. These are why the backward sled drag is so popular. Here’s how to do it:

  • Load a sled and hold straps with extended arms. There are two ways you can walk backward. One is to squat down slightly and lean forward. The other is to lean back. The first option will give you more range of motion at the knee. Try both to see which doesn’t hurt.
  • Once you’ve decided your position, walk backward, focusing on extending the knee each rep.

Step Up

I replaced the squat with the step-up when I’ve had knee pain. It was the best thing I did. Now, I don’t have bad knees and have built back to regular squatting. But what made the step-up knee-friendly? I wasn’t in deep knee flexion.

I wasn’t bouncing out of the bottom position like a squat. And I could modify the height of the box based on pain.

This was my go-to exercise to get big quads with bad knees. Here’s how to do it:

  • Find a box or bench that allows your upper thigh to be parallel with the floor when your foot is placed on it. You can use a lower box if this aggravates your knee.
  • Unrack the barbell and step one foot onto the box. Alternatively, you can use no external load. Drive with the entire foot until your leg is straight.
  • The bar should remain over your hips, so don’t lean too far forward. Slowly lower yourself so your free foot touches the floor.
  • Once grounded, raise your front leg and place the foot back on the box to perform all reps on one leg.

Reverse Lunge

The reverse lunge is used for a similar reason to the box squat. Stepping back creates a near-vertical shin, reducing the stress on the knees and moving it toward the hips.

The reverse lunge can sometimes aggravate the rear leg by placing the rectus femoris under extreme stretch, pulling on the patellar tendon. This will require trial and error on your behalf. Here’s how to do it:

  • Step back so the back knee is under the hips and lower yourself until the front leg thigh is parallel to the floor. You should bend the back knee to approximately 90°.
  • With the front leg, push forward explosively until your legs are together again at the starting position.

Trap Bar Deadlift

While the trap bar deadlift is a hip hinge pattern, it can be more “squatty” by assuming a more upright position. This may aggravate bad knees, so you can keep it more of a hinge. However, using high handles to reduce the range of motion makes this deadlift variation a great squat alternative.

You still hammer the quads and glutes, especially if you control the eccentric. Here’s how to do it:

  • Stand inside the hexagon and grip the high handles. Find a position with hips further back or upright, depending on how bad your knees are.
  • Create full body tension and drive through your full foot. Slowly lower the bar to the floor.

Glute Bridge

While the glute bridge isn’t considered a quad exercise, it hammers the glutes while providing some quadriceps stimulus while being knee-friendly. You can also perform the hip thrust, but the extra range of motion may not be suitable for bad knees. Here’s how to do it:

  • Roll the barbell over your hips and set your feet on the floor. Point your toes out for better glute activation.
  • Drive through your heels and tilt your bum forward. This will posteriorly tilt your pelvis, giving you better glute activation.
  • Squeeze at the top and slowly lower the weight to the floor.

Squat Modifications For Bad Knees

Sit Back

Sitting back when squatting so your knees don’t travel as far forward is a simple modification for relieving knee pain. Have your weight further on your heels in this instance, and you’ll find it more tolerable.

Using a guide like a box or a bench can give you a reference point so you don’t squat into pain.

Shorten The Range Of Motion

Typically, pain is felt in the bottom ranges with bad knees. That’s been my experience, but yours may differ. However, shortening the range of motion can help. For example, lower boxes for step-ups and squats and higher handles for trap bar deadlifts.

Train Your Hamstrings First

This is a tactic taken from the great John Meadows. He would train his hamstrings first before squatting or quad exercises. It makes an unbelievable difference to how your knees feel. But, the hamstrings should be trained with knee flexion for the best results.

So, lying leg curls or seated leg curls are the best options for high reps. Typically 10 – 20 reps to get a hamstring pump.

What Makes A Good Squat Alternative For Bad Knees?

Several criteria are used to decide what makes a good squat alternative for bad knees. Every exercise alternative above adheres to at least two of

  1. Vertical shin
  2. Shortened range of motion
  3. Isometric for numbing and eccentric for repairing the tendon
  4. Concentric only movement

What Type Of Squat Is Easiest On The Knees?

The box squat is the easiest bilateral squat variation on the knees. You can use a higher box to shorten the range of motion, and you’re sitting back on your heels, keeping a near-vertical shin, shifting the stress from the knees to the hips.

Try this exercise if you’re dead set on squatting with bad knees.


Try these squat alternatives for bad knees and see which allows you to work around niggles and pain. If your bad knees are structural damage and not tendon pain, you must seek professional help. Before embarking on any exercise, see a physical therapist to ensure it’s not a serious injury before using these exercises.


1. Rio, E., Van Ark, M., Docking, S., Moseley, G. L., Kidgell, D., Gaida, J. E., … & Cook, J. (2017). Isometric contractions are more analgesic than isotonic contractions for patellar tendon pain: an in-season randomized clinical trial. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine27(3), 253-259.

2. Brughelli, M., & Cronin, J. (2007). Altering the length-tension relationship with eccentric exercise. Sports Medicine37(9), 807-826.

About the Author

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your training.

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