How to strengthen your Knees and Ankles

Originally Published: August 2008

Weak knees and ankles can seriously affect the health, strength and function of our entire lower body. Simple and regular attention to these crucial joints will pay off in less pain, better balance and stronger legs overall.

If we want strong and stable legs, hips and torsos, we cannot neglect our lower joints: the knees and ankles. If there’s weakness in the ankles, the knees have to compensate; if there’s weakness in the knees, the ankles can be stressed. In turn, our legs and hips are not able to function freely and to their full potential. If you want to develop strong, stable and flexible ankles and knees, especially if you are heavy or already have ankle and knee pain, start with low impact exercises.

Try bicycling or swimming, and, of course, walking. As well, there are other forms of low-impact activities that can help, such as Yoga, Pilates, and Tai Chi.

Here’s a great video which includes a detailed analysis of knee function anatomy, common injuries, potentially dangerous exercises and causes of pain, useful rehab exercises and protocols.  More info found at Get Active Physio.

When you feel ready to increase resistance to develop these joints, there are many exercises that can target them and the larger leg muscles that give them support. A complete ankle and knees program includes strength training, stretching and working on balance. Here are some exercises that cover the spectrum:

Exercising the Ankles

Some of these exercises can be performed anywhere, without any special equipment, while others are best done in a gym or fitness club with the proper equipment. The first three exercises can be done anywhere. The last five require fitness equipment.

* Ankle Rotations – rotate your ankles clockwise and counter clockwise for one minute, starting with small, tight circles and gradually widening them. Slowly tighten the rotations again to finish.
* Elevated Walking – Walk forward and backwards on the balls of your feet. Go 50 steps forward, and 50 backwards.
* The Alphabet – For improved range of motion, sit on a high chair or with your legs crossed so that the ankle you want to work is off the floor. Trace the letters of the alphabet with your foot, keeping your toes straight so all motion comes from the ankle.
* Ankle Stabilizers – Stand on a step, facing upstairs, with the balls of both feet on the step. Place one hand on the railing. Keeping your feet parallel and your legs straight but not hyperextended, slowly lower to your maximum comfortable level, heeding your body, and then slowly raise onto the balls of your feet. For the second set, turn your feet so that you are slightly pigeon-toed. All of the above rules apply: maintain weight distribution, keep your knees pointing forward, and move slowly. When you’re ready, perform the exercise one leg at a time. Relax the free leg and keep your hips even.
* Ankle Lifts – Tie a piece of rope about 1 1/2 feet long in a loop through a ten-pound weight and drape the loop over your shoe. While sitting on a bench, use your ankle to lift the weight as many times as you can.
* Stationary Cycling – Pedal a stationary bike with just the balls of your feet. Do not use the foot straps.
* Elliptical trainer – Perform your stride with just the balls of your feet and increase the resistance slightly.
* Seated Calf Raises – Set the machine with light weights and perform many repetitions. The point here is not to build leg muscles but to strengthen the ligaments and connective tissue on the ankles.
* Backwards Treadmill – Walk backwards on a treadmill, starting out slowly. Do not hold on to the hand grips; doing so will diminish the effectiveness of the routine. As you get more comfortable, walk on the balls of your feet.

Exercising the Knees

The following three exercises can be done anywhere. They effectively exercise the knees using only your body weight. They are a good place to start for building up knee strength and stability, but it is important to move on to the leg exercises in the next section. The leg exercises use machines at the gym and will more effectively build the muscles that hold your knees in place.

* Knee Circles – Stand with your feet together. Bend your legs and squat down slightly. Put your hands on your knees so that your palms cover your kneecaps. Keep your feet firmly on the ground and your eyes focused on your toes. Slowly and gently begin moving your knees in small circles so that your feet remain flat on the ground. Do 10-15 circles then repeat in the other direction. Build up to 25-30 circles in each direction.
* Knee Stabilizers – Stand facing the side of the stairwell or case. Place one hand on the railing. Have one foot off the step and one foot on. Allow the free leg to relax. Slowly bend your knee, maintaining alignment. Do not allow your knee to move forward of your toes. Straighten. Turn to face the other wall and switch legs.
* Staircase Lunges – Stand one stride away from the staircase. Extend one leg back and rest a toe on the first or second step, as dictated by comfort. Move into a slow lunge, dropping the back knee while keeping the front one in line above your forward ankle. Holding your hands on your hips will help to maintain hip alignment.

Don’t Forget the Legs

To strengthen and maintain knees, the quadriceps and hamstrings need to be strong and flexible. As well, strong calves mean stable ankles, assisting coordination, balance and proper knee alignment.

Here are a few exercises you can do for your quads and hamstrings:

* Leg Extensions (for quadriceps): This exercise is also called the “thigh extension.” Set the weight on the machine so that you are able to do up to 15 repetitions. Concentrate on straightening the leg against the resistance without engaging the lower back muscles. Do three sets of up to 15 repetitions. Doing one leg at a time will help isolate the knees.
* Leg Curls (for hamstrings): There are various machines in the gym for leg curls; they may be done lying down and curling your legs toward the ceiling, or sitting up and curling your legs toward the floor. For maximum benefit to the knees, again keep the weight low enough to do 15 repetitions for three sets, and try doing them one leg at a time.
* Calf Raise: Various machines in the gym allow us to exercise our calves and ankles in an upright position, sitting or bent over forward at a ninety degree angle. Follow the same procedure for selecting weight, reps and sets as with the extensions and curls.

Search our “Exercise Movement Series” for demonstrations of these and other leg exercises. Just about any leg exercise will offer secondary benefits to the knees and ankles.


Often ankle and knee pain is caused by tight muscles, especially the hamstrings. Stretching will take some pressure off of your knees, so be sure to stretch after exercising as well as mornings and evenings everyday.

Hamstring Stretch is generally performed sitting on the floor, with one leg out straight and the other leg flexed, pressing the foot against the extended leg’s inner thigh. Bend forward, keeping the back straight and touching the extended leg’s toes. If the toes are not reachable, bend forward as far as possible and hold. Don’t force the stretch.

Quadriceps Stretch is commonly performed lying on the side, with the hips and shoulders aligned. Place the arm under the head, with the elbow bent, to help relax the neck and balance the position. Hold the top of the ankle of the top leg, and gently pull the leg behind and away from the bottom leg. Hold and do the opposite side.

Whatever stretch you do, hold it gently. Do not try to overstretch the muscle and hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds without straining or bouncing.

Stability Exercises

The Wobble Board – available in most gyms, the wobble board, or balance board, is an effective tool in developing and maintaining stability and agility. The goal is to stand on the board and keep it horizontal – without the edges touching the floor. To begin, stand on the wobble board, feet shoulder width apart and rock the board forwards and backwards, then side to side. As you improve your balance, while standing on the board try to rotate the wobble board round so that the edge of the board is in contact with the floor at all times. Become braver and stand on the wobble board with one leg and repeat the exercises you`ve completed standing on both legs. Aim to do each of these exercises for at least two minutes.

As the old chorus goes:

“The ankle bone’s connected to the shin bone … the shin bone is connected to the knee bone … the knee bone is connected to the leg bone …” We are really talking about interdependent muscles, ligaments and joints – to neglect one is to hinder the others, too. So, in your fitness program, be sure to include those smaller members of the team – your ankles and knees.

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