How to Climb the Stairs When Your Knees Hurt

One of the questions I get asked all the time in my Denver personal training sessions is “how can I climb stairs with my bad knees?” Stair climbing is a challenging move, even with perfectly functioning knees, because it involves balancing on a single leg, lifting the whole body weight against gravity (with a single leg), shifting the weight to the other leg, and coordinating the movements of three joints and lots of muscles in each leg.

Worn out knee cartilage makes stair climbing downright painful for many people, but a few changes in your approach can ease the pressure on the joint and make stair climbing more manageable.

As always, please see your doctor before you attempt these exercises. Knees are complicated, and what works for some people might not be appropriate for your unique situation.

With your doctor’s ok, give these four techniques a try.

Stabilize the knee joint. Lack of muscle stability allows joints to move out of alignment which causes excessive and unusual wear and tear on the cartilage between the bones. In a weight-bearing joint like the knee, a lack of stability in the surrounding muscles means the joint itself, rather than the muscles, is bearing all the weight and pressure of the body. A few simple moves like the ones in this exercises for knee pain video can help stabilize an unsteady knee.

Strengthen the quads and glutes. Lower body strength is essential for raising the weight of the body up each step. The quadriceps, the big muscles on the fronts of your thighs, and the gluteals, the big muscles in your rear end, do most of the heavy lifting. Exercises like a glute bridge and a wall sit can help strengthen glutes and quads.

Develop core stability. You might not think your abdominal muscles have anything to do with climbing stairs, but a solid core is the anchor for every movement, especially those that involve balancing, even just one step at a time. A strong core gives you control over your torso and helps keep your spinal alignment intact during the stair climbing motion. For examples of exercises to help stabilize your core, check out Core Exercises for Baby Boomers Stage 1 and Stage 2.

Learn good climbing mechanics. Once you have developed some strength and stability in the muscles that are going to do the work, it’s time to look at alignment and mechanics.

First check your posture. Tuck your hips under, pull in on your abdominal muscles, stand tall through your spine, anchor your shoulders back and down, and pull your head into alignment over your shoulders. Your spine will be in “neutral” when a broomstick held against the back touches at the top of your tailbone (where the plumber wears his pants), in between your shoulder blades, and at the back of your head. neutral spine rear neutral spine side
Next, hinge at the hips to engage the glutes. This move takes practice, but try to keep your spine in neutral (touching the broomstick at all three points) while you hinge forward a few degrees at the hips. Just this small amount of hip hinge engages the large gluteal muscles and prepares them to help with the heavy lifting as you climb the stairs.

Lift from your butt, not your knees. As you take your step from the hinged position, think about pushing down through the heel of the forward foot and up through the hip of the same leg. Your quadriceps, in the front of your thighs, will still be working to stabilize your knees, but much of the lifting motion should come from your butt.

The same muscles that lifted your hips in the glute bridge exercise are now lifting your whole body weight up each step. As you step up, you see that your torso is roughly parallel with the shin on your working leg.

Remember that learning a new movement pattern can seem complicated at first, just like learning to ski or golf. But if you keep practicing, your muscles will develop a memory of the movement pattern and it will seem natural in time. Try these techniques and let us know if you feel any difference in your aching knees!

LeeAnn Langdon

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