Mitigate Pain With These 7 Lunge Variations for “Bad” Knees

Pain while trying to train can be extremely frustrating. While we should never train through pain, we should always look for ways to train around pain. In this article I will help you do just that, outlining strategies to mitigate pain in your training through exercise modification and selection.

9 min read
Sean Klein
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Sean Klein
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In This Resource
  • Training With Pain vs Training Around Pain
  • Taking Time to Rehabilitate
  • Common Causes of Knee Pain
  • Sports Injuries
  • Repetitive Strain
  • Changes to The Lunge Exercise to Mitigate Pain
  • Reduce Intensity
  • Reduce Volume
  • Reduces Range of Motion
  • 7 Lunge Variations for Bad Knees or Rehabilitation
  • Important Notice

Training With Pain vs Training Around Pain

There is a huge difference between training with pain and training around pain. We never want to train with pain, it is a signal telling us something isn’t right and it needs to be listened too. This means we need to be patient with the healing process and never train through pain. This however doesn’t mean we should not have a well developed movement practice while we are struggling from an injury. We need to find ways to train around pain, slowly rehabilitating ourselves in order to be able to completely recover from whatever injury we are suffering from.

Taking Time to Rehabilitate

The most important thing when it comes to rehabilitation is patience, unless you’re a professional athlete, time scale for recovery should never be rushed. Mentally, it can help to see an injury training phase as an epoch of movement that needs to be done in order to build back up to your best later on, mentally framing it as a very important block of training is essential for your success. Injuries are frustrating, but approaching them in a way that it pragmatic will result in much better long term results.

Common Causes of Knee Pain

Sports Injuries

The knees are one of the most common joints to suffer from sports injuries, especially in sports like soccer where they are particularly exposed. Recovering from these more serious injuries often requires a long period of re-education and rehabilitation, especially if surgery is involved. Strength and conditioning should be a big part of your recovery here, as should physiotherapy, so make sure you are paying attention to both. If you are in this scenario be sure to discuss any exercise intervention with your physiotherapist.

Repetitive Strain

Another major issue when it comes to knee pain and knee injury is repetitive strain, which can be caused by a number actives, especially sports like running and weightlifting (high squatting volume). These injuries need to be both managed and mitigated through appropriate application of volume (the amount of work completed). If you are currently suffering from this kind of knee pain, ensure your tracking your volume in any repetitive movement that you think could be causing the knee pain and adjusting it accordingly.

Changes to The Lunge Exercise to Mitigate Pain

There are multiple interventions we can make to the lunge exercise itself so that it doesn’t create pain. This is not a lunge variation for those struggling with knee pain but a systematic approach to diminishing the chance of pain when performing a lunge exercise.

Please bear in mind that these are suggestions written for a broad public, if one single bodyweight lunge causes pain, do not perform any form of lunge variation. You will need to find other solutions with your physiotherapist for a success rehabilitation process.

Reduce Intensity

Intensity (weight lifted) can be a major cause of pain and is something people struggle pulling back from. Lifting weights is fun, especially lifting heavy weights. So pulling back from your normal weights because of pain can be a difficult pill to swallow, but a necessary one indeed. Dialling back the intensity can cause a dramatic reduction of pain, with the most obvious variation of lunge to start with being the bodyweight lunge. Yes heavy barbell reverse lunges may be causing pain, but is the bodyweight lunge? If not, you know your starting point and you can build from there.

Reduce Volume

Reduction in volume can be a very effective means of mitigating pain when performing an exercise. Volume is the amount of work or output you are currently performing on a specific exercise or movement pattern, this is also refereed to as sets and reps. If you’re performing a high volume of lunges and experiencing pain, why not opt for a dramatic reduction in volume and see if you can get through a session pain free. Imagine if you’ve been performing 6 x 12 sets of Goblet Squat in Lunges and you reduce this to 3 x 6. This dramatic reduction in lunge volume may result in a lunge session without pain.

Reduces Range of Motion

Using a reduced range of motion in the lunge can also help with mitigation of pain. We see this in multiple examples of exercises I provided, the single leg plate step up is the most obvious example. Here we are performing a movement very similar to a lunge but only moving through an extremely short range of motion therefore loading similar ares of the body but in a much less stressful way. This range of motion can be progressively increased once we are sure this range of motion doesn’t cause pain.

7 Lunge Variations for Bad Knees or Rehabilitation

Important Notice

All these exercises have their place in helping different people with different problems mitigate their knee pain. Some might be good for you, others may make it worse. Please ensure that you are working with a physiotherapist that can help guide the exercise selection process of your training programme.

The wall supported squat in lunge exercise is for those looking for a lunge variation that offers a dramatic reduction in intensity. Through using the wall for stability it can be easier to stabilise your repetitions and therefore help mitigate pain while performing a lunge. This is also one of the best lunge variations for beginners.

The single plate step up drastically reduces the range of motion of the lunge and therefore can help prevent pain while performing the movement. I use this often with clients who have been severely sedentary or struggle taking their weight on a single leg, but it is also an effective tool for those suffering with knee pain, offering a very small dose of intensity that we can build on over time.

This exercise is particularly effective for those who need to rehabilitate the muscles around the knee and have restricted ankle range of motion. It can be an aggressive exercise and puts a huge amount of stress on the knee, so approach with caution. It is more appropriate as a rehabilitation exercise once pain has dissipated.

This is another exercise designed to develop the muscles and strength in and around the knee joint. It you have very restricted ankle range of motion the patrick step up with be a more appropriate exercise selection. Again we see a dramatic reduction in knee flexion, which may prevent pain when performing a lunge.

The cossack squat is more to target those who have “bad” knees due to mobility restrictions and therefore poor positions in the squat. If this is the case, the cossack squat can help you develop your squat positioning and prevent repetitive knee pain from poor squat positioning. This can be great to use in your warm ups prior to squat sessions (hopefully light sessions if you have knee pain).

The knees over toes craze has seen a ridiculous amount of hype in my opinion and that isn’t because the information is bad, its just because nothing is a miracle cure. People have knee pain a lot of the time because of inappropriate loading and volume, no amount of knee over toes strengthening can prevent this. However these are still great exercises to build strength in the knee. This exercise is here to provide an example of an exercise you might use to strengthen you knees once you have made a full recovering form your knee pain and should not be used whilst you have knee pain.

The low reverse lunge slide is a nice way to lightly touch the lunge movement pattern without any aggressive knee flexion (bending at the knee). This will result in a reduction of intensity and may mean that you do not experience any pain.

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This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.

Sean Klein


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