Pre-Workout Stretch Routine for Painful, Sore Knees

Not to brag or anything, but my right knee is kinda awesome. It never hurts, there’s no pain when I’m squatting or running. It’s everything you want a knee to be…stable, strong, unmarred by scars. By comparison my left knee is shit. Don’t get me wrong, it could be worse. But left to its own devices, my left knee clicks in and out, slops around, get’s jammed, won’t bend, just plain hurts and has me limping around when I take my walk.

But after decades of seeing some great chiropractors, physical therapists and massage therapists, I’ve paid attention and learned some of the magic tricks they perform to transform me from a hobbled old man to a deep squatting machine in just minutes. I still keep my regular appointments to keep the train on the track, but I’ve also consolidated some simple techniques into my pre-workout warm-up routine to ensure pain-free training sessions for myself.

In this post I’d like to share them with you.

To be clear, I’ve never had a specific injury to my knee outside of muscles getting tight, unbalanced and pulling the joint out of proper alignment. Also, I am not a doctor or therapist. I’m a 43 year old personal trainer who’s had a fair amount of aches and pains. I love to research injury prevention and have hired some great doctors and therapists who helped me come up with some simple techniques that allow me to train hard without getting injured.

There are 2 distinct issues that have caused me knee pain in the past, both very common.

Issue #1 – Gas Pedal Knee

I’ve done a more in-depth post before on Gas Pedal Knee. Here I’ll show you the two main pieces of my routine from that post that I do before every workout.

Essentially your quad gets tight and when you squat or lunge it causes too much compression in the knee. This can lead to pain, inflammation, and eventually, can cause arthritis. No fun.

Fortunately, this is pretty easy to address. It’s so easy that any time I let it continue to hurt for a day or two, and then finally remember to do these two simple things immediately relieving the pain, I smack myself in the forehead for not doing it sooner. Sorry, I digress…

Self-Massage Quads

First stop on the pain-free train is a little self-massage to relax tight quadriceps. A foam roller works best because it hits more surface area and gets the job done quickly. 2-3 minutes rolling over any tender spots and head over to the other leg.

If holding yourself up while rolling around on the ground isn’t a favorable option due to your size or another injury, you can use a stick, rolling pin or everyfun massage gun to hit the thigh while seated.

Stretch Quads

Next stop is getting a bit of length back into the muscle to take compressive pressure off the knee joint.  A PNF quad stretch is my ideal choice, although it’s not for everyone. Give it a try. But if it doesn’t work for you due to pain, your size or limited mobility, I’ve got other options for you in a second.

A soft surface for your knee is highly recommended. Start with your opposite foot forward and hands on the floor. Then slide your knee back as you place the top of your foot on the bench, couch or human footstool. Slowly work your way up to half-kneeling with hands on forward thigh. 

You can adjust intensity by moving your knee forward or back, pushing the hips back and tilting your pelvis by contracting your glutes and abs.

Once you’re settled into a some-what comfortable position, here comes the PNF part…

  • Take a breath and hold it.
  • Gently contract the quadricep that you’re stretching, pushing the foot into the surface that holds it up…3, 2, 1.
  • Without releasing the stretch, relax the leg, exhale and now move slightly deeper into the stretch.
  • Repeat 2 more times on this leg before going to the other side.

Ok, for everyone who decided this way of stretching is a terrible idea for their knee, here’s a less intense approach.

Stand next to the couch, bench or human footstool. Place your knee on it/them and grab your foot behind you. This position is easier to get into and has far less weight on your knee. If using a human, place your knee in the small of their back. It feels much better on your knee than their spine or ribs.

Once last trick for stretching your quads with funky knees. Sometimes I have clients with bad arthritis and bending the knee past 90 degrees can be too painful, so we’ll add a little wedge behind the knee. It can be some evo foam or a rolled up towel.

We use this as a fulcrum to create space between the arthritic ends of the femur and tibia. Very simple, very helpful.

Issue #2 – Fibular Head Jams

Another issue that causes knee pain involves the fibular head getting stuck where it meets the tibia. I have this happen to my left knee at varying degrees regularly. Sometimes it just clicks and feels a bit jammed and tight. Other times it’s been pretty bad and left me limping around with a peg leg knee that won’t bend more than a few degrees. The kind of stuck that if I forced it to bend, I’m pretty sure there would be a loud pop and a visit to the surgeon. But my chiropractor will mess with it for 2 minutes and I’m 90 percent better by the time I get home, and back squatting heavy with a smile 24 hours later.

Here’s the tricks I now use on a daily basis before lifting.

Self-Massage Lower Leg Muscles

Look for any tight, sensitive muscles on the lower leg and tenderize those suckers! You can use the stick, foam roller or a massager. The massager is my preferred method because I can find a spot, hold the tip there and just breathe through the discomfort until it relaxes.

Self-Mobilization of Fibular Head

For the first mobilization, I place the massage gun against the back of my fibular head on a low setting for 10-20 seconds and let it jostle the joint. Easy peasy.

The second mobilization involves gliding the fibular head forward as I bend the knee deeper into flexion. 10-20 repetitions should do the trick.

The tibia and fibula also greatly affect the ankle joint, which I’ll be covering in another video.

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At this point I’ll drop into the deepest squat possible and rock around to see how things feel and stretch out a bit. If anything feels tight or stuck I’ll take another minute or two to hit it some more.

Happy squatting time!

Did you try any of these mobility hacks? Tell me how it went below in the comments.


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