Q & A – Cardio alternatives with knee injuries

From Lisa Bullock

Jennifer wrote in desperation to Shawna and I looking for high intensity cardio options  she could use with a very limiting knee injury.  She said:


“I have little cartilage on the outer side of my left knee and bone spurs. My knee issues have flared up hugely and now am trying to heal my knee. It turns out that the squatting, lunges, burpees and anything that requires I bend my knee more than 45degrees aggravate my knee.  I need other ways to find my cardio!”

First of all, injuries suck big time –if you’ve had an injury, you’ve worked this one out!  Before I talk about modifications and alternatives I’ll just mention sleep, rest and nutrition as essential aids to recovery.  Get this covered first.


Jennifer mentioned that the big leg movements are all out for her but only at or over 45 degrees. It’s actually really important to do partial range squats to keep some quad/thigh strength happening.  This will be an essential part of any rehab, especially if surgery forms parts of the equation.  The inner thigh muscles (medial quads) play a very important part in keeping the knee “tracking” or moving smoothly so we need to keep them strong.


Most clients I’ve rehabbed with knee injuries/meniscus tears/cartilage probs have all been able to do partial range wall sits because it’s isometric (held strength rather than movement).  Shawna’s demonstrating a deeper wall sit, but modify this by sitting higher and let the knee dictate how deep you hold this movement.  Try holding this for 30 seconds if you can or work towards that goal.  Eventually you can challenge yourself to hold 3 x 60 sec holds.

 wall sit 1

While I’m not a fan at all of  leg extensions as an exercise for the general population, here’s a time when it’s appropriate to use this exercise – ensure that the weight is super light and you’re turning your toes outward slightly to engage the inner quad muscles.


But back to Jennifer’s main question – cardio fitness without burpees and running?  Is it possible?  You betcha!


Our go-to no impact cardio exercise is the Total Body Extension.  Keep feet flat on the floor, or come up onto toes but don’t add in the jump.  Swing arms dynamically allowing the legs to come to a partial squat keeping your focus on fast moving arms.

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My FAVOURITE weighted huffy puffy exercise without engaging big leg movements would have to be the kettlebell swing!     Burpees burn 12 cals a minute – kettlebells can burn 20!  It’s the perfect alternative.  There’s very little knee bend but a ton of heart rate work!  Get your technique tight first and then work in some kettlebell swings alongside your favourite strength moves.

Try this workout and see how your heart rate fires up:


10 Pushups

15 KB swings

10 per side KB/DB 1 leg RDL’s

15 KB swings

10 per side fast bench tap downs (below)

15  KB swings

10 per side DB renegade rows

15 KB swings

10 per side Get Ups

Repeat for a total of 4 rounds



And dear to my heart of all training – is boxing!  And give me time, I’ll do a video of some techniques you can use safely.  As a strong cardio workout, there’s not much beats boxing for sheer fitness.  If you can get your hands on a boxing bag and gloves and just do basic punches fast and hard, your heart rate will go through the roof.  If you’re having ongoing issues with your knee then this will be a worthwhile investment and SO much fun!


It’s really important to maintain quad strength through an injury like this so I always include a bench “tap down” drill too – you’ll need to test this exercise on a low step first to check that you’re not overloading the knee.  Keep the step low so there’s not too much bend in the knee but you’ll still work the  front of the thigh.  Try 3 sets of 10/per side to start with.  But “test” the movement first to check it’s OK for you.


Bench Tap Downs

  • Stand on a step or low bench and step down lightly with one foot, just “tapping” the toes to the floor quickly. Step back up to tap foot to bench and repeat movement.
  • Complete all reps on one side before swapping legs.
  • Your legs should be slightly bent at the knee on the supporting leg, working the thigh muscles.

bench tap downs 

Start slowly and work up to speed.  Strength is your first priority and after that, you go can for speed and heart rate.  Just make sure the knee points foward in the direction of your toes and doesn’t “collapse” in.  This picture explains exactly why we want to keep the quads strong!

 So there you have it, some exercises to  keep your quads strong despite limited movement and some ideas for keeping fitness high and calories burning while you work around the existing knee injury.

If you need some additional help with knee injuries, Rick Kaselj is THE man to go to for help.  You can check out his program at Fix my Knee Pain.

fix my knee pain prdt grpPS. After this post, Jennifer made the comment below on our Inner Circle Facebook page. If this solution worked for Jennifer, it will work for you too! Don’t let knee pain slow you down. Use our workouts and Rick’s solution and your knee issues won’t completely sideline you anymore!

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