Knee pain when climbing stairs is extremely common whether you have pain going up or down the stairs- you are not alone! But what if I told you there was a chance that you could actually master the stairs and climb them with ease. Specific exercises can help you build strength so you can trust your leg(s) and have more confidence in your knees when coming down the stairs in particular. Once you master these specific things, knee pain from climbing stairs can be a thing of the past!
If you are experiencing knee pain, pressure, or noises when going up or down the stairs, you are in the right place. It is possible to be able to go up or down the stairs confidently and without severe pain (I know it can be scary!).
Firstly, there are a couple of things you can do to set yourself up for success that are external factors to ensure your safety. You can find those in this post here.
There are a few key things that you need to master in order to tackle stair climbing. Here are a few of the most important ones:
- Single leg balance: if you have a hard time standing on one leg, stairs may feel scary to you!
- Single leg strength: almost every activity you, involves double limb movements- squats in particular. It can be easier for your body to compensate during these movements but when it comes to stairs, you need single leg strength!
- The ability to squat: speaking of squatting in the previous point- if you have knee pain when climbing stairs- you have to be able to master a squat without severe pain.
- Knee bending and straightening: if you are lacking range of motion in your knee- it could be one of the things working against you on the stairs.
I know what you might be thinking….
"So....uhhh where do I begin?!"
As you can see, there are a lot of different parts to being able to climb stairs with ease. You may be able to point out one or two things that you know you probably aren’t great at.
But there are others that you may not know if you need to work on them or not!
Here is a helpful video to get started with to strengthen for stair climbing.
If you have an idea of what you might need to work on, take a look at these exercises below. These can help to prepare your joints for all that stair climbing requires.
Choose at least 1-2 of these to begin working on first to start decreasing your knee pain when stair climbing!
5 Exercises to decrease knee pain when stair climbing
Please note that not all of these exercises below may feel good to you right now and that’s okay. Ideally, you will choose 1-2 exercises to start with and progress to the others as you are able to.
This is not an exhaustive list of exercises either. There are of course other exercises to master before you are running up and down the stairs again! Find a beginner workout here.
When doing any type of stair training, please exercise with caution. Use support of stable stair railings and wear shoes that have tread on them, especially if you have carpeted stairs. Most of these exercises should be done on the bottom step for safety.
1. Lateral Step up
This exercise can be helpful to work on both single leg strength in your hips and knees in particular. The good news with this one is if you are able to do it without compensating or limping- it usually doesn’t bother the knee!
The higher the step, the harder this exercise will be so if you do have a lower step you can start on, I would recommend that.
Try to complete 8-10 reps as you are able and repeat on the other leg. Take note of any differences, i.e if one side appears weaker than the other. This will help you decide what you need to prioritize.
2. Step back and march
This is one of my favorites because it challenges balance usually without irritating the knee! If you do experience hip pain, this one may not be one to start with, especially if you notice it when you lift your leg.
Use the stair railing for support especially for the first couple of reps and decrease support as you feel more confident. The idea is to try between 10-15 reps each side.
If doing this after another exercise, understand that balance is usually always harder under fatigue! It is good to challenge balance under fatigue especially when trying to tackle knee pain from climbing stairs because you may actually be reaching fatigue on the stairs themselves.
3. front foot elevated lunge
Even if you only have difficulty going down the stairs, this one is a must. This front foot elevated lunge can be really helpful in your knee tolerating the position required going down the stairs.
Single leg strength is vital and traditional lunges can increase pain when the knees are sensitive. One way to reduce knee pain when climbing stairs is to improve single leg strength.
This one can throw off balance a little bit so please keep that in mind, making sure you have support as needed.
Complete 8-12 of these trying to bend your knees as far down as comfortable. If they don’t bend much right away, that’s totally fine! Complete on both sides to make sure you are even.
4. Banded chair squat
Mastering the squat is huge especially when you have knee pain when climbing stairs. This is a variation that includes getting up and down from a chair. You also need a resistance band too (you can get a set here)!
If this is initially hard for you, try from a higher surface such as a chair with a cushion on top of it or trying it from a bed or another taller surface.
Here is an important video on what type of pain is okay and which is not.
Inside of the stair climbing secrets, you will find other squat progressions that you can use once you master this one.
Complete 8-15 reps as your able. Once you can complete 15 reps with no pain, swelling, or stiffness during or afterwards- it’s likely time to move on to a more difficult exercise.
5. Tandem row the boat
When creating workouts I always like to put a balance exercise towards the end. This is because as I mentioned previously- balance becomes harder under fatigue.
For this one you need a light dumbbell to start and as you progress, the heavier the dumbbell, the harder this will be.
I like to do this one for a specified time, anywhere from 20-30 seconds on each side. You may feel slight wobbling but you want to find a position that you do feel like you have control over.
How to stop knee pain from climbing stairs for good
If you have knee pain when climbing stairs the only way to help the situation is by taking action.
A cortisone shot may help initially but it will like wear off and longer term use can impact cartilage negatively in the long term.
Anti inflammatory medications may take the edge off but won’t make you feel any stronger down the stairs.
A knee brace or compression sleeve can increase your confidence slightly and can help you feel more stable but not on its own.
The best way to increase the ease of going up or down the stairs is to start building muscle strength. But the key is to do it in a way that does not flare up your pain.
You also do have to be consistent for at least 4 weeks before you may notice a major improvement. I am all about small wings because I believe those are the best ways to carry you forward when it comes to chronic pain.
If you don’t notice any change after 4 weeks, the exercises may not be exactly what you need and that’s okay! There are millions of exercises out there!
As long as you aren’t pushing through significant pain and aren’t causing severe pain while doing these exercises above, you likely are not causing any “damage”.
So here’s to tackling knee pain from climbing stairs. so you can run up and down the stairs again 🙂
Disclaimer: This post is for general informational purposes only. It should not be used to self-diagnose and it is not a substitute for a medical exam, cure, treatment, diagnosis, and prescription or recommendation. It does not create a doctor-patient relationship between Dr. Kuhn and you. You should not make any change in your health regimen or diet before first consulting a physician and obtaining a medical exam, diagnosis, and recommendation. Move Well Age Well, LLC and Dr. Alyssa Kuhn, PT, DPT are not liable or responsible for any advice, course of treatment, diagnosis or any conclusions drawn, services or product you obtain through this video or site.