Strengthening the quads and other leg muscles protects your knees.
If you feel you can't get out for a hike because steep climbs and long descents leave your knees feeling sore and creaky, think again. Unless you have a medical condition that affects your joints, your knee woes may be caused by weak muscles around the knee including the quads, hamstrings and calf muscles. Strengthening exercises that target these muscles can keep your knees from creaking while on the trail.
Target Those Quads
The quadriceps are the muscles that run along the front of your thigh. These four muscles work together to extend the leg and, according to the Appalachian Mountain Club, provide shock absorption that protects the knee and kneecap as you trek downhill. To tone the quads without stressing your knees, perform leg extensions. Sit at the edge of a chair or bench with your feet flat on the floor. Engage your quads to extend your foot out in front of you. Hold the leg straight for a count of five and then slowly lower the leg. Repeat 10 times and then switch legs. As you get stronger, wear ankle weights to increase the resistance as you lift.
Work Your Hamstrings
The hamstrings run along the back of your thighs and work with the quads to support your knees. When you bend your leg at the knee, you're using the hamstrings. Hamstring curls work the hamstrings without straining your knees. Stand with your legs together. If needed, rest your hands on a chair or counter for balance as you bend your left leg at the knee to raise the left foot behind you. Your thighs should stay stationary as you lift. Slowly lift the foot until your leg is at a 90-degree angle, hold for a count of five and then lower the foot back to the floor. Repeat 10 times and then switch legs. As you gain strength, add ankle weights to make the exercise more challenging.
Tone the Abductors & Adductors
The adductors run along your inner thigh, while the abductors extend down from the hip. These two muscles work to move your leg side-to-side and are essential to keep the knee area strong, especially during lateral motions. Two variations of the reclined leg raise tone the adductors and abductors. To start, lie on your right side with your head resting in your hand and your right leg bent to support your body. Slowly raise your left leg 12 to 24 inches off the floor. Hold the position for a count of five and then slowly lower the leg. Repeat 10 times. While still on your right side, extend your right leg so your legs are stacked. Cross your left leg in front of the right leg, and then rest the left foot on the ground in front of the right knee. Slowly raise your right leg 6 to 8 inches off the floor, hold the position for a count of five and then slowly lower. Repeat 10 times. Turn over and switch legs for both exercises.
Strengthen Your Calves
By toning your calf muscles, you strengthen the muscles at the lower and back portions of your knee. Strong calves also put a shock-absorbing spring in your step as you hike. Calf raises are an effective calf-toning exercise that can be done almost anywhere. Stand with a slight bend in your knee. If needed, use the back of a chair or counter for support as you raise up on your toes. Hold this raised position for a count of two and then slowly lower back down. Repeat 10 times. To add a challenge, hold weights on your shoulders or raise up on only one leg at a time.