You are standing at the bottom of that dreaded staircase once again. All you want is that maroon blouse from the armoire in the attic. Why would climbing 13 six-inch elevations feel like surmounting Mount Everest and cause your knees so much agony?
You ponder your options…
“Ok, maybe I should go at a slight angle this time.”
“Or maybe… if I put more weight on the railings.”
“Nope. I got it. I’ll sing the Hokie Pokie and change the key on each step. Yep, that should do it.”
Battles with staircases rage on across households every single day. And the variations on how to get up and down those steps would make a Texas Hold ‘em card counter spinning in circles. Thankfully, strengthening your knee using a few key exercises can make climbing up or downstairs easier and pain-free.
I’m not going to teleport you back to Mrs. Brown’s high school anatomy class and teach you the origins and insertions of the muscles in your knee. However, when you climb in a new car, wouldn’t you at least want to know the location of the brake and gas pedal?
When you know the muscles that help you get up and down the steps, you can engage them more effectively and bring greater stability and strength to each step.
The quadriceps make up the front part of the thigh. When your 3-year-old grandbaby Emma is cuddling on your lap, she’s resting on your quads. This muscle group is really important for stabilizing the knee when going down the steps and is one of the key muscles to help you climb up.
Hammies are the muscles on the back part of your thigh. They stabilize the knee when you go up and down the steps. They are also great “hand warmers” after shoveling the driveway this winter. Give it a try. Your hands will be nice and toasty.
Now on to the king knee muscle for stair climbing. I don’t think I need to remind you where your rump is located. But know that the rump doesn’t just make for a great cushion. It’s the main muscle you use to climb up steps.
Any personal trainer will proclaim “keep your core tight.” But why is this important…. especially when climbing the stairs? The obvious answer is to help stabilize your body. But there is more to it than that. When you tighten your core, you help tilt your pelvis up just a smidge.
Think of your pelvis like a seesaw.
Most people’s seesaws are horribly unbalanced. It’s like a 400lb sumo wrestler sitting on one side. When you tighten your core, you help tilt the seesaw back toward a neutral position. This can ease pressure on several of the muscles and nerves that travel in and through your knee.
Stay with me and I’ll teach you a handful of exercises to bring even greater balance to your pelvis, but let me address a few common questions about knee pain and stairs first.
Believe it or not, climbing up the stairs versus climbing down the stairs are two very different movements.
When you go down the stairs, you are placing direct stress on a straightened knee joint. Unlike walking, where you can glide into each new step, on stairs you have a gentle drop as you go down. It’s gentle, but it’s still a drop.
If you have conditions like chondromalacia (cartilage under the kneecap that has deteriorated) or osteoarthritis (inflammation inside the joint), it can be especially painful. Why? Well if you have less cushion inside your knee, the stress from your weight stepping down can cause pain.
When you go up the stairs, you place indirect stress on a bent joint. So, it’s less direct stress on the knee joint itself, but it’s added stress on the ligaments and tendons around the knee. Basically, the tendons and ligaments in your knee have to stretch in order to get into the next step.
Research has shown that exercise, especially isometric, no-movement exercises can reduce pain. Isometric exercise can improve symptoms of knee osteoarthritis. And of course, strengthen the entire knee making climbing stairs much easier.
So, what exercises can you do to strengthen your knees?
Whoever said, “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” was a wise person. I think it might have started with my great uncle Al, but I can’t be sure about that.
The same thing is true for stairs. Mini dosages of stairs can help you prepare for the real thing.
Use a phone book or a 3- to 4-inch step. Position yourself parallel to the step because you’ll be going up sideways. Why? When you practice going up the step sideways, you naturally engage your glute muscle which is a key muscle used in stair climbing. So, you are training your body to fire up the right muscles when you practice sideways.
Make sure you have a chair on the other side for balance. Start with the leg that often gives you trouble. Lift your foot up and place it on the step, then lift your body up.
Steppers are a safe item for this type of exercise. They typically are made with non-slip surfaces and are adjustable.
Stand up fully. When you are ready to step down, follow the same process. That is, put pressure on your outer portion of the heel and keep the knee over the second toe.
However, you are going to make one slight adjustment. Instead of focusing on your glute to lift you up, before you step down, squeeze your thigh muscles tightly. Remember, these crucial muscles are stabilizers in this movement. Tightening them will help build strength in proper form and prepare you for “game day” aka, your staircase.
Do this exercise in a controlled manner 10 times before switching to the other leg.
Stand with your back to a wall. Step out about two feet from the wall. Slowly slide down the wall until your knees are at a 45-degree angle. Hold this position for 20 seconds and do 3 sets. Rest for 30 seconds between sets.
If you have knee issues, I recommend starting at a 45-degree angle first rather than a 90-degree angle. This will help you build strength around your knee and prepare you for stair climbing.
This exercise is weight-bearing so it helps build bone density and strength. But since it’s an isometric (you are not moving the joint), it puts less stress on the knee.
Sit down in a chair with your spine neutral (not slumped over and not arched back). Line your heels up so they’re underneath your knees. Push your heels into the ground while simultaneously squeezing your glutes.
You’ll know you are doing this exercise properly if it feels like you are about to stand up, but not generating enough strength to do it. Hold the position for 10 seconds. Then rest for 5 seconds. Do 5 sets.
Remember when I told you that your glutes are one of the most important muscles for climbing stairs? This exercise isolates and strengthens them along with your hammies.
Sit in a chair facing a wall with your knee bent at a 90-degree angle. You’ll want your toes a few inches from the wall. Extend your leg out while pressing your foot against the wall. Hold for 10 seconds. Then relax.
Now scooch your chair back a few inches. Repeat the same press for 10 seconds. Then relax. Scooch your chair backward a third time and repeat.
This exercise is also an isometric stabilizer, so it is safer on the knee joint but strengthens the all-important quadriceps muscle. This is the key stabilizer muscle when going down the stairs and an important helper muscle when going up. When you do the exercise at three different angles, you are strengthening different parts of the quad.
Quick Tip: Wear shoes. You are pressing your toes against the wall, so it’s good to have shoes that will absorb the pressure, not your toes.
Now if these exercises feel too challenging, you can start off with more gentle knee exercises from bed.
Go get an index card so you can write these down – seriously. Practice these individually so you build a habit around each of them, and your body will remember to do them like brushing your teeth.
#1 Drive with your glutes (aka butt muscle) when climbing up. Make it feel like your glutes are doing all the work to propel you upward.
#2 Drive your knees outward. This will provide greater stability and strength. Put another way, don’t let your knees collapse inward when going up or down. Pressure should be outward, not inward.
#3 Line up your knee with your second toe. You want your knees tracking properly. Keep them in line with your second toe, and you’ll do just that.
#4 Point your toes outward just slightly. This will help your knees track as well and help prevent your knees from collapsing inward.
#5 When climbing upward, feel pressure on the outer portion of your foot, especially your heel. Why? Two reasons. This will again, help prevent your knees from collapsing inward. Secondly, when there is a weakness in your knees, they often “wobble” when you are doing difficult movements like stair climbing. When you focus on your weight distribution to such a small degree, it can help minimize the wobbling of your knees.
#6 Tighten the abs and try to tuck your pelvis in as much as possible. This will help align the pelvis.
#7 On days where your knees are especially achy, lead with your better knee. Some days it’s okay to avoid stairs but movement is still helpful. You can try hopping on a stationary bike for your knee pain instead!
#8 On days where your knees feel good, practice! If you live in a location without stairs, find some stairs to practice. You never know when you’ll need to climb them, and you want to be ready.
#9 Keep your body hydrated. When you are dehydrated, your muscles are more likely to spasm which can cause micro-injuries you may not notice at first. This can happen when you do strenuous movements like climbing stairs.
#10 Practice slowly. Please don’t rush. Think about each and every recommendation. As my old gym teacher used to preach, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. PERFECT practice makes perfect.”
Ok, one last tip for you. And this doesn’t come from my weird grade-school gym teacher that used to wear clown hair to be funny. This is from one of the greatest fitness inspirations of all time, the late Jack LaLanne.
He once taught: “Exercise is king, nutrition is queen.” Why is exercise king? When you exercise, you force your body to make small changes and adapt. No matter what your age.
At 70 years young, good ol’ Jack swam 1.5 miles in strong currents while pulling 70 people on 70 boats. Oh, and I forgot to mention his wrists were handcuffed and his feet were shackled the entire time.
Now, I doubt you have any desire to do anything so crazy. But the point is you are stronger than you think. Don’t let those stairs defeat you. Start small by doing the above exercises 3-4 times a week. And soon, you’ll catch yourself opening that armoire in the attic realizing you floated up those stairs like you were riding on a feather.
To your health!
Do you struggle climbing stairs – up or down? Have you tried side stepping? What has your doctor told you about your knee issues? Have you noticed improvement with exercise? Please share your thoughts and experiences with our community!
Tags Fitness Over 60
I’m glad to see these exercises suggested and I’m glad to read the information about tendons and ligaments around the knee joint also playing an important role, because that confirmed my issue as being a real thing. Many years ago I shattered my knee cap. The dr. Save 3/4’s and used my ligament to help secure. It was a pretty major injury due to the fact that I had to regain all strength in that leg again. Basically had to learn to walk again. Mind u I played competitive soccer for 10 years and not once injured myself. Anyhow healing after surgery and being able to pass my dr.’s walking test took about a year. And the only thing my dr. Said was that I won’t be able to ever kneel again. And of course I still semi tried here and there but couldn’t . 20 something years later I was outside and very cold that I think I was too numb to feel and in a position that I had to kneel on the cement. I didn’t feel absolutely any pain, until two days later upon attempting to go up stairs, I realized I couldn’t. That leg had absolutely no strength to achieve one step and when I kept trying, it hurt. . Now I don’t know how to fix that. I’m fine going down but I can’t go up.