11 Best Cardio Exercises for Bad Knees

So we all know that cardio has a ton of benefits. This is a no brainer.

In fact, even on the most serious bodybuilding programs like the Arnold Blueprint to Mass, there is cardio nearly every day.

But, if we have bad knees- how are we supposed to do some of this cardio? Simply put, no cardio is worth it if you’re in agonizing pain the whole time.

So, I contacted some experts to answer this for us.

Here are the 11 best cardio exercises for bad knees.

Swimming (Hands Down BEST Exercise)

If you’re looking for the absolute best cardio exercise for bad knees, look nowhere else than swimming.

Chances are, you’ve probably already heard how beneficial swimming is. But why?

Dominique, fitness coach of DWA Fitness said this, “Swimming is a great form of cardio that anyone can do if they suffer with joint problems as there is no impact but because of the water resistance, it is great for the heart and muscle endurance.”

That’s right, when you go swimming, there is NO impact on your knees! But, you still get a great workout.

And furthermore, as Julie Medwid, master of physical therapy said, “The buoyancy from the water allows for pressure relief off of the knees while still being able to increase your heart rate”.

So not only is there NO IMPACT, but it literally relieves the pressure on your knees too!

Knee pain is frustrating enough. So, an exercise that not only had zero impact on your knees- but reduces the pressure on your knees as well- is a great way to keep in shape even with extreme knee pain.

One of the best cardio exercises for bad knees is swimming. Photo by Jim De Ramos from Pexels
One of the best cardio exercises for bad knees is swimming. Photo by Jim De Ramos from Pexels

Swimming Can Be As Fun As You Make It!

I hear a lot of people don’t like the swimming idea because they picture swimming as just doing laps over and over until you’re bored out of your mind.

Truthfully, swimming can be as fun as you make it.

For me, going into the pool with my music blasting on my waterproof JBL speaker and just doing laps while getting my mind off things is a great way to exercise. Just working out can do a lot for your mental health and give you that mental break you need.

But, inviting some of your friends over and playing some fun games such as Marco Polo, swimming pool tag, or a game of water volleyball can be a fantastic way to not only have fun but burn a ton of calories.

Trust me, playing some fun games like that will make the time fly by. That means you might exercise for hours on end- which burns a ton of calories and puts a smile on your face.

So, don’t think that swimming is just going in laps, it can be a great time- and that’s the most important part of staying fit, having fun!

You Can Even Just Walk in the Pool

While walking may sound like the opposite of what you want to do, just walking in the pool can be a great cardio exercise for bad knees.

Remember how earlier we talked about how the pool takes a lot of the pressure off your knees? In many cases, you might not even feel knee pain when you’re walking in a pool because it’s non-impact.

Obviously, this is different for everybody and your knee pain levels.

But, I think you’d be surprised to find out that walking around in a pool is a very tough exercise due to the resistance. So, you get a great work out without the knee pain- sounds like a win to me!

Try Hydrotherapy If You Like Hot Tubs

Well, I’ll admit- I love hot tubs. So, why not combine both?

Naahil Salim, fitness expert, said,

“Hydrotherapy differs from swimming because it involves exercises that you do in a warm-water pool. The water temperature is warmer than a typical swimming pool.

The warmth of the water will help to relax the muscles and reduce the pain in your knees. You can use the water to provide resistance to your whole body and it will help to build muscle strength”.

Water Aerobics

Water aerobics are very different than swimming, so I thought I’d include it anyways.

Many people are looking for some just very basic cardio exercises for bad knees. But, if you’re someone looking to burn hundreds or even thousands of calories in a workout, water aerobics might be for you.

Water Aerobics is basically a HIIT workout but in the water. You’ll be in a class with other people (or you could do it solo) and you perform tons of different exercises in the water that really test your cardiovascular strength.

Water aerobics is one of the best cardio exercises for bad knees out there. Simply put, there is virtually no impact on your knees whatsoever, the water relieves a ton of the pressure on your knees, and it burns a TON of calories in a SHORT amount of time.

So, for those that are busy or want to get their work out done quick but still want results, water aerobics might be for you.

Best cardio exercises for bad knees include water aerobics.
Best cardio exercises for bad knees include water aerobics.

Underwater Treadmills

While I’ve personally never been a fan of the treadmill myself, I know many people who exercise live by it.

But, the treadmill can be a hard machine to use with knee pain.

Thankfully, underwater treadmills exist now and are one of the best cardio exercises for bad knees out there.

Jonathan Stine, MD at Pennsylvania State Health, says, “I’ve even referred patients to physical therapy centers with underwater treadmills which take even less load off the knees.

I’ve found this to be particularly helpful for my patients with obesity”.

If you’re someone who is obese and experiencing a lot of knee pain, this might be for you.

And I’d like to applaud you for making a change in your life. Losing weight can be hard, especially with knee pain- but as you lose weight, a lot of that knee pain thankfully goes away.

It might be worth it to talk to your doctor, local physical therapist, or go to a clinic around you with this service and try it out.

Or, if you for some reason have the money to install an underwater treadmill, I’d recommend that!

They actually look pretty sick and are a FANTASTIC work out.

The Rowing Machine (Incredible!)

The rowing machine is one of the best cardio exercises for bad knees out there.

Surprisingly to most people, the rowing machine actually does work a bit of the lower legs, but it barely activates your knees.

Furthermore, the rowing machine has always been known to be one of the best full-body cardio workout machines ever invented. Not only does it put massive size onto your back muscles, but it will make your heart rate go up and make you really work up a sweat.

Andy Brown, a personal trainer said this, “There are a couple of exercises that I utilize for my clients with knee issues.

First, depending on the extent of the range of motion, rowing with an ERG rower is one of the most effective cardio exercises that can be performed.

Rowing is considered a full-body cardio-based exercise, but it puts far less pressure on the lower body.

Furthermore, there is a minimal emphasis on the squat as the majority of power comes from the pull or (row) pattern.”

As I covered in my article, The Viking Workout, the rowing machine is known for being one of the best exercises for transforming your whole body.

So, put on a YouTube video or your favorite TV show, and start rowing- and enjoy that work out WITHOUT the knee pain!

Rowing is one of the best cardio exercises for bad knees.
Rowing is one of the best cardio exercises for bad knees.

The Elliptical

The elliptical has always been marketed as this workout machine for those with knee or joint pain.

Essentially, it’s like a treadmill without all the impact. Normally, every time you hit the ground, a ton of force runs up your legs causing damage to your joints and eventually shin splints.

With an elliptical, you don’t have to worry about this. Plus, ellipticals are known for having more of a full body work out considering you have to actively move your arms with the machine.

And depending on the resistance settings, and other modifications many ellipticals come with, you can have virtually no knee pain as your foot will never leave the pedal.

It’s more of almost moving the hips on the elliptical, not the knees. But, at the end of the day, you still get calorie burn that is basically just as good as a treadmill.

This is one of the best cardio exercises for bad knees. Plus, most gyms (such as Anytime Fitness or SNAP Fitness) have tons of ellipticals laying around. This is one of the more accessible machines. (ie: you don’t need to find a swimming pool or something)

Biking Machines

While many people advocate literal biking as one of the best cardio exercises for knee pain, I actually completely disagree. I think that puts way too much pressure on the knees.

But, when it comes to biking machines, I believe in those completely because there is way less impact and strain on the knee joint.

This is because on a bike you might encounter seriously rocky terrain, very steep hills that put you in a bad position, or the general risk of injury (crashing).

Biking machines don’t have all these problems, and allow you to focus on activating your quadriceps and hips instead of your knees, which makes it a more appealing cardio exercise for bad knees.

Make Sure You Use The Clips to Reduce Knee Pain!

Dr.Michael Bogden, PT and DPT said this, “A crucial tip for those with knee pain who choose cycling is that the peddles in which you “clip in” should be used.

With clipless peddles, the quadriceps muscles dominate in creating all of the power to propel you forward and this increases compression in the anterior of the knee leading to exacerbation of knee pain. 

Clipped-in pedals increase the use of the glute and hamstring muscles which will help balance forces on the knee and reduce the risk for pain.

Try a Recumbent (Laying Down) Bike For Knee Pain!

If you don’t like the standard biking machines at your gym, try one of the recumbent machines.

The recumbent bikes are the one where you are almost laying down.

According to Becky, M.S from LifeSportFitness, “I’ve had a few clients who have felt the leg angle on a recumbent bike suits their knees better than an upright bike.”

Personally, I find them pretty useful for knee pain. And they’re way more comfortable than the normal work out bikes.

Mountain Climbers (Surprisingly)

Okay, when Lucas first told me that mountain climbers are one of the best cardio exercises for bad knees I thought he was crazy.

That was until I did some research and found out he was completely right. According to Righteously Fit Dads and their research, mountain climbers can actually help rebuild your knees.

Lucas, the founder of Inboard Skate (so you know he sees knee problems ALL the time) said, “First off, the weight is placed on the hands, so the knees don’t feel the bulk of the stress. 

It’s a great cardio exercise for shedding off the pounds while building core strength as well.

Doing mountain climbers gets you sweaty and gets your heart pumping, so you know you’re burning off those calories nicely even without doing jumps and high knees.

Additionally, mountain climbers are also great for people who have lower back problems.

The correct plank form when performing this exercise keeps the back in a neutral position, so it’s under no stress as well unlike when you do crunches.”

Seated Battle Ropes

Battle Ropes are one of the newer cardio exercises that is gaining more popularity every day.

The Battle Ropes exercise is basically where you stand or sit (in this case we will sit to avoid knee pain) and you raise heavy ropes with your arms at a high intensity. It actually does a ton for your core, arms, and overall trunk muscles.

Plus, it will seriously get the sweat pumping.

Here’s a video of it, since it’s a little hard to explain what it is.

Here’s what Khushali, from HealthyAndKhush, said about the battle ropes:

“Battle ropes are a very simple and effective cardio workout. Although they are different from traditional cardio workouts, they burn a ton of calories.

Battle ropes work on muscles across the body (including the shoulder, back, arms, abs, quads, and glutes), but do not put pressure on the knees.

Hence being a great cardio workout for people with bad knees. In extreme cases of knee injuries, seated battle ropes are a great option. This takes away all the pressure the standing stance may exert.

Different battle rope variations can help you focus on different muscle groups while simultaneously building endurance. This ensures that you get a high-intensity workout without affecting the knees at all.”

Ski Ergometer

The Ski Ergometer is a newer machine, but it still remains one of the best cardio exercises for bad knees.

It’s kind of like a skiing machine, but without all the leg pressure that would aggravate the knees. And it’s a TOUGH machine to work out on- it will make you sweat for sure!

Georgia Bennett-Ramseur, a personal trainer, said “I really like the ski ergometer for clients with knee pain, especially in the context of interval training.

It can be hard for those struggling with knee pain to find ways to get their heart rate up in a safe and pain-free way. But, the ski ergometer is a great exercise to solve this problem!

While mimicking the motion of Nordic skiing, the ski erg is unlike a lot of other cardio equipment in that it challenges your upper body more than your lower body, while having a very low impact on the joints.

It is also more of a pulling movement, requiring a hip hinge which is generally a lot safer for knee pain than quad-dominant movements.

There are many different positions you can take while using the ski erg, including standing, kneeling and single-leg variations and the tension is adjustable, making it a versatile machine.”


This one may seem surprising, but boxing can be one of the best cardio exercises for bad knees.

While some people may recommend kickboxing, I’d probably err on the side of caution and avoid it if you have bad knees. (Or at least, slowly work into it).

Here’s what Michelle, a fitness blogger at Bliss from Balance said:

“The two main types of fitness boxing are shadow boxing (these are popular in online videos and apps) or heavy bag boxing (done in fitness studios or gyms, or can be done at home with a boxing bag).

Both versions are incredible cardio workouts that will increase your heart rate from the intensity and frequency of the punches.

If shadow boxing, you can try leveling up with hand weights if you need more intensity or want to raise your heart rate quicker. For heavy bag boxing you will need boxing wraps and gloves.

The weight of these combined with the intensity of the class will have you breaking a sweat within minutes.

Not only is boxing a great knee-friendly cardio workout, but you are also guaranteed to get some stress relief”.

You May Want to Try a Treadmill to Rebuild Your Knee Strength…

If you’re super daring and want to try and rebuild your knee strength, you can try a treadmill- but not in your normal way.

Patrick Cunningham, a personal trainer at Lifetime Fitness, said this about one of his clients that went from having two knee surgeries and being in lots of knee pain to someone that has fixed it completely!

“Let’s use Patricia, one of my clients that had two surgeries on the same knee as an example.

She started off by walking on a treadmill with a 1% incline for 30-45 minutes, supplemented with a one-hour-long stationary bike ride once a week.

Besides weight training, she never did anything else. No stair climber, elliptical, Jacob’s ladder, or any other contraption was needed.

She gradually progressed her walking by increasing the incline by .5 and the speed by .1-.3 each week.

Fast forward a year and a half later and Paula, literally, comes skipping into Life Time 4-6 times a week on an “unfixable knee” she never thought she’d be able to fix.”

Try Backwards Walking on a Treadmill to Rebuild Your Knees

Heather, the owner of Made Possible Physical Training recommended this incredible exercise to really rebuild your knees:

“Looking for the best cardio for bad knees? A great cardio movement to strengthen the knees is incline, slow, backwards walking on a treadmill.

This movement helps to strengthen the hamstrings, stabilize the Knees, and makes the quads work hard!

This movement looks easy! But will quickly make you sweat!

We recommend starting with about 50% incline of what your treadmill is capable of and a very slow speed 1.5-1.9 start with your hands on the side support rails and slowly place one foot on at a time, sitting into a comfortable 45 degree hinge, drive through your heels as you press the treadmill away from you.

We recommend 30-second intervals for 10 minutes! You will be pleasantly surprised how much you sweat but how great your knees feel! “

Conclusion of the 11 Best Cardio Exercises for Bad Knees

Hopefully this list of the 11 best cardio exercises for bad knees helped!

Tell me in the comments below if you’ve had a cardio exercise that has helped you with your bad knees and I will be sure to add you to the list! Good luck out there!

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