Build Your Legs Without Pain

Coauthor – Matthew Ibrahim

8 New Pain-Free Leg Exercises

Never skip leg day, even if you have crabby knees or a tricky lower back. Just use these eight pain-free exercises for hypertrophy.

Nagging knee and back problems can halt your progress and sap motivation. But you can still train your legs by using ranges of motion that allow you to load the muscles while avoiding pain. Here are eight exercises that’ll build your legs even when working around a cranky knee or a tricky back.

1. The Good-Thrust

This is a combo of a good morning and a hip thrust. Use it for spine-friendly glute training.

The standard good morning places a lot of shear force through your lumbar region. That doesn’t make it a “bad” exercise, just not the best option if you and your back don’t get along sometimes. Try the “good-thrust” instead. Yep, it’s part hip thrust and part good morning. If you don’t think it looks like a good morning, just flip the exercise vertically and look again.

The long-lever position of the hip thrust makes it harder with light weight and shifts more emphasis toward your hamstrings. Your glutes and lumber extensors get a good workout too. If you want to further emphasize your entire posterior chain, you can press your toes down into the edge of the bench.

Compared to a standard good morning, the load is placed more horizontally. The greatest challenge is at the top of the thrust as your hips extend.

During a good morning, the hardest part is when you’re bending over fully. There’s very little challenge at the top. During a good-thrust, the hardest part is when your hips are fully extended. As your hips lower back towards the floor, your hamstrings get a good loaded stretch as well.

When equipment is lacking and your back’s giving you some grief, this is a good alternative to good mornings and even back extensions. Add some weight across your hips to make them harder.

2. Modified Kickstand RDL

Use these for back-friendly deadlifting.

If you want to avoid a bad back, consider torque at the hip. Torque is the result of force (weight) times distance (moment arm length). To reduce torque at the hip, you must either reduce force by lifting a lighter weight or reduce the distance from the joint.

If you’ve ever wondered why your back feels better deadlifting with a trap bar, it’s because the design of the bar allows you to keep the load close to your hips.

Kickstand Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) require far less weight and equipment. They also allow you to develop single-leg strength and stability through your hips. They’re somewhere in between a single-leg and regular RDL. That means they get your hips working harder without needing a ton of weight. They’re also relatively meathead-friendly since they don’t require as much balance as full single-leg exercises.

Kickstand RDLs are often done incorrectly. The kickstand refers to the back foot position, which isn’t there to help. It’s merely there to provide an extra point of contact with the floor and light support. Placing weight through your back foot during a kickstand deadlift is like bouncing off the floor when you’re doing step-ups. Not cool.

Make a conscious effort to place minimal weight on your back foot. Alternatively, you can modify your kickstand positions using either a low split-squat stand or by placing a foam roller on the floor. Hooking your foot over something gives you a point of contact and a little stability, but it’s a lot harder to cheat the movement. Try these with a dumbbell or kettlebell.

3. Eccentric Reverse Nordic Curl

Use these for research-proven quad growth.

This move produces a significant increase in the muscle fascicle length, muscle thickness, pennation angle, and cross-sectional area in the quads (1). This joint-friendly exercise allows you to train your quads through a much deeper range of knee flexion than usual.

The key is the controlled three-second lowering (eccentric) component, which places a massive emphasis on the quads with time under tension. This will help with both growth and strength. It also promotes durability in both knee tendons.

If you’re a beginner, use only body weight. Once you’re ready to advance, add load by holding a dumbbell on your chest with both hands.

4. Goblet Slant Board Squat (Slow Tempo)

Use these for a knee-friendly quad pump.

Use a slant board or heel wedges if you have access to them. If not, you can easily mimic the slant board scenario by propping your heels up on a thick textbook, the bottom step of a staircase, or on a couple of rolled-up towels.

Using more time under tension is what keeps the quads working throughout the duration of each set. Ultimately, this helps promote muscle growth, and it’ll also give you a good pump.

Use a strict and controlled tempo during each rep with a 5-second lowering (eccentric) component and a 5-second raising (concentric) component. Aim to get the bottom of your thighs as close to your calves as possible for maximum benefit.

5. Double-Banded Pull-Through

Use these for back-friendly hamstring and booty-building.

If back pain is a problem with most deadlifting variations, then the pull-through will be one of your best alternatives. Do it with a cable machine or by holding a band, as shown in the video. It’s a great option for learning how to move your hips correctly while keeping your spine stable.

Having one band between your legs and an NT Loop around your hips is a surefire way to get heavy enough loading while being comfortable. That is, if you find “comfort” in lighting your backside on fire.

6. Band-Resisted Reverse “Sled” Walk

Use these for healthy knees and pumped-up quads.

Walking backward while pulling or pushing against a weighted sled is a great quad exercise. No sled? Opt for this variation. All you’ll need is a heavy band.

Loop that band around your waist and anchor it to a sturdy object. The goal is to mimic the leg action you’d use during a reverse sled drag. The key is to straighten your leg by squeezing your quads during each step.

You’ll build your quads while decreasing anterior knee pain. The constant terminal knee extension action brings blood flow to the area, provides for a great leg pump, and promotes patella tendon health.

7. Dead-Stop Single-Leg RDL

Use these for single-leg strength and hamstring hammering.

This exercise allows you to build functional strength and size without looking like you’re in the circus. It’s also extremely humbling. A little weight goes a long way.

Find an ideal depth and place something on the floor to limit yourself from going beyond it. A low box, a few plates, or even a bottom step might work.

As you lower into your single-leg deadlift, the step is there to stop you from moving further down the way you normally would with an RDL. The weight in your hand is allowed to partially rest for a two-count while you maintain tension.

The dead stop forces you to overcome the inertia of the dead weight (dumbbell or kettlebell). Inhibiting the stretch-reflex mechanisms will force your muscles to work harder to lift the weight. Isometrically loading your muscles in this stretched position will also create a lot of mechanical tension and muscle damage. You’ll know about that the next day!

Since you have an extra point of contact with the floor through the weight, these are also more stable than single-leg RDLs. You’ll develop unilateral strength, plus hip and knee stability. Be sure to work within a pain-free and active range of motion for your hamstrings. You can always work closer to the floor over time. If balance is still an issue, place your free hand on a wall to help.

8. Modified Sissy Squat

Use these for building quads. They may also help you build up to doing full sissy squats.

Time under tension is pivotal here since you’ll want to do this exercise in a slow and controlled fashion. Use a stack of Airex pads or an object 6-12 inches high. Stand in front, lower your knees down to the object, then stand back up. If you’re feeling really sadistic, you can combine this with a resistance band looped behind your knees, loading you into terminal knee extension.

Sissy squats go against everything you’ve ever heard about not allowing your knees to go over your toes. That’s a fallacy, and it’s also exactly why this exercise works. Allowing your knees to go over your toes and into greater flexion is what places stress on the quads and associated knee tendon structures. This stress is what promotes muscle growth. It also promotes tendon durability.

Make any workout work better:



  1. Alonso-Fernandez D et al. Changes in rectus femoris architecture induced by the reverse nordic hamstring exercises. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2019 Apr;59(4):640-647. PubMed.

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Absolutely love this


I like the article and enjoyed the options but I’m afraid I’m going to have to be “that guy”. If your knees hurt or your back hurts after squatting or deadlifts (and its not just the occasional tweak) you are doing it wrong. For several years I thought squats made my knees hurt. I was wrong I just didn’t know how to squat, I thought I did, I taught many people how to squat but I was doing it wrong. As with any “good” exercise it shouldn’t “injure” you. I don’t think anyone will argue that the squat and deadlift are “good” exercises. If squatting and deadlifting “hurts” you - you really need to dig into your form. It’s you, not them. I remember watching Jeff Cavalier (AthleanX) talking about how squats made his knees hurt. Then I watched his video on how to squat. He was clearly not sitting back enough and his toes were not pointed out enough. Thats why his knees hurt. Even those that “know” sometimes don’t “know”. If it hurts you (not DOMs) you’re doing it wrong. All that said if you can’t make it stop hurting you or you have an injury these look like great options. - Thanks for posting!

Great points. I try to remember to film my lifts here and there for exactly the reasons you point out

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100% agree thats how I finally realized what I was doing wrong. The ability to film our lifts and easily review them is remarkable.

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My quickly aging goalie knees thank you for this!

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I’d say there’s quite a few lifters over 35 or 40 for which this simply isn’t true. I’ve accumulated enough mileage on my knees that squatting with any significant weight is never going to be pain free for me. And I say that as someone that squatted for years with competition bests of 545 raw and 661 single ply.


Completely expected folks to disagree but I think I’m more right than wrong. I’m 55 my squat is admittedly weak at 405 but I was 52 when I got “pain free” from fixing my form. There is a great interview with Stan Effering who had a 900+ raw squat explaining how he finally fixed his form in his 50’s and got pain free in his knees. Happens to a lot of folks. They’ve squatted for years but didn’t have the form quite right and just accepted that their knees were supposed to hurt. Knees aren’t supposed to hurt unless you have or have had injuries. If your injuries healed they shouldn’t hurt. In the last few years we’ve seen two big things impact lifters 1) The the ability to video lifts and get feedback on form and 2) so many videos explaining how to lift with good form. Thats what happened to me. I filmed my lift and noticed that I wasn’t doing what I was being told to do. Fixed it and after 20+ years the pain vanished. Would not have believed it if I had not lived it. I thought I had “bad” knees - turned out they are pretty damn good knees :wink:

Best thing I ever did for my legs last year at age 39 was quit everything but smith squats, and go absolutely all the way down, ass to heels and relaxing/pause at the bottom.

Absolute full ROM.

I started with the empty bar and worked my way back up. Very humbling to struggle with 65-95lbs for the first few weeks, but it very quickly grew. Within 3-4 months I was using 225, and within a year 315.

I feel so solid and strong at that bottom pause position now.

My legs feel better than ever, even when I started at age 16. All knee pain is gone, all low back pain is gone.

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I finally got around to watching the video you posted, which was very informative on the Rippetoe/Starting Strength style of squatting. My last few years of powerlifting (when knee pain became an issue) I switched to this form and it did make some difference. Unfortunately not enough of a difference for me to keep squatting.

I agree 100% with this. My knees have high mileage from 1) years of squatting multiple times per week, 2) being heavier than I probably should have been for powerlifting and 3) leading an active life (skiing, hiking, occasional running, etc.) all while being heavier than I needed to be. And by high mileage I mean cartilage damage that isn’t likely to heal. Is that an injury? Or just simply the consequence of what I’ve done in my 44 years on this planet? I don’t think it really matters. The reality is that nearly any loaded movement involving knee flexion bothers my knees. Some movements (like squats) bother them a lot and some bother them a lot less and so I choose the latter.

I think there’s a lot of lifters or former lifters like me out there. Lifters who can squat what you can at your age are not the norm.

Loved your note. Yes I would say cartlidge damage is an injury that did not heal. Some cartilage damage will heal others won’t. Rereading my post it does come off a bit “draconian” and may imply that I don’t think people have lifetime injuries to their knees. I KNOW there are many people that do. I was a distance runner in High school and early in college. I had many weeks of running more than 100 miles a week. Later I was an airborne Infantryman and beat the crap out of my body and especially my knees. Whenever I would squat my knees would be sore for 1 - 3 days. I avoided squatting because I thought I had “bad knees” and refused to consider that maybe I wasn’t squatting “correctly” I deduced that I was cursed with bad knees for squatting. I was a classic feet straight, look up to keep the chest up, hi-bar squatter. When I switched to low bar, started looking down, turned my feet out and ESPECIALLY set back with the weight on the center of my foot and not the balls of my feet it made a remarkable difference. I’m just sad I discovered this at 51 and not a 21. I have since told this story to dozens of people because now I squat 2 - 3 times a week. It’s my favorite exercise. People always come up and want to tell me how weird it is to see an old guy like me squatting and almost always say “bet your knees hurt a lot”. I also get a few folks that want to “correct” my squat and just want to say something to “keep me from hurting myself” because my “good morning squat” MUST be bad for my back especially when Im squatting 315+ for reps. Amazingly it’s usually trainers that work at the gyms (I travel a lot for work and go to different Anytime Fitnesses). So no I acknowledge that some folks have injuries they can’t heal from but if thats not the case I do think some folks should consider maybe its their form - even if they’ve been doing it for over 30 years that way (like I was).