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Exercises for meniscus tear rehab

Updated: 17 hours ago

Exercises are an important part of treating meniscus tears. For an exercise plan to be effective, it has to start at the correct intensity that matches the severity of your symptoms and then progress until you regain full strength and control. In this article, we demonstrate 23 exercises and stretches that are typically prescribed for meniscus tear rehab. It explains why these types of exercise are important, how to do them properly, and how to safely make them more challenging as you improve. Remember, if you need more help with an injury, you're welcome to consult one of our physios online via video call.


Learn what exercises to do for a torn meniscus

In this article:

  1. Read this first

  2. Early-stage rehab exercises for meniscus tears

  3. Later-stage rehab exercises for meniscus tears


Read this first


Before we get to what exercises you can do for your meniscus tear rehab, there are a few things that are important to understand.


Have your injury assessed

These exercises may not be right for you, and you should only do them if a physiotherapist has assessed you and confirmed that they are right for you.


Pain

It is usually OK to feel a bit of discomfort while doing the exercises, but they should not cause pain, and your knee should not feel more painful or be more swollen after you’ve done them.


Check also for a delayed symptom response. Sometimes, an exercise session may feel absolutely fine while you’re doing it, but then it can cause your knee to feel worse several hours later or the next day. If this happens, it is usually a sign that the exercises (type, repetitions, or weights) were not right for you, and they have to be adjusted.


Repetitions

The number of repetitions and recommendations for how often the exercises should be done are only guidelines. Everyone’s meniscus injury is different, and your rehab plan should be tailored to you. Never strain to complete an exercise. If you find an exercise hard, do what you can while maintaining good technique without discomfort, and then gradually increase the repetitions when it starts to feel easy after a few sessions.



Frequency

People often make the mistake of thinking that the more they do their exercises, the quicker they will recover. This is NOT how it works. Your body needs a period of rest to recover and rebuild itself after each exercise session. If you do your rehab exercises too often, your body won’t be able to adapt quickly enough, and it can end up making your injury worse.


It is usually OK to do low-load exercises daily. Higher-load exercises (like squats) should only be done every other day and maximum three times a week.


Regaining range of motion

Initially, your knee may not be able to move through its full range of motion (straightening and bending fully), and it can take up to four weeks to regain this. Don’t try and force the movement. Just keep doing your exercises in your comfortable range, and it will improve as your meniscus recovers and the swelling reduces.



Early-stage rehab exercises for meniscus tears


These exercises are usually appropriate when your knee is newly injured and still quite painful and swollen. They can help you to:

  • Regain full range of motion

  • Decrease pain and swelling

  • Activate and strengthen the muscles that control your knee and leg in positions that don’t place too much strain on your injured meniscus

  • Relax your leg muscles.

I demonstrate some of the exercises that are usually prescribed during this stage in the video. Below that, I have provided quick-reference suggestions for sets and reps.



Knee flexion-extension on bed

Main benefits:

  1. The repetitive action helps to feed your joint

  2. Improves both bending and straightening range of motion

  3. Activates hamstring (back of thigh) muscles


Exercise 1: The free active knee flexion and extension exercise helps to regain you full range of motion after meniscus tear.

See video for instructions: 00:07:08

Frequency: Twice a day

Repetitions: 10

Rest: 30 seconds to 1 minute between sets

Sets: 3


End-of-range knee extension

Main benefits:

  1. Improves extension range of motion

  2. Activates your quadriceps (front of thigh) muscles

Exercise 2: Your torn meniscus may be a bit swollen to start so don't force this exercise, stay in the comfortable range.

See video for instructions: 00:09:27

Frequency: Once a day

Hold for: 10 seconds

Rest for: 10 seconds

Repetitions: 10


End-of-range knee extension over foam roller or towel

Main benefits:

  1. Improves extension range of motion

  2. Strengthens your quadriceps muscles in the last few degrees of knee extension. It is in this range of motion that our quads have to work hardest to stabilise our legs when we walk.

Exercise 3: Knee extension over towel exercise - this helps strengthen the quads.

See video for instructions: 00:11:47

Frequency: Once a day

Hold for: 10 seconds

Rest for: 10 seconds

Repetitions: 10


Knee extension sitting in chair

Main benefits:

  1. Improves extension range of motion

  2. Strengthens the quadriceps muscles through full range

Exercise 4: The knee extension exercise while sitting on a chair helps to strengthen your full knee extension range.

See video for instructions: 00:15:04

Frequency: Once a day

Hold for: 10 seconds

Rest for: 10 seconds

Repetitions: 10


Standing hamstring curls

Main benefits:

  1. Improves bending range of motion

  2. Strengthens your hamstring muscles

Exercise 5: Standing leg curl exercise - To help strengthen your hamstrings.

See video for instructions: 00:17:21

Frequency: Once a day

Hold for: 10 seconds

Rest for: 10 seconds

Repetitions: 10


Calf raises

Main benefits:

  1. Strengthens your calf muscles

Exercise 8: Calf raise exercise help to strengthen your calf muscles.

See video for instructions: 00:18:58

Frequency: 3 times a week – you can do them daily if you find them easy

Repetitions: 15

Rest: 1 minute

Sets: 3


Gentle hamstring stretch

Main benefits:

  1. Reduces tension and discomfort in your hamstring muscles

  2. Improves knee extension range of motion

Exercise 6: This gentle hamstring stretch is perfect for when your meniscus is newly torn.

See video for instructions: 00:20:33

Frequency: 3 times a week. You can do it daily if needed.

Hold for: 30 seconds

Rest for: 30 seconds

Repetitions: 3


Calf stretch

Main benefits:

  1. Reduces tension and discomfort in your calf muscles

  2. Improves knee extension range of motion

Exercise 7: Doing a calf stretch can be a useful exercise if your calf muscles are feeling tight because of your meniscus tear.

See video for instructions: 00:23:16

Frequency: 3 times a week. You can do it daily if needed.

Hold for: 30 seconds

Rest for: 30 seconds

Repetitions: 3


Later-stage rehab exercises for meniscus tears


When to start with these exercises

You can usually start with these exercises once you are able to:

  • Fully extend your knee with only mild discomfort,

  • Bend your knee nearly all the way (about 95% of normal),

  • And can walk short distances with only mild discomfort.

Remember, these exercises may not be right for you, so please check with your physio before you start doing any of them.


Benefits of these exercises for meniscus tears

These exercises are designed to:

  1. Gradually get your meniscus used to carrying weight again.

  2. Strengthen the muscles that support and control your knee and leg (gluteal muscles, hamstrings, quads, and calf muscles).

  3. Develop your position sense and balance. Position sense refers to your brain’s ability to know exactly where your knee is and to control it properly without you actually having to look at it. Position sense is often decreased when you get injured, and restoring your position sense can help you to avoid strains and sprains.

What exercises to do

The list of exercises you could do during this stage of rehab is endless. For this article, I have demonstrated three of the most important types of movements (squats, bridges, balancing), plus suggestions for how to progress them (make them more challenging as you improve).


How often to do the exercises

These exercises work your knee and muscles much harder than those in the previous section, and your body will need a recovery period of at least 48 hours after each session. My general advice is:

  • Do them two to three times a week,

  • And never on consecutive days.

Please check with your physio what is right for you.


How to progress them

A typical rehab plan for a meniscus tear will start with low-load exercises done in stable positions (usually supported on two legs). As your knee recovers, these will then be progressed to exercises that gradually place more load through your knee and increasingly challenge your balance and control (usually single-leg exercises on unstable surfaces).


Once you’ve regained your full strength and control, it is then important to ease back into your sport. How do you know when you’ve regained full strength and control? This will be different for every person and depends on the sport or activity you want to do. A physiotherapist can help you to determine this.


I demonstrate the exercises discussed lower down in this video:


Squat exercise progression examples



Start with: Wall sits


Squat exercise 1: Wall sit

See video for instructions: 00:30:44

Hold: 10 seconds

Rest: 10 seconds

Repetitions: 10

Build up to 30sec hold x 3

When to progress: When you can do this exercise without effort and less than two out of ten (2/10) discomfort.


Progression 1: High box squats

Squat exercise 2: High box squat

See video for instructions: 00:33:34

Repetitions: 15

Rest: 1 minute

Sets: 3


When to progress: Once you are comfortable doing the full recommended dose using a high surface, you should gradually lower the surface until you can comfortably do them to the level of a regular dining table chair (knees bent about 90 degrees). Only then can you usually safely move on to the next exercise.


Progression 2: Free squats


Squat exercise 3: Free squat

See video for instructions: 00:36:00

Repetitions: 15

Rest: 1 minute

Sets: 3


When to progress: When you can do the full recommended dose of this exercise with minimal effort and without pain.


Progression 2: Squats with weight

Squat exercise 4: Squat with weights

See video for instructions: 00:37:29

Weight: Use a weight that makes you tired within 10 repetitions.

Repetitions: 10

Rest: 1 to 2 minutes

Sets: 3


When to progress: Train at this intensity for at least two to four weeks before attempting the next progression.


Progression 4: Single-leg box squat


Squat exercise 5: Single leg box squat

See video for instructions: 00:38:57

Repetitions: 10

Rest: 1 minute

Sets: 3


When to progress: When you can do the full recommended dose of this exercise with minimum effort and no pain. The next step would be more dynamic, plyometric, and sport-specific exercises.


Bridge progression examples



Start with: Double-leg floor bridge, knees 90 degrees

Bridge exercise 1: Isometric floor bridge

See video for instructions: 00:41:56

Hold: 20 seconds

Rest: 20 seconds

Repetitions: 5


When to progress: When you can do the full recommended dose of this exercise with minimal effort and without pain.


Progression 1: Double-leg floor bridge, knees 45 degrees


Bridge exercise 2: Floor bridge knees straighter

See video for instructions: 00:43:39

Hold: 20 seconds

Rest: 20 seconds

Repetitions: 5


When to progress: When you can do the full recommended dose of this exercise with minimal effort and without pain.


Progression 2: Double-leg high bridge


Bridge exercise 3: Isometric high bridge

See video for instructions: 00:44:28

Hold: 20 seconds

Rest: 20 seconds

Repetitions: 5


When to progress: When you can do the full recommended dose of this exercise with minimal effort and without pain.


Progression 3: Marching high bridge



See video for instructions: 00:46:00

Repetitions: 16

Rest: 1 minute

Sets: 3


When to progress: When you can do the full recommended dose of this exercise with minimal effort and without pain.


Progression 4: Single-leg high bridge


Bridge exercise 5: Single-leg high bridge

See video for instructions: 00:48:14

Repetitions: 15

Rest: 1 minute

Sets: 3


When to progress: When you can do the full recommended dose of this exercise with minimum effort and no pain. The next step would be more dynamic, plyometric, and sport-specific exercises.


Balance progression examples



Start with: Balance with progressively less support


Balance exercise 1: Single leg balance

See video for instructions: 00:50:20


Hold: Build up to holding for 30 seconds. Initially, you can stabilise yourself by placing a finger against a wall, but you should aim to be able to complete this exercise without holding on.

Rest: 30 seconds, or rest one leg while you do the other

Repetitions: 3 times each leg


When to progress: When you can do the full recommended dose of this exercise without holding on for support, with minimal effort, and no pain.


Progression 1: Balance while moving head

Balance exercise 2: Balance turning head

See video for instructions: 00:52:51

Hold: 30 seconds

Rest: 30 seconds, or rest one leg while you do the other

Repetitions: 3 times each leg


When to progress: When you can do the full recommended dose of this exercise with minimal effort, good control, and no pain.


Progression 2: Single-leg deadlift with knee bent

Balance exercise 3: Single-leg deadlift knee bent

See video for instructions: 00:54:15

Repetitions: 10 slow repetitions

Rest: 60 seconds

Sets: 3 sets each leg


When to progress: When you can do the full recommended dose of this exercise with minimal effort, good control, and no pain.


Progression 3: Single-leg deadlift with knee straight

Balance exercise 4: Single-leg deadlift
Do without weights to start with

See video for instructions: 00:55:06

Repetitions: 10 slow repetitions

Rest: 60 seconds

Sets: 3 sets each leg


When to progress: When you can do the full recommended dose of this exercise with minimal effort, good control, and no pain.


Progression 4: Balance on unstable surface


Balance exercise 5: Balance on unstable surface
Perform the same balance exercises as before (e.g. single-leg deadlift) while standing on an unstable surface.

See video for instructions: 00:57:35

Repetitions and sets depends on the type of exercise you choose to do.


When to progress: When you can do the full recommended dose of this exercise with minimal effort, good control, and no pain. The next step would be more dynamic, plyometric, and sport-specific exercises.


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About the Author

Maryke Louw is a chartered physiotherapist with more than 15 years' experience and a Master’s Degree in Sports Injury Management. Follow her on LinkedIn and ResearchGate.



References:


  1. Hutchinson, M., et al. (2016). BRUKNER & KHAN'S CLINICAL SPORTS MEDICINE: INJURIES, VOL. 1, McGraw-Hill Education.