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Stairs and Knee Pain

Climbing stairs everyday is an unavoidable situation. It could be a set of steps at home or navigating a curb in the parking lot. Even though it may seem like a simple task, it can be challenging. One common thing I hear a lot in the clinic is “going up the stairs is pretty easy, but going down is much more difficult.” In this article, I will discuss:

  1. Why going downstairs is more challenging than going up?
  2. What role our hips have in going up and downstairs?
  3. One exercise to improve stair navigating

Compared to ascending steps, the descent of stairs puts a greater force through your knee (1). Walking downstairs puts 346% of our body weight through your knee compared to walking upstairs which puts 316% of your body weight through your knee! (2) To help understand this, if a person weighs 185 pounds, they are putting nearly 650 pounds of force through the knee when descending stairs! 

What affects the pressure on our knees?

Because our knee is sandwiched between our hips and ankles, we need good flexibility and strength both above and below our knees. But let’s focus on our hips today. If we are lacking strength at our hips, it puts more force and pressure on our knees. Our hip muscles are made up of larger muscles called our glute muscles. Research shows that knee pain during stair navigating is consistent with weakness at our gluteus medius. (6). And as we gain life experience, our strength declines. But the good thing is that there are things we can do to improve our strength in our glutes to help with stair navigating.

Check out the video below to learn an exercise that improves our hip strength to help navigate stairs easier.  

Click here or visit WellnessYMCA.com to sign up for a FREE workshop and improve your health in 2021!


1. T. P. Andriacchi, G. B. Andersson, R. W. Fermier, D. Stern, J. O. Galante “A study of lower-limb mechanics during stair-climbing.” J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1980 1980 July; 62(5): 749–757.

2. Kutznera I, Heinleina, B, Graichena F. Loading of the knee joint during activities of daily living measured in vivo in five subjects. Journal of Biomechanics. 2010 Aug;43(11):2164–2173

3. Mian OS, Thom JM, Narici MV, Baltzopoulos V. Kinematics of stair descent in young and older adults and the impact of exercise training. Gait Posture 2007;25(1):9-17.

4. Brouwer B, Olney SJ. Aging skeletal muscle and the impact of resistance exercise. Physiother Can 2004;56(2):80-87.

5. Startzell JK, Owens DA, Mulfinger LM, Cavanagh PR. Stair negotiation in older people: a review. J Am Geriatr Soc 2000;48(5):567-580.

6. Brindle TJ, Mattacola C, McCrory J. Electromyographic changes in the gluteus medius during stair ascent and descent in subjects with anterior knee pain. Knee Surgery, Sports Traumatology, Arthroscopy. 2003 Jul;11(4):244-251.

7. http://www.nlm.nih.gov