High Knees

written by
Joel Runyon
last updated
September 25, 2021

Anyone who played sports or attended a gym class in elementary or high school is probably familiar with this High Knees warm up stretch. Usually paired with a movement called Butt Kicks, this stretch is commonly performed as a warm up before doing strenuous activity like playing basketball or football, doing CrossFit, or going on a run. While this may bring back memories of being on the high school sports team or in gym class, this is actually a great stretch to carry on into your adult life. 

Some stretches are considered “static” which means that they are passively held in a singular position for a certain length of time. The high knees stretch is not. This is actually a ballistic stretch. A ballistic stretch involves fast bouncing movements using momentum, gravity, or force to flex your muscles to go beyond the range of motion to which they are usually accustomed.

The High Knees Movement

The word “stretch” most likely conjures images of poses commonly held in yoga classes. High knees is not this type of stretch. In fact, instead of calling it a stretch, a better word might be “movement.” 

The main benefit of this movement is that it will truly get your heart pumping. When you get your heart rate up, your blood starts pumping into your muscles and everything in your body gets a bit warmer. This is definitely the effect you’re looking for before hopping into more vigorous exercise. 

More specifically, high knees really targets the muscles in the lower body. So, if you’re planning on doing activities that are going to exert your legs, this is a great movement to do prior to that. The muscles that benefit from high knees are your quads, hamstrings, calves, glutes, and hip flexors. 

We also can’t forget about the core muscles. Your core muscles are a key component in stabilization and can help make the movement more efficient and effective. Lastly, while performing high knees, your arms should also be pumping. 

High knees also helps work on your cardiovascular endurance, agility, explosiveness, coordination, and power when done correctly for an extended amount of time. This is why you might see this exercise as part of a HIIT-style workout. It really can be considered a full-body movement!  

What is the High Knees Movement? 

Because this is considered a dynamic or ballistic movement, proper setup and care should be taken before completing. First things first, you want to be sure that you’re wearing solid athletic shoes and have a flat, sturdy surface on which to stand. Do not try to attempt this on uneven ground. 

Coordination is required to complete this movement because your opposite leg and opposite arm are moving in tandem. It may take a little practice to ge the rhythm down, but once you do, it’ll feel more natural. 

Before starting, ensure that you stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart. Engage your core muscles by pulling your bellybutton in towards your spine. Hold your hands in front of you at weight-high level. Once there, bring your right knee up towards your chest and touch your knee to your right hand. Return to the starting position, and complete the same motions on the other side. This should be done at a jogging speed. 

At the top of the movement, your knee should be above your waistline. This is why it can be helpful to hold your hands out at waist-level. It ensures that your knees raise high enough to receive the full benefit of this movement. 

As a warm up, you can complete this movement for a specified distance. We recommend starting with 25-50 meters in front of the starting position. You could also do this movement for a set amount of time. Start with 10-30 seconds and extend if needed. 

High Knees Variations and Modifications

This movement can be impactful on both the knees and ankles, so proper care should be taken if you have issues with either of these joints. If this is you, try decreasing the intensity of the movement. Instead of jogging, do it at a step-by-step pace. This may be easier on the affected joints. If, at any point, you feel pain, stop the movement immediately. 

If you need to make this movement a bit harder, you can always increase the speed, bring your knees up as high as possible, or perform it for a longer amount of time or for more repetitions. You can also try to follow an “opposite leg, opposite arm” pattern, which requires a bit more coordination than the standard movement. When your right knee raises up, bring your left arm up in a pumping motion. Return to the starting position and raise the left leg while pumping the right arm. When performed this way, it is like a workout for the brain and the body!

How to perform high knees

dynamic high knees exercise

High knees are a staple warmup exercise you can do anywhere you workout. Here's how to perform it.

  1. Starting in a standing position, draw the hands belly level (you can also keep them at your side).
  2. Put a marker on the ground 25-50m away from you.
  3. Jog towards the marked but exaggerate raising your knees up to your stomach - touching your hands if they're in front of you.
  4. Once you get comfortable with this movement, you can put your hands away.
  5. Repeat for the length / duration of the distance.

High knees are a great ballistic stretch you can do alongside butt kicks to really get warmed up for a long run, lift, or other lower body workout.

written by
Joel Runyon

Joel is the founder of IMPOSSIBLE and the founder of MoveWell. Joel founded MoveWell after sustaining an injury while running an ultra marathon on every continent. Joel is writes about mobility, pain management and health and wellness overall.

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