If you’ve ever watched a track team practicing, you’ve probably seen runners sprinting with an exaggerated form, driving their knees up to their chest as they vigorously pump their arms.
This challenging exercise, called high knees, can improve your fitness and help you become a faster runner. High knees can also be surprisingly fun, as they can make you feel like a real athlete in a matter of seconds.
This high knees exercise guide will cover everything you need to know to start incorporating high knees into your workout routine, including how to do high knees, the benefits of high knees, and high knees workouts to try on your own.
We will look at:
- What Muscles Do High Knees Work?
Let’s get started!
What Are High Knees?
“High knees” refers to an exercise or running drill that involves sprinting in place or in a forward direction while driving your knees as high up as possible towards your chest.
High knees is a cardiovascularly-intense exercise that will rapidly increase your heart rate. Due to the abundance of general fitness and running-specific benefits of performing high knees, the high knees exercise is a common inclusion in workouts for all sorts of sports, from track and road running to football, soccer, tennis, and basketball.
High knees is also an excellent exercise to include in your warm-up for workouts because it’s a total-body movement that can be considered a dynamic stretching exercise as much as it is a cardio and metabolic one.
What Muscles Do High Knees Work?
One of the benefits of high knees is that the exercise engages all of the major muscles in the body, which boosts caloric burn and helps get your heart rate elevated quickly.
High knees strengthen the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves in the lower body. You use your calves more than in regular running because the high knees exercise forces you onto the ball of your foot. Strong calves help with uphill running and sprinting strength and power.
The quads help with knee extension and hip flexion. Strong quads reduce the stress and load on the knee joint by absorbing and supporting the force in the muscle rather than the cartilage, connective tissues, and bones in the joint.
The high knees exercise strengthens the quads more than jogging or running normally because the legs are driving up and down with greater velocity and force.
When your leg lands to support you during the high knees exercise, the quads engage with higher forces than regular running because they are coming down from a higher peak height at your chest and are being driven up and down.
The glutes are the primary powerhouse muscle behind the hip drive component of high knees, and they help absorb the load upon landing. Strong glutes make you a better hill runner and sprinter, and they help relieve loads on the smaller hamstrings and low back muscles.
The high knees exercise also strengthens the hip flexors and abs. These anterior muscles help drive your knees up to your chest, keep your torso erect, and prevent slouching or leaning. A strong core promotes better running economy, proper breathing mechanics, and optimal running form.
Finally, high knees strengthens the muscles in the upper body involved in your arm drive, including the back (traps, lats, erector spinae, and rhomboids), your chest, shoulders, and the biceps and triceps in your arms.
High knees is performed with an exaggerated arm swing. The arms are used to drive the knees as high as possible, rather than simply maintaining momentum as they do in jogging or relaxed running. Therefore, the high knees exercise strengthens the upper body more so than regular running.
How to Do High Knees
There are two primary ways to perform high knees: high knees running in place or high knees sprinting forward. Both versions are effective forms of cardio exercise, and both will provide most of the benefits of the high knees exercise.
The decision to do high knees running in place or high knees moving forward is dependent primarily on the space you have available and your personal preference.
High knees sprinting forward tends to translate to regular running somewhat more naturally in terms of form improvements. In contrast, high knees running in place is a great cardio exercise when you’re doing an indoor workout or have limited space.
Here is how to do high knees:
High Knees Running In Place
- Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Engage your core as you sprint in place, driving your knees up towards your chest and pumping your arms vigorously.
- Run as hard as you can, aiming to get your knees up to your nipple line.
- Land on the balls of your feet.
High Knees Sprinting
- Perform the same high knees motion but move forward with each knee drive and footfall.
- Drive your elbows back vigorously.
- Land on the balls of your feet and then quickly drive the next leg up.
High Knees Modifications
There are a few ways to modify high knees to meet your fitness needs.
High Knees for Beginners
Instead of sprinting in place, perform high knees marching in place. Keep one foot in contact with the ground at all times.
- Engage your core and lift one leg up towards your chest as high as possible, using an exaggerated arm swing.
- Try to stay completely upright with your torso.
- Use your core to control the leg on the way down.
Advanced High Knees
Once you’ve mastered standard high knees, try weighted high knees by wearing a weighted vest or light ankle weights (too heavy can increase the risk of hip flexor strains).
8 High Knees Benefits
High knees can provide numerous benefits to runners, athletes of other sports, and everyday people. The benefits of high knees include the following:
#1: High Knees Is a Great Cardio Workout
The high knees exercise strengthens your heart and lungs, elevating your heart rate in a matter of seconds.
#2: High Knees Burns a Lot of Calories
You’ll torch a lot of calories quickly with high knees. This vigorous calisthenic exercise can burn about seven calories a minute, depending on your body weight and intensity.
#3: High Knees Strengthens Your Muscles
High knees is a total-body exercise that strengthens the glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, hip flexors, core, arms, back, and shoulders.
#4: High Knees Improves Running Form
By strengthening the calves and creating new neuromuscular connections, high knees can improve your running form and encourage forefoot or midfoot striking instead of heel striking, reducing the risk of injury and helping you run faster.
#5: High Knees Can Improve Your Running Power
According to research, plyometrics like high knees can improve your running power, make you a better uphill runner, and reduce the risk of injury.
#6: High Knees Improves Balance and Coordination
High knees is challenging for the neuromuscular system, and it can improve core strength, stability, and control, which can translate to better balance and coordination.
#7: High Knees Can Improve Posture
Studies show that high knees or running in place can improve posture.
#8: High Knees Can Be Performed Anywhere
High knees sprinting in place can be performed anywhere and requires no equipment, making it an excellent exercise for HIIT, Tabata, and home workouts.
High Knees Workouts
Try these high knees workouts:
High Knees Tabata
Do 8 sets of 20 seconds of high knees as hard and fast as possible, followed by 10 seconds of rest.
High Knees for Runners
Perform 4-6 sets of 30 seconds of high knees sprinting in place or running forward.
As you can see, high knees is a very beneficial exercise no matter your fitness goal. High knees are versatile and straightforward to perform, whether it’s to improve heart health, muscle strength, running form, balance, coordination, or just a dynamic stretch to add to your pre-run routine.
If you want to create a complete pre-run routine, including dynamic stretches, for before your next workout, check out our guide 15 Dynamic Stretches For Runners.