High knees might seem like a simple exercise to perform, but cranking out a few sets of this high energy move gets your heart pumping, activates your lower body and core muscles, and leads to a quick sweat.
What’s more, high knees can serve as a warmup, cardio burst between resistance training exercises, or part of a high intensity interval training workout.
Ready to see what high knees can do for you? Read on to learn how to do them, their benefits, the muscles recruited, variations, and when to do high knees.
Most of us can recall grinding out a round of high knees in elementary or middle school PE class.
While our younger selves might have been able to rep this move without a problem, there’s a good chance we missed learning the steps to perform the high knees exercise properly.
Before you get started, make sure you’re wearing a comfortable and supportive pair of shoes. Ideally, try to do this exercise on a supportive gym floor or grassy area, especially if you have any knee or ankle issues. With that in mind, here’s how you do high knees.
- Stand tall with your feet about hip-to-shoulder-width apart and your arms at your sides.
- Looking straight ahead, open your chest, and engage your core muscles.
- Begin by bringing your right knee toward your chest, slightly above waist level. Simultaneously, move your left hand up in a pumping motion.
- Quickly lower your right leg and left hand.
- Repeat with your left leg and right hand.
- Alternate your right and left leg for the desired time.
How long you do high knees depends on your goal and overall fitness level. To start, aim for 30 seconds, with a 30-second rest between each set.
You do not need any special equipment to perform high knees — just your body weight and a supportive pair of shoes.
The high knees exercise is an excellent weight-bearing, full-body movement that increases your heart rate, warms the muscles in your lower and upper body, and prepares you for more complex exercises and activities. Here are some benefits of high knees.
Increases heart rate and burns calories
High knees are considered a cardiovascular exercise. Within a few seconds of beginning the move, you will notice an increase in your heart rate and breathing. As you continue alternating knees and arms, you’ll also burn calories.
High knees are considered a calisthenic exercise on most calorie charts. When performed vigorously, calisthenic exercises like high knees can burn about 7 calories per minute. If you’re working at a moderate pace, you can expect to use about 3.5–7 calories per minute (
Targets your lower body
High knees activate your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, glutes, and hip flexors, helping improve muscular endurance, balance, and coordination in these muscles.
When done at a high intensity and with bounding or explosive knee drives, they can also improve power in your lower body (
Recruits your core muscles
High knees require assistance from your core or abdominal muscles. Not only does this make the move more effective, but activating the core muscles can also help improve posture.
The high knees exercise improves cardiovascular endurance, burns calories, boosts lower-body endurance and strength, improves coordination, and strengthens the abdominal muscles.
The high knees exercise is a weight-bearing exercise, which means you’ll need to recruit your lower-body muscles, core, and some upper-body muscles to assist with the move.
More specifically, the lower-body muscles most active when performing high knees include:
- hip flexors
With any movement, your abdominal or core muscles step in to stabilize and assist with form and function. During high knees, you can count on using your transverse abdominis and obliques to properly execute the move and keep your lower back safe.
Finally, don’t forget about contracting the biceps and triceps while pumping your arms.
High knees target the lower-body muscles, including the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. You’ll also use your abdominal muscles for stabilization.
The traditional high knee exercise is effective and easy to include in a variety of fitness routines. Plus, it requires no equipment.
Nevertheless, trying a variation of this old-school move can help stave off boredom, increase the challenge, or in some cases, decrease the intensity to make the move more accessible. Here are some variations of high knees.
Increase the intensity
If you want to increase the intensity of the traditional high knee exercise, simply lift your knees higher, move at a faster pace, or increase the duration or number of sets. To start, add 10–15 seconds to each set, or add one set each time you do high knees.
You can also drive your knees up higher and faster, just make sure to maintain proper form. Alternatively, you could add a twist as you drive your knee up toward your chest. This targets the oblique muscles.
Decrease the intensity and impact
You can decrease the intensity and impact of high knees by slowing your pace.
For example, instead of driving your knee up to your chest in a running motion, slowly lift and lower it in a marching or walking-in-place movement. This turns the move into a low impact exercise, which is easier on the joints (4).
You can make high knees more challenging by increasing your knee height, pace, time, or the number of reps. Conversely, to decrease the level of difficulty, reduce your pace, knee height, time, or the number of reps.
The high knees exercise is versatile and functional, and it fits into most workouts. Here are some tips on when you should do high knees.
Performing 2–3 minutes of high knees before working out increases your heart rate, warms up your muscles, and gets your body ready for more complex movements.
If doing continuous high knees is too challenging, aim for 30 seconds on and 15 seconds off, and repeat for 2–3 minutes.
Cardio or HIIT routine
You can add high knees to any cardio or high intensity interval (HIIT) routine. If you’re building a bodyweight workout, include high knees along with other cardio moves like:
- jumping jacks
- high kicks
- lateral hops
- mountain climbers
- plank jacks
- squat jumps
Cardio bursts during weight training
To keep your heart rate up between strength training exercises, consider circuit training, which is often referred to as high intensity circuit training.
According to a 2016 study that assessed 96 recreationally active college students, circuit training may improve muscle endurance among moderately fit populations (
For example, perform a 30-second high knees cardio burst between each set of resistance training exercises. You can still rest before the next set, but instead of a full rest, cut the time in half.
High knees can be included in a cardio circuit, between strength training exercises, or as a warmup before other activities.
High knees can serve as a warmup movement, cardio burst between strength training exercises, or part of a HIIT workout or aerobic exercise routine.
Adding this move to your overall fitness routine can help boost cardiovascular fitness, burn calories, strengthen your abdominal and lower-body muscles and prepare your body for more complex activities.
If you have any pain in your ankles, knees, or hips, it’s a good idea to talk with your healthcare provider or a physical theorist before performing this move. They can help you decide if high knees are right for you and provide guidance on modifying the move to keep you safe.