High knees refers to an exercise or running drill that involves sprinting in place or in a forward direction while driving your knees up as high as possible towards your chest.
The high knees exercise is commonly found in the workouts of runners, track athletes, soccer players, basketball players, and football players.
Because this cardio exercise can also help build power, warm up the neuromuscular system prior to exercise, torch calories, strengthen the lower body, and develop running speed, performing high knees has benefits for most athletes, regardless of age, fitness level, and training goals.
However, programming high knees in workouts appropriately depends on numerous factors, as this is a challenging exercise.
In our guide to high knees, we will discuss how to do the high knees exercises and ultimately answer your question, how many high knees should I do based on my fitness level and training goals?
Let’s get started!
How to Do High Knees
Before we discuss how to add high knees to your workouts and how long to perform high knee exercises based on your goals and abilities, let’s discuss how to perform high knees properly to maximize the effectiveness of your workouts.
There are two primary ways to perform the high knees exercise: high knees running in place or high knees sprinting forward.
Both types of high knee exercises will increase your heart rate, strengthen your lower body muscles, and help improve neuromuscular coordination and firing rates.
There are benefits to high knees sprinting when traveling forward since this translates a little better to actual running, but some studies also suggest specific benefits of high knees sprinting in place such as improved posture.1Cho, M. (2015). Effects of running in place accompanied by abdominal drawing-in on the posture of healthy adults. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 27(5), 1613–1616. https://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.27.1613The primary factor that generally is used to decide whether you will do high knees sprinting in place or high knees as a running drill outside while running forward depends on the space you have available and your training environment (indoors vs outdoors).
As a Certified Personal Trainer for the past 15 years, I almost always include high knees for clients who are doing at-home cardio workouts or workouts in hotel rooms because you can quickly boost your heart rate and torch some calories with very little space required.
This vigorous calisthenic exercise can burn about 7 calories a minute, depending on your body weight and the intensity of your high knees running in place workout.2CDC. (2003). General Physical Activities Defined by Level of Intensity. https://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/physical/pdf/PA_Intensity_table_2_1.pdf
My point is that even if you don’t want to run outside or don’t have access to a long runway for high knees sprinting drills, you can still get a good high knees workout with just a small piece of floor and a high enough ceiling to clear your head when you run in place.
Here is how to do high knees:
High Knees Running In Place
- Stand upright with good posture, keeping your chest up, shoulders down, and abs and glutes engaged.
- Make sure that your feet are spaced about hip-width apart and that your weight is distributed evenly across both feet.
- Engage your core as you sprint in place, driving your knees up towards your chest by pumping your arms vigorously and exploding off the balls of your feet.
- Run as hard as you can, aiming to get your knees up to your nipple line.
- Land lightly on the balls of your feet.
Now, if you have a bit more room and are able to perform high knees while traveling forward, check out the following variation:
High Knees Sprinting
- Perform the same high knees motion but move forward with each knee drive and footfall.
- Pump your elbows back vigorously.
- Land on the balls of your feet and then quickly drive the next leg up.
According to research, plyometrics like high knees can improve your running power, make you a better uphill runner, and reduce the risk of injury.3Davies, G., Riemann, B. L., & Manske, R. (2015). CURRENT CONCEPTS OF PLYOMETRIC EXERCISE. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 10(6), 760–786.
High Knees Modifications
Aside from decreasing the number of reps or how long you do high knees, there are a few ways to modify high knees for beginners. High knees can also be progressed as your fitness improves.
High Knees for Beginners
As a plyometric exercise, high knees can be contraindicated for anyone with joint pain, osteoporosis, or other low bone density issues, pregnancy, or other musculoskeletal injuries or health conditions that might make jumping or high-impact exercise unsafe.
Additionally, beginners and individuals who carry a lot of excess weight may need to start with modified high knees that are less vigorous from a cardiovascular standpoint and lower impact.
In these cases, instead of sprinting in place, you can perform high knees marching in place. By keeping one foot in contact with the ground at all times, you decrease the intensity and impact stresses of high knees sprinting.4NILSSON, J., & THORSTENSSON, A. (1989). Ground reaction forces at different speeds of human walking and running. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 136(2), 217–227. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1716.1989.tb08655.x
- 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 and your pelvis level by engaging your core and glutes.
- Use your core to control the leg on the way down.
- Keep switching legs as you march vigorously.
Advanced High Knees
High knees are generally designed to be a quick cardio exercise, but if you want to build more power and explosive strength, you can do high knees wearing a weighted vest.
This resistance will make it more difficult to propel your body upward as you sprint.
It is also possible to turn high knees into a strengthening exercise for the hip flexors and core by wearing ankle weights.
However, the disclaimer here is that this can increase the risk of hip flexor strains and should only be attempted if you are an advanced athlete.
Use very light ankle weights (if the weights are too heavy, it can increase the risk of hip flexor strains).
High Knees On a Rebounder
Doing high knees workouts on a rebounder, which is a mini exercise trampoline, is a great way to make this exercise more difficult for the muscles worked by high knees sprints and your core because you have to stabilize your body and spring off of a dynamic, moving surface.
Another benefit of doing high knees on a rebounder is that by nature, the rebounder helps absorb joint impact because it has “give“ when you land.
This reduces impact stress, making rebounder high knee workouts a great option for individuals with joint pain but high levels of strength and power.
How Many High Knees Should I Do?
Deciding how many high knees you should do must be considered in the context of your fitness level, your fitness goals, and the other exercises you are doing in a workout.
I often recommend performing bodyweight cardio exercises like mountain climbers, jumping jacks, and high knees for time rather than reps (say, 30 seconds of mountain climbers rather than 30 reps per foot).
This is because it is difficult to count the number of reps you are doing when you are moving quickly.
Also, I often intersperse these types of exercises in a circuit training workout or strength training workout as a way to increase heart rate to boost the metabolic conditioning that the athlete is getting while strengthening their body.
Moreover, high knees should be all about power and intensity, not endurance (think: sprinting not marathon running).
For this reason, I think it is generally a good idea to stick with short sets of high-knee sprints, even for more advanced athletes.
The focus can then be on maintaining the intensity, really training the neuromuscular system to optimize the triple extension movement pattern and drive the knees upward while eccentrically loading the muscles to cushion the landing safely.5Lorenz, D. (2016). Facilitating Power Development in the Recovering Athlete. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 38(1), 48–50. https://doi.org/10.1519/ssc.0000000000000192
So, how many high knees should I do in my workouts?
Guidelines For How Many High Knees You Should Do
- Beginners: Two sets of 15-20 seconds of high knees with at least 60-90 seconds of rest in between sets.
- Intermediate Athletes: 3-4 sets of 20-30 seconds of high knees with at least 60 seconds of rest in between sets.
- Advanced Athletes: 3-6 sets of 30-60 seconds of high knees with at least 30 seconds in between sets.
Above all, focus on ensuring that you are using proper form and maintaining the intensity of the exercise rather than increasing how long you do a set of high knees.
As you get fitter, do more sets of high knees and reduce the rest in between each set.
For more ideas about bodyweight cardio workouts and exercises, check out our guide to workouts you can do in a hotel room while traveling.
- 1Cho, M. (2015). Effects of running in place accompanied by abdominal drawing-in on the posture of healthy adults. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 27(5), 1613–1616. https://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.27.1613
- 2CDC. (2003). General Physical Activities Defined by Level of Intensity. https://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/physical/pdf/PA_Intensity_table_2_1.pdf
- 3Davies, G., Riemann, B. L., & Manske, R. (2015). CURRENT CONCEPTS OF PLYOMETRIC EXERCISE. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 10(6), 760–786.
- 4NILSSON, J., & THORSTENSSON, A. (1989). Ground reaction forces at different speeds of human walking and running. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 136(2), 217–227. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1716.1989.tb08655.x
- 5Lorenz, D. (2016). Facilitating Power Development in the Recovering Athlete. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 38(1), 48–50. https://doi.org/10.1519/ssc.0000000000000192