Your knee is sore and stiff in the morning and sometimes it hurts to walk on it for a long distance—so why in the world would you do leg curls on a weight machine?
Learn More: Exercising with Arthritis
Even though it may seem contrary, strength training (also known as weight lifting) has been proven to decrease pain and increase strength and function for those with arthritis.
The evidence for strength training is solid
In a review of 8 studies that included older adults with osteoarthritis, researchers found that strength training programs reduced participants' pain by 35% and increased their lower limb strength and function by 33%, compared to the control groups. 1 Latham N, Liu C. Strength training in older adults: The benefits for osteoarthritis. Clinics in geriatric medicine. 2010;26(3):445-459. doi:10.1016/j.cger.2010.03.006.
And the benefits of strength training aren't just true for those with osteoarthritis. Strength training has also been shown to help those with systemic, inflammatory types of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis or ankylosing spondylitis. In fact, a 2-year study of recently diagnosed patients with rheumatoid arthritis found that strength training increased muscle strength by as much as 59% along with increasing physical function. 2 Häkkinen A, et al. A randomized two-year study of the effects of dynamic strength training on muscle strength, disease activity, functional capacity, and bone mineral density in early rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis Rheum. 2001 Mar;44(3):515-22.
Tips for getting started with strength training
If you're ready to start reaping the benefits of strength training, a great first step is to work with a physiatrist, physical therapist, or certified personal trainer to design a program specifically tailored to your condition and your affected joints. This is the best way to make sure you’re proceeding safely and protecting your joints as you strengthen them.
These tips can help you strength train smartly and effectively:
- To get the most benefit from strength training, aim to do it 2 to 3 times a week for 30 minutes. You’ll want to include stretches and exercises for all major muscle groups, not just the muscles surrounding your arthritis-affected joints.
- You don’t need to join a gym with weight machines in order to strength train. You can do exercises at home using barbells, resistance bands, or even gravity.
- Do your training at a time of day when your arthritis symptoms are better. If you have stiffness in the morning, avoid strength training then.
- Make sure to warm up for a few minutes and do some gentle stretching before diving into weight training. Also, stretch afterward and use ice therapy to ease muscle pain.
- If you’re experiencing an arthritis flare-up, give weight training a rest until your inflammation subsides. In the meantime, you can focus on low impact activity like water therapy.
- A little muscle soreness after strength training is normal, but sharp pain is not. If an exercise or movement causes significant pain, stop doing it.
- 1 Latham N, Liu C. Strength training in older adults: The benefits for osteoarthritis. Clinics in geriatric medicine. 2010;26(3):445-459. doi:10.1016/j.cger.2010.03.006.
- 2 Häkkinen A, et al. A randomized two-year study of the effects of dynamic strength training on muscle strength, disease activity, functional capacity, and bone mineral density in early rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis Rheum. 2001 Mar;44(3):515-22.