How to Lift Weights If You Have Arthritis in Your Hands

5 Alternatives to Dumbbells

Mature Woman Doing Weighted Ball Exercises

 Sol Stock / Getty Images

Everyone can benefit from strength and resistance training. A strength training program can help us maintain a healthy weight and protect us against chronic disease. Lifting weights can be especially beneficial to older adults and individuals with arthritis, since stronger muscles help support overall bone and joint health.

Research shows that strength training can improve strength, reduce pain, and increase the overall quality of life among those with different types of arthritis, including common conditions like osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

How Strength Training Helps Arthritis

A 2012 meta-analysis determined that resistance training for individuals with rheumatoid arthritis is not only regarded as safe but is also considered as a possible treatment to help alleviate the discomfort and disability often associated with the condition.

Muscle weakness and osteoarthritis are frequently co-occurring chronic conditions among older adults. A 2013 review shows that a progressive strength training program can help treat osteoarthritis in older adults, noting "significant improvements in strength and function and pain reduction."

Lifting weights might help relieve hand arthritis specifically. In 2013, a small clinical trial showed that weight lifting can improve hand strength and function among those with rheumatoid arthritis affecting the hands. However, evidence supporting the benefits of resistance training for individuals with hand osteoarthritis remains somewhat inconclusive.

For instance, a 2017 review found little to no evidence that strength training improves hand grip or joint pain in subjects with hand osteoarthritis, though researchers concluded that further rigorous studies were still needed.

Though the research is mixed, the Arthritis National Research Foundation does recommend strength training for individuals with hand arthritis. But those with arthritis in the hands might find it difficult to lift weights. The discomfort of joint pain and swelling from inflammation can make it tricky to maintain a good grip.

If you have arthritis in your hands and are interested in how a strength training program may help you manage your symptoms, here are some tips and precautions for lifting weights and a list of safe alternatives to dumbbells to get you started.

Strengthening exercises can be helpful for individuals with arthritis because building strong muscles can offer additional support and protection for the joints.

Strength Training with Hand Arthritis

If you are experiencing joint pain in your hands, before you begin a strength training program it's important to get a diagnosis from your doctor to find out if you have an arthritic condition. You'll also want to know which type of arthritis you might have and whether your condition is inflammatory or non-inflammatory.

Let's take a quick look at the difference between two common conditions that can develop in the hands:

Osteoarthritis (OA): This degenerative joint disease may cause stiffness and pain in the finger and wrist joints. Those with hand osteoarthritis have trouble performing activities requiring the use of their hands, which would include gripping dumbbells or handheld weights during strength training exercises.

There is no cure for OA, but over-the-counter or prescription anti-inflammatories can help manage the discomfort. Some research suggests that strengthening the muscles that surround the joints may improve joint function in individuals with osteoarthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): This a chronic inflammatory condition and autoimmune disorder. RA can affect more than just your joints and start to attack other tissues and organs in the body.

There is no cure for RA, though symptoms are often treatable with medications such as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). Strength training can help those with RA manage their joint pain and fatigue and also support the overall health of the joints.

Discuss your treatment options for your hand arthritis with your doctor to decide which medications, strengthening exercises, and/or combinations of other tools and therapies you can use to help manage your condition.

Your health care provider can recommend a strength training program or give you a referral to a licensed physical therapist or certified personal trainer if need be.

Tips and Precautions

On a cautionary note, if you have rheumatoid or another form of inflammatory arthritis (IA), avoid doing strength training when your joints are actively inflamed. Here are a few pointers to keep your joints safe during your strength training sessions.

  • Warm-up with gentle stretches.
  • Loosen your joints with a warm shower or other heat treatments before your workout.
  • Do your workouts at the time of day when you have the least stiffness and pain. If your symptoms are at their worst in the morning, it may be better to exercise later in the day.
  • Perform slow and controlled movements during your workout and be gentle when extending your range of motion.
  • Be conscious of any increase in pain or swelling in your joints, and stop the exercise immediately.
  • Strength training is usually recommended 2–3 days per week with alternating rest days in between to give your muscles and joints ample time to recover.
  • Listen to your body, and skip a workout or take it easy if you're feeling more pain or fatigue than usual.
  • If you're unsure which type of strength training program would be best for you, ask your doctor for more guidance.

Using Dumbbells With Hand Arthritis

The Arthritis Foundation states that many adults with arthritis can still safely lift lightweight dumbbells 2–3 days a week for 20–30 minutes. According to the organization, adults should start to see increased energy and improved muscle tone in about 4–12 weeks with a 40% average increase in strength in about six months.

If you're new to strength training, you may wish to work with a physical therapist or certified personal trainer who is qualified to work with individuals with hand arthritis and can offer specialized instruction and certain adaptations for exercises using dumbbells.

If you have arthritis in your hands, you'll want to look for rubberized dumbbells, which are easier to grip, and those with foam-padded grips. Avoid adjustable weights, as you will have to manipulate them to get them changed and reset.

Alternatives to Dumbbells

Dumbbells are not always the best way to build strength, especially if gripping causes pain or discomfort in your hands and wrist joints. Arthritis or pain and stiffness in the hands and wrist joints can make it difficult to grip dumbbells or other types of weights commonly used in strength training.

Fortunately, with a few modifications, and by switching up some of your equipment, there are several alternatives you can try and still receive the benefits of weight training.

Resistance Bands

Look for resistance bands that have easy-to-grip handles at each end. Using resistance bands may allow you to hold the handles in your palms while keeping your fingers extended so that you don't have to grip them. This may not work for every exercise, so only choose the moves that allow you to perform the exercise safely while you keep your hands open.

Some ideas for resistance band exercises include chest presses, one-arm flies, biceps curls, overhead presses, side steps, the "butt blaster," and lunges. You can get a variety of resistance bands with different levels of resistance.

Medicine Ball

This is another great choice for adding resistance to your workouts without having to grip the small handle of a dumbbell. Medicine balls come in a variety of sizes and weights. You can hold them while doing exercises such as lunges, side lunges, crunches, and biceps curls.

You do need some hand strength to hold the ball, particularly if you're doing one-handed exercises, so you might try a lighter weight at first (3–5 pounds) and increase the weight gradually.

Weights With Handles

Another option is using a single weight with two handles such as a SmartBell, which are oval weights featuring the ergonomic support of dual-sided hand grips. The handles are wider and you can grip the weight on either side, allowing you to distribute the weight more evenly with both hands.

Wrist Weights

If you find it difficult to challenge your muscles with a medicine ball or if the weights you're able to hold aren't heavy enough, you might try wearing wrist weights during those exercises for added intensity.

Weight Machines

You can find many exercises done with weight machines at a local gym or health club. Many weight machines do not require any hand gripping.

What This Means For You

Lifting weights can strengthen your muscles to help support your joints if you have arthritis in your hands. Remember to avoid lifting weights if your joints are actively inflamed, and to give yourself rest days in between strength training days to give your muscles and joints time to recover.

It's best to adhere to a weight training program that's been recommended by a doctor, physical therapist, or licensed specialized trainer who has knowledge about your condition to ensure you receive the best care. Everyone can benefit from strength training, which means you don't need to let your arthritis stand in the way of taking good care of the health and vitality of your body.

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