How to Lift Weights With Arthritis in Your Hands

Alternatives to Dumbbells

Laughing mature woman doing medicine ball crunches
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Arthritis or pain in the hands can make it difficult to grip dumbbells or other types of weights used in strength training. You may need modified equipment or alternative forms of strength-building exercises to get the benefits of weight training.

Your first step in treating and managing arthritis is to see your doctor for a proper diagnosis and discussion about medications, exercises, and other tools you can use to manage the condition. Talk to your doctor about strength training and get a referral to a physical therapist or trainer if needed.

Strength training can significantly improve strength, pain, and quality of life in people with different types of arthritis, including osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Strengthening exercises are good for people with arthritis because strong muscles help support and protect your joints.

Dumbbell Tips

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 set.

Alternatives to Dumbbells

If you find it difficult to hold weights because of pain in the hands, there are other alternatives to try:

  • 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 the palms of your hands, keeping your fingers extended so that you don't have to grip the handles. This may not work for every exercise, so only choose moves you can safely do while keeping the 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 hand strength to hold the ball, particularly if you're doing one-handed exercises, so you might try a lighter weight at first (3 to 5 pounds) and increase the weight gradually.
  • Weights With Handles: Another option is using a weight with handles, such as smartbells, which are oval weights with two grips. The handles are wider and you can grip the weight on either side, allowing you to distribute the weight more evenly over 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, adding wrist weights may be another option for adding intensity.
  • Weight Machines: You can find many exercises done with weight machines at a local gym or health club. Often weight machines do not require gripping in the same way you do with dumbbells.

Other Tips

If you have rheumatoid or inflammatory arthritis, avoid doing strength training when your joints are actively inflamed. You should also warm up with gentle stretches.

Enjoy your workouts at the time of day when you have the least stiffness and pain. Often these will be worst in the morning, so it may be better to exercise later. You may want to warm your joints with a warm shower or heat treatments before your workout.

Use slow movements. Stop if you feel any pain and be gentle in extending your range of motion. Also be alert for increased pain or swelling in your joints.

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Article Sources
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  3. Kim GJ, Oh H, Lee S, Lee K, Kim K. Effects of resistance exercise using the elastic band on the pain and function of patients with degenerative knee arthritis. J Phys Ther Sci. 2020;32(1):52–54. doi:10.1589/jpts.32.52

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Additional Reading
  • Arthritis Foundation. Best Exercise Equipment for Arthritis. Atlanta, Ga.: Arthritis Foundation 2020