Strength Training For Arthritis Prevention and Relief
When I do my strengthening exercises, should I be training for large, bulky muscles, or smaller muscles for endurance?
Safely strengthening the muscles around painful joints is one of the best ways to alleviate joint pain and keep the pain from returning. In fact, keeping muscles strong and flexible is one of the best ways to keep joint pain from occurring in the first place. The question posed at the top of this blog belies an understanding that there are different types of muscle fibers in a muscle.
There are in fact two important types of skeletal muscle:
Type I muscle fibers is also called "slow-twitch" muscle. It is composed of small fibers. Type I muscle is used to carry light loads over long distances. A marathon runner has an abundance of type I muscle fibers. Picture the marathon runner - lean and toned.
Type II muscle fibers are also called "fast-twitch" muscle fibers. Type II muscles are large and used for lifting heavy loads. Type II muscles are powerful but fatigue quickly. Sprinters have an abundance of type II muscle fibers. Picture the sprinter - large muscles full of evident explosive speed. Power lifters are also replete with type II muscle fibers.
Type IIA muscle fibers is a third type and a hybrid of type I and type II muscle fibers.
How To Exercise for Arthritis
In order to treat and prevent osteoarthritis, you should aim to exercise a combination of type I, II, and IIA muscle fibers. How do you accomplish this?
If weight lifting:
- Aim to complete 8-12 repetitions for each set.
- Perform 3-5 sets per muscle exercise.
- Do 1-3 exercises per muscle group.
You may increase the weight once you can perform 12 repetitions for 3 sets with only mild fatigue.
A repetition is a single movement through a given exercise in strength training. For example, a biceps curl from starting position to finish position is one repetition. This includes starting with the elbow in an extended position, flexing the elbow, and then extending the elbow again.
A set is a group of repetitions. In between two sets, you should take a small rest of about a minute.
Only start a strength-training program after getting clearance from your personal doctor. Once you have medical clearance, I recommend that you start by working with a personal trainer or physical therapist. In my book, The Arthritis Handbook: Improve Your Health and Manage the Pain of Osteoarthritis, I suggest and walk the reader through many exercises that I think are superb for strengthening the muscles and keeping joints pain-free. However, I think that books like mine should ideally be used as a guide only. In the end, nothing can replace your working with an experienced trainer or physical therapist who can give you feedback and show you how to perform the exercises correctly.
Doing Exercises Properly For Maximum Benefit
The most important components of strength exercises are form and breathing. Always keep excellent form. This is difficult because it is tempting to sacrifice form in order to complete a repetition quickly or to increase the weight. But don't do that! It defeats the purpose of the exercise altogether.
Form is most important. When you are doing a biceps curl, for example, remember to think about your entire body. Keep you feet shoulder-width apart, abdominal muscles slightly contracted to protect your spine, feet flat on the ground, and knees minimally flexed (about 3 to 4 degrees; so your knees are not locked, but your legs are still straight).
Remember to breathe! Never hold your breath while lifting weights. Holding your breath will increase your blood pressure and can be dangerous. Keep breathing throughout every repetition. Generally, you should breath out when lifting the weight or performing the most dificult part of the exercise. You should breathe in when lowering the weight or when returning to the starting position. But that varies by exercise. Breathing tips and exercise guidance can be found in more detail in my book. Remember to try and find an experienced trainer or physical therapist to work with as well.
Strength-training is a terrific way to protect your joints. Don't exercise through joint pain! A little muscle soreness after exercise is okay, but if your joint hurts, or if you are not sure if it is your joint or muscle that is hurting, then stop and call your doctor.