How to Modify Your Workout to Fit RA

Patient Expert
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Have you ever walked into a gym, taken one look around, and left?

There are many reasons why you may have done this: overcrowded gym, sudden laziness, or the catastrophe of forgotten headphones. But when you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the reason you walk out might be different.

You see the rack of dumbbells, the pullup bars, the bench-press stations, and realize the gym is a landscape of pain. It is full of 1) things you can’t lift 2) machines you can’t use 3) people who have no problem with any of it. That’s all bad.

After RA ended my baseball career at age 23, I went through a bit of shock. Not only could I not play baseball, but I couldn’t stay in shape either. Being physically active is an important part of managing RA, so something had to be done. Gradually, I discovered how to modify my exercise to accommodate my condition.

Before trying any new exercise, it is important to be in contact with your doctor to discuss your approach and strategy. You may also ask for a referral to a physical therapist who can help you put together a program that will best suit your needs and sensitivities.

Modified pushups

As a baseball player, I did 200 pushups each day after my workout. When I got RA, my right wrist swelled so much I had to stop. Pushups were a valuable exercise, which strengthened not just my arm, but my back and core, so I was sad to have to let them go. I have since learned I can do modified pushups that help take some of the pressure off my wrist, but still allow me to exercise my arms. Here are some of the ways I’ve been able to keep pushups in my life.

a) Putting weight on my fist is easier on the joint than having my wrist bent, palm down. This may not be the case for everyone, but I was only able to discover this after experimenting.

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Emil DeAndreis

b) Knee pushups are a way to still exercise your arms but not put as much weight on the joints.

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Emil DeAndreis

c) Pushups on a park bench or railing. The elevated rest for your hands means less weight on your joints. The taller the bench, the easier on your joints, and you can adjust how many you do based on how easy it is on your body.

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Emil DeAndreis

Modified cleans

In college, our trainer told us if we were only able to do one workout for the rest of our lives, the best choice would be power cleans. A power clean starts with hanging a barbell at your thighs, then using your legs and arms in a composed but explosive motion to get the barbell to your shoulders. It works out legs, back, and arms. Throughout my baseball career it was the workout most responsible for my strength. When RA came, I could no longer power clean. I was intent on finding a way to keep the exercise around.  I modified the lift to take out the bending of the wrist.  In this picture I am lifting a 70-lb. bar, which is half of what I did in college. Reducing weight to your ability is certainly an important factor of modification.

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Emil DeAndreis
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Emil DeAndreis
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Emil DeAndreis

Planks

This isn’t a modified exercise, but it is an underrated one for people with RA and could be a valuable addition to your exercise routine. A plank calls for you to hold yourself in a position similar to pushup position, except your weight is on your elbows as opposed to your hands, as shown in the picture. You can finish up your session with a handful of planks at whatever duration comfortably challenges you. Or, to intensify your workout, you drop down and do planks for 30 seconds to one minute when you would ordinarily be resting in between sets at the gym. Planks are a low-impact exercise. They will get you sweating, and are one of the best exercises for strengthening your core, which tends to get weak in people with RA due to the amount of sitting and laying we must do. It’s a great addition to any existing workout plan.

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Emil DeAndreis

These modifications may not work for everyone. As we all know, our bodies are fickle, and unique from one person to the next. Even one day to the next.  But even if these modifications don’t work, I do hope that this article shows the importance of working around your disease to find exercises you can do.  That may mean making a fist, or taking out certain parts of the exercise that hurt, or greatly reducing the weight you are lifting, and upping the reps.

Before trying these modifications, you may want to be in touch with a physical trainer in order to have an expert by your side throughout the process.  You can also reach out to others in the RA community to see what they are doing in the gym to accommodate the disease.  All journeys will be different, but I wish them all success and alleviation just the same.

See more helpful articles:

9 Tips for When You Don’t Want to Exercise

Exercises for All Levels of RA

Using Sports Psychology to Live Better with RA