10 Best Strength Exercises for MS
When it comes to managing multiple sclerosis (MS)—a chronic disease where the immune system attacks the nerve cells—strength training is a game-changer. The benefits include improving muscle strength, balance, mobility, and the ability to do whatever you want to do, says Alison Lichy, D.P.T., a board-certified clinical specialist in neurologic physical therapy based in Falls Church, VA, and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association.
To help you reap those rewards, we asked experts for the strength moves they recommend most, plus how to tailor them to your body and needs. Read on for the exercises, and then share them with your neurologist.
How to Use This List
Once you get the green light, try incorporating three or four of these exercises into your daily routine. You can do one or two at a time. In fact, performing small bits of exercise throughout the day—as opposed to doing a one-hour workout and staying relatively sedentary for the other 23 hours—can often feel better on the body, fight fatigue more effectively, and reduce your risk of spiking your core body temperature, which can temporarily worsen MS symptoms.
The best part: Many of these exercises can be done at home, using only your body weight or simple equipment like a resistance band. No gym membership necessary!
Exercise #1: Bird Dog
Exercises performed all of fours (called the quadruped position) are great for training the postural muscles in people with MS, Lichy says. This movement strengthens your entire core—which includes the glutes, hips, abdominals, and deep core muscles that support your spine—to help you maintain better balance and posture.
While bird dog is appropriate for all levels, it does require getting down to and back up off of the floor. If that’s difficult for you, try performing the exercise in the center of your bed. The squishy surface of the mattress will actually increase how hard your core muscles work to avoid toppling over.
How to: Bird Dog
Start on all fours with your hands below shoulders and knees below hips. Engage your abs, keep your spine neutral, and gaze down or slightly forward.
Lift your left arm and extend your right leg until they are in line with the rest of your body. Pause, then lower back down, and repeat on the opposite side with right arm and left leg extended. That’s one rep. Perform two to three sets of six to eight reps total, resting 30 to 60 seconds between sets.
Exercise #2: Sit-to-Stand
This exercise is crucial for maintaining your independence, as it simulates real-life activities that often prove difficult for people with MS, says Ashley Davis, C.P.T., a trainer with Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton, IL. More specifically, it improves your ability to lower down to a chair, the couch, or even a toilet and get back up without assistance.
Your ability to perform this movement may change from day to day. If you need to use a cane, walker, or piece of furniture to move through this exercise, that’s okay. Focus on what you can do now and, over time, you may find it gets easier.
How to: Sit-to-Stand
Stand with your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart directly in front of a sturdy chair or couch. Hold your arms straight out at shoulder height and brace your core.
From here, slowly bend your knees and push your hips back to lower your body on to the chair. Pause, then press through your heels and mid-foot to stand up again. That’s one rep. Aim for two or three sets of 10 reps total, resting 30 to 60 seconds between sets. Try to resist the urge to fall or plop down to the chair.
Exercise #3: Glute Bridge
This exercise strengthens the hips and core for better balance—without requiring balance at all, Lichy says. Performed from a lying position, it’s low-impact and can be done on the floor, a bed, or even the couch.
For extra strength benefits, try performing the glute bridge with a resistance band tied around your thighs, just above the knees. Throughout the exercise, press out on the band, not allowing it to pull your knees together.
How to: Glute Bridge
Lie on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor about hip-width apart; place your heels a few inches away from your buttocks. Press your arms into the floor for support and brace your core.
Push through your heels, squeeze your glutes and lift your hips up until your body forms a straight line from knees to shoulders. Pause, then slowly lower. That’s one rep. Aim for two or three sets of 10 reps, resting 30 to 60 seconds between sets.
You want to feel this exercise primarily in your glutes. If your quads are burning, scoot your feet forward a bit. Hamstrings feeling it? Move those feet closer.
Exercise #4: Single-Leg Stand
This exercise is straightforward, but it’s not easy, says Davis, explaining that single-leg balance work is critical for maintaining mobility and walking strength (shifting weight from one leg to the other again and again).
Over time, the goal is to be able to perform this exercise without holding on to a cane or sturdy surface for balance—but start with whatever support you need to feel comfortable. A countertop is likely the most stable option, since there’s no chance it could topple like a cane.
How to: Single-Leg Stand
Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. If needed, hold on to the wall or a sturdy piece of furniture for balance. From here, lift one foot an inch off the floor while keeping your torso upright and without leaning toward your planted foot. Hold for 10 to 15 seconds, then return your foot to the floor. Repeat on the opposite leg. Perform five stands on each leg.
Exercise #5: Stationary Lunge
It’s common for the ankles, knees, and hips to lose strength and mobility with MS, Lichy says. This exercise not only helps strengthen them, but it does so through a full range of motion. Why that’s good: It prevents your joints from feeling locked up and reduces the risk of injuries down the road, she says.
Before you add this movement to your routine, make sure you feel strong and confident doing single-leg stands, as this one requires more balance. Start by performing this exercise holding on to a wall, counter, or other sturdy object before going hands-free.
How to: Stationary Lunge
Stand tall with your arms down at your sides. Step back with your right foot, placing your toes on the ground and keeping your heel lifted. From this staggered stance, bend your front (left) knee to slowly lower your body as far as comfortable. Allow your back knee to bend as well until it hovers a few inches above the floor, but keep your weight pressed into your front heel.
Pause, then press through your front foot to raise your body back to standing. That’s one rep. Perform eight to 10 reps, then switch sides and repeat. Aim for two or three sets total, resting 30 to 60 seconds between sets.
Exercise #6: Clamshell
Many popular strength exercises train front-to-back motion, like lunges, but it’s also important to work your body side to side. That’s where this exercise comes in: It strengthens the outer hips to increase stability and healthy movement through the joint, Lichy says.
You can perform this exercise without any gear at all or with a resistance band looped just above your knees for an added challenge. Either way, focus on using your glutes, rather than swinging or using momentum, to power each movement. You should feel a small but mighty burn in the side of your glutes.
How to: Clamshell
Lie on one side with your legs stacked and knees bent at a 45-degree angle. Keeping your hips steady and your top foot down, lift only your top knee as high as you can. Your legs should mimic a clam opening. Lower your knee back to the starting position. That’s one rep. Do 10 to 12 reps, and then repeat on the other side. Perform two or three sets total, resting 30 to 60 seconds between sets.
Exercise #7: Resistance-Band Row
Your back is home to the largest muscles in your upper body, along with a bunch of little ones that, when weak, can throw off your posture, cause back pain, and limit upper-body mobility. Rows are an excellent way to strengthen those muscles while also engaging the arms, Davis says.
This variation uses a resistance band so that you perform every rep from a standing position, simultaneously working on balance and core strength. If you have trouble balancing, you can anchor the band to a secure object closer to the floor and perform the exercise from a seated position.
How to: Resistance-Band Row
Loop a resistance band around a stable pole or hook at navel height. Holding one end in each hand, stand facing the anchor so that the band is tight and your arms are outstretched. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, and pull your elbows back, bringing the band to your sides. Pause, then slowly return to start. That’s one rep. Aim for two or three sets of 10 to 12 reps, resting 30 to 60 seconds between sets.
Nowhere to anchor your band? Try a variation in a chair with your legs extended in front of you and loop the band around the bottoms of your feet.
Exercise #8: Standing Leg Lift
Combining the benefits of single-leg stands and clamshells, this more advanced exercise is great for anyone who feels like they’ve mastered the first two, Lichy says.
Try it using only your bodyweight first, and then you can progress to performing it with a resistance band looped around your thighs, just above your knees. Position yourself within reach of a counter, wall, or sturdy piece of furniture so you can catch yourself if you lose your balance. This is especially important if your legs are banded together.
How to: Standing Leg Lift
Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. If needed, hold on to the wall or a sturdy piece of furniture for balance. Transfer your weight onto one foot and lift your opposite foot just barely off the floor. Keeping your lifted leg straight, raise it out to the side as far as you comfortably can. Pause, then lower your foot back down to touch the floor. That’s one rep. Do 10 to 12 reps, then switch sides and repeat. Aim for two or three sets total, resting 30 to 60 seconds between sets.
Exercise #9: Resistance-Band Shoulder Press
Shoulder presses are great for improving upper-body strength and function, Davis says. While you can perform it with free weights, this variation uses a long resistance band to eliminate the need to maintain a tight grip on the weight—and the risk of dropping one on your head.
How to: Resistance-Band Shoulder Press
Place a resistance band on the floor and stand on the center of it with your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart. Holding one end of the band in each hand, bring your hands to the front of your shoulders, with palms facing forward and elbows pointed down to the floor. Brace your core and slightly bend your knees.
From here, without arching your lower back, press your hands straight overhead. Pause, then slowly lower your hands back to your shoulders. That’s one rep. Aim for two or three sets of eight to 10 reps total, resting 30 to 60 seconds between sets.
Exercise #10: Standing Wood Chop
This advanced total-body exercise trains your ability to maintain balance when changing directions and focal points, Davis says. At the same time, it strengthens the muscles in your core, legs, and shoulders.
Master this movement pattern with just your body weight before progressing to holding a weight (such as a medicine ball, dumbbell, can of soup, or loaded backpack) with both hands.
How to: Standing Wood Chop
Stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. If you’re using a weight, hold it in both hands. Bend your knees and turn your torso so you’re holding the weight (or your empty hands) outside of your left knee. Fix your eyes on the weight, maintaining your focus on it throughout the entire movement.
Inhale as you lift the weight diagonally across your body, ending twisted to the right with arms above your head. Allow your feet to pivot as you twist. Pause, then slowly lower the weight while bending your knees to return to start. That’s one rep. Perform six to eight reps, then repeat on the opposite side. Do two or three sets total.