A diverse group of people dancing and lifting weights, ranging from soup cans to a barbell with heavy plates.

Making Muscles: Strength Training and Rheumatoid Arthritis 

Last updated: October 2021

A few months ago, I broke my hip. Naturally, my leg muscles got really weak, really quickly.

Like many people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), it has always been hard for me to gain strength back after I lose it and I was determined that this injury wouldn’t interrupt my life more than it had to.

So I decided to listen carefully to my physical therapist and to follow my home exercise program to a tee.

Strength training with PT

She loaded me up with therapy bands and leg weights and a piece of paper listing exercises like stepping up on a stair and then down slowly. I looked at them and had two thoughts.

My first thought was, “This will be fun on swollen knee days. I can barely do a squat when they are at their best.”

The next thought that followed was, “How is using a yellow theraband (the easiest one) and two-pound leg weights going to get my leg as strong as it needs to carry my weight around?”

I took my bad attitude and stuffed it inside as I dutifully went to physical therapy (PT) and did my exercises.

Noticing improvement and less strain

A couple of months later, an interesting thing happened.

I noticed that when I needed to bend down, I was coming up with less strain. I started to be more confident on stairs, even more than I was pre-hip fracture.

I moved from sit to stand without the usual grunt. The mini squats, the stepping up, and the two-pound weights were working.

A defeatist attitude

It was a big realization for me because, my whole life, I would go to the gym and sigh inside when I would have to take the pin out of the weight machine entirely in order to move the leg or armbar - often after the person before me had it pinned on some outlandishly high weight like 50 pounds.

I’ve been fatalistically telling myself my whole life that my weakness wasn’t going to change by lifting soup cans or by taking a pin out of the weight machine. So, why even try?

When I go to the gym I stick to the exercise bicycle, something I know I can do even if I’m flaring. I’ve dabbled in free weights, but again - the minute I start flaring, I give it up with a defeatist attitude.

I was lying to myself

The truth is, I’ve been lying to myself my whole life. I’ve known that studies show that strength training improves RA pain and overall function and that moderate strength training is recommended, even with active disease.1

But since I never had a medical professional tell me that I needed to lift weights, I never prioritized it.

It’s just too depressing when, one day, I can lift one amount and the next, my elbows hurt too much to do anything, or so I’ve told myself.

Learning to work with my body

The reality is that I’ve been in PT now for months and, during those months, I’ve had numerous flares - my typical cycle - but the flares haven’t prevented me from doing my full exercise regime every time I’m there. Just a few times.

What this tells me is that if I can work with my body, I can continue to use strength training in my life. I just need to do more on the days that I feel good and less on the days I don’t.

And, I need to stop caring about that darn weight machine pin!

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