Benefits of Strength Training for Knee Osteoarthritis

Scott Venkataraman, PT

October 20, 2020

Health & Longevity | Joints & Back Health

 Benefits of Strength Training for Knee Osteoarthritis 

Osteoarthritis is the most common cause of joint pain and disability over the age of 50. The deterioration of the body that started at the age of 25 finally starts showing itself and hindering our functions. 

However, there are multiple ways to relieve the symptoms and improve the quality of life. A fast and easy fix to these symptoms is steroid injections for pain relief. Or better, a joint replacement. Whether your condition is already grave enough to justify a knee replacement, taking good care of our joints and muscles around them is imperative. Physical exercise and strength training can prevent the progression of arthritis-related pain. 

Strength training and knee arthritis

As per common belief, a person with pain requires rest to recover. It might be true to some extent, but in case of a movement-related ailment, movement is a great treatment option in most cases. Evidently, people with a sedentary lifestyle show early signs of aging and develop movement disorders much earlier than those who lead an active lifestyle. Exercise, more specifically, loading causes the muscles and bones to grow stronger. Movement enhances the blood flow to the surrounding area, it brings nutrients, removes toxins, and relieves inflammation and pain. On the same principle, strength training is recommended as a treatment for osteoarthritis and it has proved to be effective in individuals with mild to moderate osteoarthritis just as much as NSAIDs (like Ibuprofen or Advil).

Aerobic activities and strength training help you lose extra fat and maintain an ideal BMI. This indirectly helps with joint pain because the consistent stress on the joints in the form of the body’s own weight is reduced, which happens to be a huge contributor to the inflammation leading to pain and disability. 

Strength training has other health benefits for the knee and hip joints:

  • Intermittent loading within a safe range results in a significant increase in bone mineral density, thus making it stronger and healthier. This reduces the risk of fractures.
  • Aging causes the muscles to shrink and thus, weaken. Strength training induces the formation of new fibers in the muscles and the thickening of existing fibers. Hence, restoring the muscle bulk and increasing strength, which indirectly resolves other problems related to muscle weakness such as bad posture, poor balance, fatigue, and muscular pain.

Hands, hips, and knees are the joints most affected by osteoarthritis. Knee is the largest, most complex joint in the body. Visibly, its movement occurs in only one plane, but a small degree of rotation takes place during functional movements, controlled by the adjoining muscles and ligaments. As we age, the ligaments become lax and muscles weaken, and the joint is less protected from twists and jerks. Once again, strength training of leg muscles can prevent the wear and tear to some extent. The major muscles to consider for this are the Gluteus Maximus, Gluteus Medius, Hamstrings, Quadriceps, Soleus and Gastrocnemius.

How to train safely with knee arthritis?

An important factor related to strength training is fatigue and soreness. Make sure you can differentiate between fatigue and pain. Fatigue is a normal response to strenuous activity, while pain is an indication that something is wrong. Pain due to exercise can present due to many different reasons such as incorrect technique, overloading, etc., which is why it is important to maintain proper form while doing the exercises. A Physical Therapist/Personal trainer can guide you all through the technique and intensity. In the Wysefit app, we always focus on proper form and technique and do our best to accommodate the different levels of skill and strength. Our classes are designed and taught by experienced certified trainers and PTs. 

It’s important to note that there is a difference between hurt and harm. Although you may be experiencing pain, that does not necessarily mean you are causing an equal and proportionate amount of damage or injury to the joint. With this in mind, it’s helpful to consider when to stop and when to continue with a workout when you are experiencing pain. 

If you have been diagnosed with osteoarthritis and are planning to begin a resistance training program, it is helpful to work with your doctor, physical therapist, or other medical professional to determine how much pain or discomfort is acceptable, and when you need to reduce or stop the workout for that day.

Essentially, remember to do warm-up dynamic mobility exercises before strength training, and cool-down stretching exercises afterward, to prevent exercise-related injury, muscle strain, and soreness.

What kind of strengthening exercises can you perform with “bad knees”?

Strength training can be done employing your body’s own weight against gravity, adding resistance bands, using free weights, or any other exercise equipment and machinery to aid through the strengthening process. Some exercises are considered not suitable for osteoarthritis’ patient, such as the squats and lunges, but it is not always true. As long as you can perform these exercises without significant discomfort or pain, they can be very beneficial. Listen to your body, and note what range of motion (depth in squats and lunges) you can perform without significant discomfort. There are very few exercises that are inherently bad for our knees, if done correctly and when done with the proper resistance, reps, rest, and form. 

Research shows (link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3635671/)  that both aerobic exercises (walking, cycling, and swimming etc.) and especially resistance strength training are an effective means of pain relief and functional restoration in mild and moderate case of osteoarthritis. In fact, these are as effective as any analgesic drug, without any harmful side effects. Strengthening exercises performed in conjunction with functional activities while wearing weight cuffs can reduce pain by 43%. These Exercises include:

  • Knee flexion/extension for Quadriceps.
  • Glute Bridges and other Hip abduction/adduction for Gluteus Medius.
  • Step-ups for Soleus and Gastrocnemius (calf muscles)
  • Squats for Gluteus Maximus, Hamstrings and Quadriceps

Check out our Strength Classes in the Wysefit App, and include leg and glute strengthening exercise in your weekly fitness routine. 

Related: 4 Reasons and Strengthen and Activate your Glutes with Top Exercises

These exercises result in significant improvement in leg strength, endurance, and stability. Therefore, regular exercise is a great treatment for osteoarthritis. Do not let your “bad knees” stop you from moving and exercising. 

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