Functional Strength Training for Chronic Pain

An image of a man using reistant bad from his wheel chair to exercise his arms which is functional strength training.

"For many, weight training calls to mind bodybuilders pumping iron in pursuit of beefy biceps and bulging pecs. But experts say it's well past time to discard those antiquated notions of what resistance training can do for your physique and health. Modern exercise science shows that working with weights — whether that weight is a light dumbbell or your own body — may be the best exercise for lifelong physical function and fitness." (Peak fitness Presented by Mercola, 2017)

What is Strength Training?

Strength training is also known as weight or resistance training. It is a physical activity designed to improve muscular fitness by exercising a specific muscle or muscle group against external resistance. (American Council on Sports Medicine, 2013)

Why is Strength Training Important?

Strength training exercises are actually among the most important exercises to stay fit and healthy. Muscle strength decreases with age unless you work on preventing it with strength training exercises. Less than 25% of Americans over the age of 45 engage in strength training (Peak fitness Presented by Mercola, 2014). The elderly worry about being injured and women worry about bulking up and looking manly. However, if you don’t work to strengthen your muscles, they will decline by 25% of what you had in your mid-30’s when you reach 70. They will decline by 50% by the time your 90. At around age 30 you lose as much as 3% to 5% of lean muscle mass per year. Anyone at any age can benefit from Strength Training.


Types of Strength Training

There are many different ways to strengthen your muscles!

  1. Lift free weights
  2. Utilize weight machines at your local gym
  3. Strengthen muscles with stretchy resistant bands. There are a ton of exercises you can do with resistant bands to strengthen both your upper and lower body.
  4. Use your own body weight by doing exercises like push-ups, squats, planks, lunges, step-ups, abdominal crunches, chin-ups, and 100s of other strength exercises.
  5. Try exercises with weighted medicine balls
  6. Utilize household items for weights, if you don’t want to purchase any

Chronic Pain Resources

Benefits of Strength Training for Chronic Pain

Strength training helps to make daily activities easier whether it’s climbing stairs or doing outdoor chores like raking leaves. There are numerous health benefits to strength training that can help reduce chronic pain. When muscles are stronger your effort decreases which helps prevent fatigued muscles. For many years, people with illnesses such as fibromyalgia were told to avoid strength training exercises. Today, research demonstrates the safety and benefit of this important type of exercise for people with illnesses like fibromyalgia. (NfmCPA, 2017). In addition, many people struggle with back and neck pain at some point in their lives and there is plenty of evidence that strength training exercises help. They strengthen muscles stopping long-lasting cycles of pain.

Health Benefits

  • Preventing and controlling chronic conditions
  • Pain management
  • Boosts metabolism (the rate your resting body burns calories throughout the day)
  • Improved muscle strength and tone
  • Maintaining or improving flexibility and balance
  • Increases stamina
  • Weight management & muscle-to-fat ratio
  • Reducing cognitive decline in older people
  • Decreasing risks of injury
  • Improving posture
  • Increasing bone density which reduces risk of osteoporosis
  • Improved sense of wellbeing
  • Improve sleep
  • Enhance performance of everyday tasks
  • Strengthen your heart
  • Slow cellular aging, helping you to live longer
  • Elevate endorphins improving mood

One study showed that strength training in the elderly reversed oxidative stress and returned 179 genes to their youthful level. In other words, it genetically turned back the clock about 10 years. (Peak fitness Presented by Mercola, 2014)

Strength Training Tips for Chronic Pain Sufferers

Lifting WeightsChronic Pain Resources

To avoid pain or injury make sure you learn proper technique before doing any strength training exercises. When lifting weights start with something as light as 1 to 3 pounds and lift slowly and precisely just to improve tone and make muscles stronger. It will help muscles to be less fatigued. You should be able to do 8 reps with the weight you pick, and then can move up to 10 – 12 reps over time. When you can do two sets of 12 pick a slightly heavier weight.


Shorten range of motion if the full range of motion causes pain. For example, if you are doing a bicep curl and as you are lowering it back down to your thigh it hurts, don’t do that full motion stop before you reach that point. If possible, try to do strength training for all major areas of the body; legs, chest, shoulders, back, arms, and abs.

Using Body Weight

When using your body weight in strength training exercises you can start out with a modified version of an exercise. For example, if you can’t do a pushup start off with a wall pushup. If that’s too easy, you can try a pushup where you keep your knees planted into the ground. Just make sure you check with a healthcare professional before starting something new. Also, make sure you have the right form and position, tighten the correct muscle groups, and continue to breathe during the exercise. A benefit to body weight exercises is there are many different exercises that can be done anywhere with no equipment and no costs.

Other Strength Training Tips

  • Use proper form and technique, don’t sacrifice good form to do more repetitions, you will get less benefit from the exercise.
  • Take at least one day (48 hours) off between exercising each specific muscle group, in order to give muscles time to recover
  • Control weights carefully, rather than letting momentum carry you through the movement, move the weight through the joint’s full range of motion
  • Consult a medical professional before trying new exercises
  • Make sure you are breathing to keep muscles relaxed; inhale on the less strenuous part and exhale slowly as you perform the movement that requires the greatest effort
  • To keep building your strength over time; slowly increase reps over time, add new exercises, increase weights, or try a new strength training workout.

Strength Training How Often Should You Do Strength Training?

The Department of Health and Human Services recommend incorporating strength training exercises of all major muscle groups into a fitness routine at least two times a week, along with 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity.

How to Start Strength Training with Weights

First, you must understand what a rep is and what a set is.


Rep (Repetition): One complete motion of an exercise using full range of motion.

Set: A group of reps of an exercise performed directly one after another without prolonged rest.


To Build Strength and Bulk: Do 8-10 reps or less per set with heavier weights (If you still have the stamina to do more reps than 10 the weights are not heavy enough, if your muscles are already burning before you get to 8 than the weights are too heavy.)


General Conditioning and Tone: Plan to do 10 to 15 reps just one set using moderately heavy weights


SuperSlow Weight Training: Plan for one set of 8 to 10 reps. The last rep should be impossible to do no matter how much effort you put in.


You may need to adjust weights based on the muscle groups you are working. Larger muscle groups such as the chest, upper back, and thighs will require heavier weights because they are stronger muscles. Shoulders and arms may require less weight because they are smaller muscle groups.


If you need help figuring out appropriate strength training exercises for your health condition, a physical therapist may be able to create a customized plan just for you.




The Editors of Prevention. (2011, November 16). Prevention/5 Best Workouts for Chronic Pain. Retrieved from:


Evans, Brittany. Romeling, Matthew. Cross, Martha. Rooks, Daniel S., PhD Division of Rheumatology, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. (2017, June 21). NfmCPA/Strength Training for the Person with Fibromyalgia. Retrieved from:


Laskowski, Edward R. M.D. (2015, August 13th) MAYO CLINIC/Is body weight training effective as a strength training exercise?. Retrieved from:


Dr. Mercola. (2014, October 31st) Peak fitness Presented by Mercola/The 7 Best Strength Exercises You’re Not Doing. Retrieved from:


Dr. Mercola. (2017, June 30th) Peak fitness Presented by Mercola/Why Strength Training is so Important for Optimal Health. Retrieved from:


Better Health Channel/Resistance training – health benefits. Retrieved from:


Iliades, Chris M.D. (2018, January 30). Everyday HEALTH/7 Ways Strength Training Boosts Your Health and Fitness. Retrieved from:


Resistance Training for Health and Fitness. American Council on Sports Medicine. 2013. Retrieved from: