How to Start Strength Training When You Have a Chronic Illness

  • By David Dack
  • 28 October 2019
  • 6 minute read
How to Start Strength Training When You Have a Chronic Illness | The Health Sessions

This article is written by David Dack. 

We all know that strength training is key for keeping the body strong, maintaining a healthy weight and improving self-image. But if you have a chronic illness that comes with a host of unwanted symptoms like pain and fatigue (such as myalgia encephalomyelitis, Lyme, or fibromyalgia), the last thing you’d want to do is to hit the weight room.

But it’s still worth it. For those dealing with chronic illness, lifting weights may soothe and manage symptoms, increase energy, improve mobility and enhance life quality, research shows.

The niggling question is, how does one get started?

There are a few stumbling blocks between exercise and people dealing with chronic conditions that prevent them from enjoying a good sweat session. Things like pain, fatigue, limited mobility issues all make working out a trying experience. But it’s not impossible.

Let’s take a look at some of the tried and true guidelines for weight training beginners. These tips should be specifically helpful if you’re dealing with chronic conditions that have prevented from enjoying a good sweat session.

Strength Training and Chronic Illness

Here are some of the chronic conditions that lifting weights can help with.

  • Obesity (yes, it’s a disease!). It takes a lot of calories to build and preserve muscle versus fat. So when you build muscle, you’re increasing your metabolism and shedding off more calories.
  • Diabetes. Resistance workouts improve glucose absorption and insulin sensitivity and boost your muscles’ ability to store and use up glycogen. This helps your body better maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
  • Multiple Sclerosis. Research has found that strength training is a useful tool in the management of this progressive disease of the nervous system with symptoms ranging from numbness to blurred vision and fatigue.
  • Back pain. Regular resistance training can increase endurance, strength, and mobility in your back and improve muscle function, especially when doing core exercises. This helps symptoms as well as prevent future flare-ups.
  • Arthritis. Strength training helps you soothe arthritis pain by increasing your range of motion and boosting blood flow throughout your body. It can also reduce pain, in part by maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Blood pressure. Lifting weights attacks the plaque on your heart arteries as well as strengthens your heart muscles. This allows for your blood pressure to lower over the long term, which can cut your risk for cardiovascular issues.

Note—before you give strength training a try, talk to your doctor. They’ll offer advice on what type of movements you can safely perform as well as what should be avoided for your medical condition, needs, and capabilities. Don’t try to do this on your own—otherwise, you’re putting yourself in jeopardy.

How to Start Strength Training When You Have a Chronic Illness | The Health Sessions

Start Slow

If your health condition has kept you from lifting weights for a long time, start slow and steady.  Doing ten chest exercises—because you read about it in some magazine—may exert you too much to not want to strength train again.

Keep it easy. Start with 20 minutes a session for the first few weeks and then work your way up to longer sessions with more load.If you find it hard to perform a movement, try an easier variation or move onto the next exercise. Examples include chair push-ups, bodyweight squats, sit-ups, or simply lifting a two-pound dumbbell. Work with your body—not against it.

Due to your condition, you may not progress as quickly as someone with no issues, so it’s key to allow time to increase reps, sets, and weight. Don’t force your body to do something it can’t—even if it wasn’t the case two years ago. Taking the time to start slowly and build your strength base gradually will allow you to avoid injury and flare-ups.

Begin with the Warm-up

It’s vital to get your heart rate and core temperature up before lifting weights. A proper warm-up helps you activate weak muscles, improve range of motion, and slowly increase your core temperature, so your body is best prepared for the workout.

Start with a 5-minute warm-up of brisk walking, light jogging, or simply doing jumping jacks. Then perform 5 to 10 minutes of dynamic stretches to fire up your muscles, increase your range of motion, and activate your nervous system. Try doing butt kicks, lunges, jumping jacks, marching, sidestepping, inchworms, squats, and walking lunges.

Master Basic Movements

As a beginner, start with bodyweight training to help you practice basic movement patterns.  Also known as calisthenics, bodyweight exercises are convenient, easily scalable, and can help you reduce your risk of injury and burnout. It’ll also allow you to lift more weights efficiently down the road.

The main exercises include:

  • Squats,
  • Sit-ups,
  • Lunges,
  • Push-ups,
  • Bicycle crunches,
  • Planks,
  • Pull-ups.

After you master these moves, add some resistance. Here are some beginner-friendly exercises to consider:

  • Chest presses
  • Reverse lunge
  • Deadlifts
  • Overhead press
  • Glute bridges
  • Hammer curls

How to Start Strength Training When You Have a Chronic Illness | The Health Sessions

Practice Good Form

To get the most out of resistance training without breaking your back, it’s key to develop proper form. This is especially the case early on, as the movement patterns you develop set you up for either success or complete failure. It’s also easier to learn good form habits from the get-go rather than trying to break them later on.

To improve your weight lifting technique, do the following:

  • Stand tall feet hip-width apart, core engaged, and back flat.
  • Concentrate on slow and smooth lifts instead of relying on momentum to do the heavy lifting.
  • Keep your body well aligned throughout every exercise.
  • Keep your shoulders back and head in a neutral position.
  • Avoid shrugging or aligning your ears with your shoulders.
  • Exhale as you lift the weight and inhale as you lower it.

Determine Your Weight

Figuring out the right amount of resistance for a given exercise requires testing. You’ll also keep changing your training approach as you get stronger.

As a rule, start with a weight that’s lower than your fitness ability and build on that. Relying on momentum, or swinging the weight around, means you’re wasting your time. You might also hurt yourself. For example, if you’re doing two sets of 10 reps of overhead presses, your arms and shoulders should feel tired by the last few reps, but not completely drained. Breezing through your sets means that you ought to up the weight.

As a rule, start with one exercise per muscle group and one set of each move at lightweight. Perform a routine that targets all muscle groups on two to three non-consecutive days a week. This helps build a strong foundation, allowing you to get stronger from one week to the next

Rest Enough

Last but not least, incorporate enough recovery in your program. People dealing with chronic illness require longer periods of recovery between workouts as well as longer breaks between sets and exercise.

Start with 2 to 3 sessions per week and take at least one to two days of rest between each to allow enough time for recovery, especially following hard training days. For example, if you work out your chest and back on Monday, you should not exercise that region again until Thursday at the earliest.

As you get stronger, break your weight lifting program by focusing on your upper body one day, then lower body the next.


There you have it! The above strength training beginner guidelines are all you need to get on the path of getting ripped. You need to show up, do the work, and stay within your fitness skill.

Author bio: David Dack is an established fitness blogger and running expert. When he’s not training for his next marathon, he’s doing research and trying to help as many people as possible to share his fitness philosophy. Check his blog Runners Blueprint for more info.

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