When people think of weight training, they think of large men with muscles rippling and oil glistening on their skin while they pump iron. You may not think that weight training and stroke victims have anything in common, but recent research is showing that lifting weights can actually help people who have experienced an acute ischemic stroke or an acute hemorrhagic stroke. You won’t be lifting hundreds of pounds of weight or look like Arnold Schwarzenegger when you are done, but you could improve your range of motion, regain some of your lost strength, and perhaps do away with the protective braces that have supported your limbs since your acute stroke.
What is Weight Training?
Weight training is the use of barbells or some other form of resistance to build up the strength, flexibility, and range of motion in your extremities. You don’t have to use actual weights, though, to participate in weight training. In fact, many physical therapists use therapeutic bands and ribbons to help you regain some of your strength. These are bands made of a highly resistant rubber that works against you when you pull on them. Different bands have different strengths associated with them, so you can progress from a very easy resistance up to something that will really challenge your muscles – all without lifting a dumbbell. The idea behind weight training is working the muscle to fatigue. This causes tiny tears in the muscle fibers that eventually are built back up into stronger muscles. By repeatedly stressing your muscles two to three times per week, you gain strength and movement in your arms and legs that can help in other aspects of your treatment plan.
How Weight Training Helps Stroke Victims
Weight training can help stroke victims through building strength and increasing flexibility. The idea behind working with weights is to pull the weight through your entire range of motion, no matter how limited. If you have a contracture of the arm, for example, you simply pull the weight through as much of the motion as you can. This builds up the strength of those muscles, helps them learn to relax, and increases their flexibility. Some therapists have used weight training on contracted limbs and enabled stroke victims to use the limb without a brace. By increasing the strength and repeatedly focusing on contracted muscles, the body learns different ways to use the limb, and you are able to be free of the brace. These exercises can work for any contracted joint: wrist, elbow, ankle, and hip. It also helps with muscle loss and bone weakness that is present in so many stroke victims. It helps to build up the body’s natural protection – its muscles – and allows them to support a stroke victim in conquering new territory post brain attack.
Simple Weight Training Exercises
Most exercises should be performed under the instruction of a qualified physical therapist. Although weight training is generally safe, you can do the exercises incorrectly and possibly cause injury. However, if you are curious as to the types of exercises you could perform to increase your abilities after an acutestroke, you can think about these simple exercises to help you understand the concept behind stroke rehabilitation with weight training.
Your therapist will likely start with a warm-up. This will consist of gentle stretching and possibly light exercise to raise your heart rate. If you are able to walk, this could be a lap around the room or a turn on the treadmill. If you can’t walk, then you might use the hand bicycle to get yourself ready for weight training.
You can do a simple leg press to help you gain more strength in your legs. This involves pulling your knee as far to your chest as possible and then pushing away against resistance. You could loop a band over your foot and push away or sit at a machine that allows you to push against a plate with both feet. Similarly, you could do a chest press, pushing away against the resistance of a band or machine. Another popular exercise is a seated row. You could tie a band around something solid and use your hands to pull against the resistance towards you. By changing the angle that you pull against this resistance, you can work various muscles in your arms. Other exercises include bicep curls and pull downs on a machine. Please note that it is unsafe to try these exercises at home without a thorough teaching by your therapist. You could end up injuring yourself if you do not use the weight properly. Always check with your doctor first.
American Stroke Association; Weight Training after a Stroke; January/February 2004
StrokeSmart Magazine; Top 5 Exercises for Stroke Survivors; Stephen Page, PhD, May/June 2006
About.com; Basic Strength and Muscle Weight Training Program; Paul Rogers; November 2011