Yes, you can get a tough workout that'll build strength and mobility without putting your joints, tendons and ligaments through hell. Strength training is generally considered a lower-impact activity, explains Takia McClendon, CPT, a Philadelphia-based personal trainer.
But traditional strength-training exercises could take a toll on the joints, McClendon, co-founder of City Fit Girls, says. For people who are returning to physical activity after injury or who have soreness in the joints, there are modifications to make strength training a low-impact workout.
What Is Low-Impact Strength Training?
Just like general low-impact exercise, low-impact strength training is any strength workout that doesn't require jumping or other plyometric forces that put excess stress on the joints or tendons, McClendon explains. (All workouts require some stress on the body because that is what leads to increased strength and endurance.)
"Low-impact strength training are exercises that are easy and gentle on the joints and tendons, and they're typically when at least one foot remains in contact with the ground," explains Katie Hake, RDN, a certified personal trainer and registered dietitian.
But it isn't just for older adults. "People assume that because it's low impact, it's for old people, that you can't get a good workout if it's low impact," Hake says. "But I'd argue that low-impact strength training is for everyone because we all need variety in our training."
Generally, a low-impact strength exercise will not cause any pain in sensitive areas, such as the knees, hips, ankles, wrists and shoulders, McClendon says. That's not to say the workout is free of discomfort; discomfort is a sign that your body is working hard and getting stronger, Hake says. And as with traditional strength training, it's important to add more stress or resistance to your muscles over time to get stronger, McClendon explains.
So what does low-impact strength training look like, exactly?
"'Low impact' will vary from person to person depending on what joint issues they have," McClendon says. Low-impact strength training doesn't have to be reduced to one modality, she says. In fact, you can incorporate a variety of tools for each session.
Dumbbells, kettlebells and resistance bands are all good options for low-impact strength training. Strength machines might also offer added protection when it comes to sensitive joints.
"An exercise machine takes you through a guided, fixed range of motion," Hake says. "A dumbbell or kettlebell might be more unstable even if it's low-low impact. A machine doesn't have as big a range of motion and it takes away some human error when it comes to form."
Whether to engage in partial or full range of motion depends on the person and what they are comfortable with, McClendon says, noting that doing a warm-up or mobility exercises can help improve range of motion during a workout.
The types of exercises you can do with low-impact strength training are pretty diverse, McClendon says. For example, unilateral exercises could be a great low-impact option that works one side of the body at a time.
"Unilateral training could actually be beneficial to clear up muscle imbalances, which is one of the most common causes of joint dysfunction," McClendon says.
McClendon says a step-up, for instance, is an excellent unilateral substitute for a squat (a bilateral exercise, which uses both limbs at the same time), because it might be less painful for some people with joint sensitivities. Unilateral exercises are also a great way to add intensity to your workouts without more impact, Hake says.
Speaking of turning up the intensity, just because you're doing low-impact strength training, it doesn't mean your workout can't be challenging. Exercises like sled pushing are low-impact, but can improve strength and boost your heart rate, McClendon says. Other high-intensity, low-impact strength exercises are a kettebell or dumbbell HIIT workout.
"This will allow you to work at a higher intensity without adding too much stress to your joints," she says.
To increase the intensity of your low-impact strength workouts, Hake recommends choosing heavier weights, incorporating compound movements (a squat to overhead press, for example) or decreasing rest time.
5 Benefits of Low-Impact Strength Training
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults should strength train at least twice a week. After all, regular strength training has plenty of health benefits, including increased muscle mass, stronger bones, joint flexibility, weight management and better balance, according to the American Cancer Society.
And modifying an exercise to make it easier on the joints or tendons doesn't make it any less beneficial, McClendon says.
"The benefits [of low-impact strength training] are the same as traditional strength training," she says. "It strengthens your muscles, increases bone density and helps make sure you can walk and move easily. It doesn't really matter if it's higher impact or high intensity."
Here are some other reasons you should add low-impact strength training to your workout routine.
1. It's Great for Strength-Training Newbies
Anyone can benefit from low-impact strength training, but it's especially good for people who are new to exercise or returning from a break because it can help reduce stress placed on their joints.
"It's a great way to avoid doing too much too fast, especially if someone has had an injury in the past," McClendon says, noting that beginners don't have to take this route — it's one of many exercise options.
And because low-impact strength training puts less pressure on the joints, it also means spending less time recovering, allowing those new to exercise to work out more frequently and stay consistent with a routine.
2. Low-Impact Strength Training Protects Against Muscle Loss
If you're heading into the Golden Years and want to improve balance and maintain muscle mass, a regular strength-training regimen — low impact or not — will help you get there.
In fact, strength training is associated with reduced depression, arthritic discomfort and increased functional independence in older adults, according to a July 2012 article published in Current Sports Medicine Reports.
Strength training can also help stave off muscle loss that comes with age, aka sarcopenia. After the age of 30, you can lose as much as 3 to 5 percent of muscle mass per decade, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
But low-impact strength training is particularly great for older adults because it focuses on preserving muscle mass, preventing weight gain from inactivity and keeping the bones strong while reducing the likelihood of injury and overtraining.
3. It Promotes Joint and Muscle Stability
If you're recovering from an injury or have arthritic pain, your physical therapist or doctor might recommend isometric exercises, which are lower impact, to help you strengthen your muscles without aggravating the joint, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Isometric exercises contract your muscles without actually changing the position of the joint that the muscle usually moves. The plank is a classic example of an isometric exercise that builds core strength and muscle endurance while promoting joint stabilization, McClendon says. Tightening your core, quads, glutes and lats in a plank will ultimately reduce pressure on your shoulder joints.
Another example is holding a pair of dumbbells in a static tabletop position with your palms facing the ceiling. You're activating your biceps muscles without actually moving the elbow joint.
4. Low-Impact Strength Training Aids in Active Recovery
"Everyone should incorporate low-impact movement throughout the week," Hake says. "Just like there are times when high-impact activity is good for us, our bodies also need time to recover."
Doing high-impact workouts, like running and HIIT, on consecutive days can take a toll on the muscles and joints, so it's important to allow proper recovery time in between these types of exercises. But incorporating gentle, low-intensity and low-impact strength-training workouts like Pilates, yoga, foam rolling and resistance bands can help you stay active on rest days without making exercise too strenuous.
5. It Can Help Prevent and Treat Joint Pain
It might seem counterintuitive, but working areas where there is pain due to weakness — like the knees — can actually improve those symptoms.
"Our joints are where two bones meet, and those bones are surrounded by muscle," McClendon explains. "Bones and muscles work together to keep us moving. If someone has weak joints, strengthening the muscle around the joint can reduce stress on the joint so it doesn't have to do all the work."
Hake points out that many people think that if they have "bad knees" they can't do squats or lunges. But, she says, there's more than likely something that can strengthen the areas surrounding the weak joints.
For example, a glute bridge will strengthen your butt just as well as a squat or deadlift, while taking it easy on your knees.
The Best Low-Impact Strength Training Workouts
Whether you're (safely) venturing to a gym or working out at home, there are myriad types of low-impact strength training workouts to boost your fitness.
Low-Impact Strength Training Workouts We Love
Not sure where to start? We've rounded up some of our favorite low-impact workouts that will help build strength without hurting your joints or tendons.
Hake calls the TRX a great piece of equipment for all levels of fitness. The TRX is a suspension system made of two bands with handles that are anchored in place from the ceiling, the top of a door or a tree. By positioning yourself a certain way with the bands, you use your body weight as the load to build strength.
You can do a variety of low-impact strength exercises, such as squats, lunges, biceps curls, rows and chest presses with TRX bands.
"It's a great way to incorporate total core training and stability while building strength and balance, without the impact," Hake says.
2. Resistance Bands
Perhaps one of the best things about workouts with resistance bands is that you can do them anywhere — bands are lightweight and they don't take up much space. Bands, McClendon says, are also great for warm-ups and mobility exercises that improve joint function and prepare the body for heavier resistance during a workout.
"Bands can also be helpful for someone who is dealing with an injury and can't handle heavier resistance like dumbbells or kettlebells," she says.
Unlike free weights, resistance bands don't load the joints with additional pressure, but they increase the time under tension, promoting muscle tissue breakdown, and therefore, growth, according to the American Council on Exercise. You also have more freedom to move in different directions with resistance bands than you do with weights, improving your range of motion and flexibility.
Dumbbells are extremely versatile, McClendon says. They can be used for bilateral and unilateral exercises, and can target every major muscle group. They can also be used to modify traditional strength exercises to make them more low-impact while promoting muscle growth and strength.
Although they are heavier and bulkier than resistance bands when it comes to at-home storage, a few dumbbells is all you need for full-body workouts with room to progress.
Yes, HIIT Can Still Be Low-Impact
When people think of HIIT workouts, their minds often go to videos of intense jumping and burpees, McClendon says. While those are high-intensity, they're also high-impact circuit workouts, she says. But HIIT refers to intensity not impact, which means yes, you can do a low-impact HIIT workout.
Ready to try low-impact strength training? The dumbbell workout below takes just 10 minutes.
- Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
- American Cancer Society: "5 Benefits of Strength Training"
- Current Sports Medicine Reports: "Resistance Training is Medicine: Effects of Strength Training on Health"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Preserve Your Muscle Mass"
- Mayo Clinic: "Are Isometric Exercises a Good Way to Build Strength?"
- American Council on Exercise: "7 Techniques for Promoting Muscle Growth"