These 15 arm exercises for stroke patients will help improve your strength and mobility in your affected arm and hand.
We organized these stroke exercises into 5 difficulty levels. Use these links to jump around:
- Level 1: Arm exercises for hemiplegia (arm paralysis)
- Level 2: Arm exercises for severe spasticity
- Level 3-5: Arm exercises for hemiparesis (arm weakness)
First, we’ll start with an arm exercise video from our physical therapist Barbara:
Video: Arm Exercises for Stroke Patients from a Therapist
Watch Barbara, OTA, guide you through some easy stroke exercises for arms:
Level 1: Passive Arm Exercises for Stroke Patients
To recover from arm paralysis after stroke, you need to stimulate your brain with passive exercise.
Passive exercise means assisting your affected side through a movement, which helps you recover from paralysis.
Although you aren’t “doing it yourself,” passive movement helps wake up your arm and activate neuroplasticity, the process that your brain uses to rewire itself.
As your brain forms new neural connections, you can slowly regain use of your affected arm.
Below are 3 great passive stroke exercises for arms and upper extremities.
1. Inner Arm Stretch
Lace your fingers together and stretch your affected arm, palm-side up. Hold for 20 seconds and release.
2. Wrist Stretch
While keeping your fingers laced together, gently bend your affected wrist backward. Hold for 20 seconds and release.
3. Cane Reach
Level 2: Easy Arm Exercises for Stroke Patients
You will need: A cane, chair, tabletop, and a full water bottle.
These stroke exercises for arms are great for patients with limited mobility in their affected upper extremities.
They involve lots of good stretching and passive movement, which helps you retrain your brain and regain arm movement.
Let’s get started!
4. Straight Push
Place the water bottle on the table away from you at arm’s length.
Then, interlace your fingers and rest your hand and forearm on the table. Then, stretch and reach your arm across the table to tap the water bottle. If you can, try pushing the water bottle a little farther away from you.
Then, pull your arms back down in front of you and rest your shoulders down. Put just as much attention and focus into pulling your arms back in as you do pushing them out.
Complete 10 pushes.
5. Circle Movement
Place a water bottle on top of a table. Then, lace your fingers together and wrap both hands around a water bottle.
Then, make large circular movements with your arms. As you move around in this big circle, focus on really stretching your affected arm.
Perform 10 big, slow circles.
6. Cane Leaning
Sit in chair with your legs hip width apart. Then, with a cane on your affected side, place your affected hand on the hands, and then place your unaffected hand on top.
Then, stretch and lean into your affected side. Be sure to keep your feet planted on the ground and use your non-affected side to help keep you steady.
Level 3: Moderate Arm Exercises for Stroke Patients
You will need: A tabletop and a full bottle of water.
For the level 2 exercises, you will start to isolate your affected side.
Instead of using your non-affected arm to assist your affected arm, you will start to do these movements ‘actively.’
7. Punching Movement
Place the water bottle on the table in front of you, and then place your forearm on the table with your hand in a fist.
Then, slide your arm forward to ‘punch’ the water bottle. Then, pull your arm back towards you.
While you do this movement, be extra mindful not to raise your shoulder. Although your shoulder will want to help, we are working on retraining your arm, so try to isolate your arm as much as possible.
Repeat this punching movement 10 times.
8. Pushing Movement
Place a water bottle on the left side of the table within your range of motion. Then, hook your wrist on the outside of the bottle.
Then, use your arm to push the bottle across the table. If you can do this without moving your body, great! If you need to move your body to accomplish this task, then that’s okay. You’re still retraining your brain and working on regaining arm movement.
When you’re done, hook your wrist on the other side of the bottle and push it back across the table.
Repeat this back and forth pushing a total of 5 times.
9. Unweighted Bicep Curls
If you can perform a full bicep curl, then move onto the level 3 exercises.
If you have trouble curling your arm and releasing it back down, then this is a great exercise for you.
Start with your elbow on a table with your arm bent at 90 degrees. Then, curl your arm up just a little, and then release it back down just a little.
Notice how small the movement is. Start here and you will still make good progress.
Try to push your range of motion and make slightly bigger movements each time.
It’s important to remember that bringing your arm down is just as important as bringing your arm up.
The upward motion activates your bicep, and the downward motion activates your tricep. Both are equally important, so focus on them equally, too.
If you have trouble curling your arm up, then tap on your bicep to activate the muscle.
Repeat slowly for a total of 5 times.
Level 4: Difficult Arm Exercises for Stroke Patients
You will need: A water bottle and a nice comfy seat
These exercises are the most difficult, so if you can’t do them don’t be discouraged. You can work your way up to them!
10. Weighted Bicep Curl
Hold a water bottle in your affected hand and hang your arm down by your side.
Then, while keeping your elbow glued to your side, bring the bottle up to your shoulder. Then bring it back down just as slowly.
You are working your tricep when you bring your arm down, and your bicep when you bring it up; and they both need equal amounts of attention.
Complete 10 bicep curls.
11. Open Arm Movement
Sit comfortable and hold a water bottle with your affected hand. If it’s too heavy, try the exercise with no weight and work up from there.
For the exercise, keep your elbows glued to your sides at all times.
With your arms bent at 90 degrees, open your arms up so that your forearms come out to your sides.
Really focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together when your arms are opened up the widest.
Then, move your arms back to center.
Repeat this movement 10 times.
12. Side Arm Raise
This is the most difficult exercise of them all, so be extra mindful about doing the movement correctly.
While sitting on the edge of your bed or couch, hold a water bottle in your affected hand and place your arm out to your side.
Then, lift the water bottle up while keeping your arm straight. Make sure that the entire movement is happening in your arm. Try not to let your shoulder hike up.
If this is too difficult, try doing it without the water bottle and see if that improves your range of motion.
Complete this movement a total of 5 times and take a well-deserved break.
Level 5: Strength Training Arm Exercises for Stroke Patients
You will need: A pair of dumbbells
If you have sufficient mobility in your arms, then strength training is a great way to reverse any muscle atrophy that may have occurred during recovery.
These advanced stroke exercises for arms require the use of dumbbells.
13. Sitting Elbow Flexion
Grab your dumbbells and sit in a comfortable seated position with your arms at your side. Then, while keeping your elbows glued to your sides, bent your arms to bring the dumbbells into your chest. Then, extend them away, making sure that your elbows stay glued to your side. Do 10 reps on each arm.
14. Overhead Press
With your weights in hand, goalpost your arms out so that your elbows are bent at 90 degrees. Your upper arms should be parallel to the floor and palms facing forward.
Then, push the weights up over your head, bringing your arms almost into full extension over your shoulders. Try your best to prevent your shoulders from hiking. Do 10 reps on each arm.
15. Shoulder Abduction
Sit comfortably with your arms relaxed at your sides, dumbbells in hand. Then, lift your arms out to a “T.” Try to keep your arms as straight as you can. Then, slowly lower your arms back down. Do 10 reps on each arm.
This is similar to the Side Arm Raise, but it’s more difficult without the extra support from the bed or couch.
Troubleshooting: What to Do If Your Shoulders Keep Hiking Up
If your shoulders keep hiking up when you do these exercises, that’s ok!
This is called synergistic movement, a condition after stroke where all your affected muscles become “linked,” making it difficult to move just one limb, like your arm.
As long as you try your best to keep your shoulders down each time you exercise, you will slowly regain the ability to move your arm – and only your arm.
This happens as the brain slowly rewires itself through the repetitive practice, which is why we encourage you to do each of these exercises at least 10 times.
Simply put: The more you practice, the better you will get!
We hope you find these arm exercises for stroke patients useful.