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Arm Exercises for Stroke Patients: Helpful Movements for All Ability Levels

stroke patient works on arm exercises at home

These 15 arm exercises for stroke patients can help improve strength and mobility in your affected arm and hand.

If you struggle with spasticity (stiff, tight muscles), rehab exercises like these can help improve range of motion.

We organized these stroke exercises into 5 difficulty levels. The first levels are designed for patients with limited arm mobility or hemiplegia (paralysis on the affected side).

Stroke patients with hemiparesis (weakness in the affected side) can use the first levels as a warm up; then progress to more difficult exercises as movement emerges.

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Video: Arm Exercises from an Occupational Therapist

First, we’ll start with an arm exercise video from Barbara, who works in occupational therapy. Watch Barbara, COTA, guide you through some easy upper limb exercises for post stroke recovery:

These are some of the best exercises for the arm and hands after stroke.

If you prefer written words over video, then keep reading! The following arm exercises for stroke patients are arranged from easiest to hardest.

Each exercise includes a picture of a therapist performing the exercise to help guide you.

Level 1: Passive Arm Exercises for Stroke Patients with Paralysis

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.

Although you aren’t “doing it yourself,” passive movement helps activate neuroplasticity, the process that your brain uses to rewire itself.

Many patients can slowly regain use of the affected arm after stroke by practicing passive exercises on a consistent basis.

Below are some great passive exercises for the arm and upper extremities after stroke.

1. Inner Arm Stretch

occupational therapist showing arm stretch for stroke patients

This arm exercise involves a gentle stretch. Start by lacing your fingers together. Then place your affected arm palm-side up, and gently stretch. Hold for 20 seconds, and never stretch to the point of pain.

2. Wrist Stretch

occupational therapist showing gentle arm exercise

Let’s move down to the wrist to keep stretching the upper extremities. While keeping your fingers laced together, gently bend your affected wrist backward. Hold for 20 seconds and release. Again, never stretch to the point of pain.

3. Cane Reach

therapist with cane propping up right arm

Now let’s get the shoulder involved. For this final upper extremity stretch, hold both ends of a cane. Then gently lift your affected arm up. You can rest the cane on your leg for stability if it’s difficult to hold.

Hold this arm stretch for a few seconds before gently releasing. Be mindful of only stretching to a point of stimulation but not pain. If you would like an additional stretch, turn your head and rotate your trunk to that side.

Level 2: Easy Arm Exercises for Stroke Patients

These arm exercises for stroke patients are great for anyone with limited mobility in the upper extremities.

Exercises should always be challenging, but not frustrating. Start where you feel comfortable for continued success.

These arm exercises should be accessible to most people, including those with post-stroke paralysis.

The exercises involve stretching and passive movement, which helps you retrain your brain to activate additional arm movement.

Bonus: Download our free Stroke Rehab Exercises ebook. (Link will open a pop-up that will not interrupt your reading.)

4. Straight Push

therapist with hands clasped
therapist pushing water bottle across table with arms

For this arm exercise, start seated at a table with a water bottle in front of you. Interlace your fingers and rest your forearms on the table.

Then, push the bottle across the table by gliding your arms across the table. Try your best to avoid elevating your shoulder (a common synergistic pattern). If a muscle group is unable to perform the movement, a larger muscle group will substitute to complete the task.

Slowly guide your arms back, bending your elbows until you are upright again. Repeat this arm exercise 10 times.

5. Circle Movement

therapist with hands wrapped around water bottle
occupational therapist demonstrating arm exercises for stroke patients

For this upper extremity exercise, lace your fingers together and wrap both hands around the water bottle.

Then, make large circular movements with your arms. As you move around in this big circle, focus on stretching your affected arm.

Perform 10 large, slow circles for this arm and hand exercise. When you move in one direction, always reverse the direction. One way build strength, the opposite way reduces tension.

6. Cane Leaning

woman with hands on cane
woman with hands on a cane stretching

Start by sitting in chair with your legs hip width apart (for safety) for this arm exercise.

Then, place your affected hand on a cane, and place your other hand on top for stability. Gently lean to the side and feel the stretch. This provides weight bearing into the affected side of your body.

Hold for 20 seconds and return to an upright position. Safely repeat 5 times.

Level 3: Moderate Arm Exercises for Stroke Patients

Now we’re getting to more difficult arm exercises for stroke patients. While many people can do these exercises, those with severe spasticity or paralysis may not.

Try not to get frustrated. Instead, stay where you feel challenged yet able. Focus on high repetition to activate neuroplasticity, and progress when you’re ready.

The following exercises are more active instead of passive.

7. Punching Movement

therapist smiling showing arm exercises after stroke
therapist punching water bottle for occupational therapy

Place your forearm on a table with your hand in a fist. Then, slide your arm forward to ‘punch’ a water bottle. Then, pull your arm back towards you, bending the elbow, but still keeping your forearm on the table.

Again, try your best to avoid elevating your shoulder. It is better to perform the movement in a slower range of motion than substitute the wrong muscles.

Repeat this punching movement 10 times.

8. Pushing Movement

woman pushing bottle for upper extremity work
woman pushing back bottle for upper extremity exercise

For this arm exercise, place a water bottle on one side of the table within your range of motion. Then, hook your wrist on the outside of the bottle.

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, that’s also beneficial. 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

woman with elbow on table
woman flexing bicep with shoulder down

You may notice that rehabilitation exercises are different from the exercises you see trainers doing in the gym. That’s because we’re focused primarily on retraining your brain, and engaging your muscles in movement.

For this exercise, start with your elbow on a table with your arm bent at 90 degrees. Then, curl your arm up a little, and then release it back down a little.

The upward motion activates your bicep, and the downward motion activates your triceps. Both are equally important for control of movement.

Also, notice how small the movement is. Start here and progress will be more successful. Next, try to increase your range of motion and make slightly larger movements each time.

Bonus: Download our free Stroke Rehab Exercises ebook. (Link will open a pop-up that will not interrupt your reading.)

Level 4: Difficult Arm Exercises for Stroke Patients

These upper extremity exercises are the most difficult. If you can’t do them yet, don’t be discouraged. You can work your way up to them.

10. Weighted Bicep Curl

therapist doing bicep curls with water bottle
occupational therapist with water bottle showing arm exercises for stroke patients

For this strengthening arm exercise, hold a water bottle in your affected hand and leave 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 triceps when you bring your arm down, and your bicep when you bring it up; and they both need equal amounts of movement for balanced control.

Complete 10 bicep curls.

11. Open Arm Movement

physical therapist holding exercise equipment
physical therapist moving exercise equipment with arms

From a seated position, hold a water bottle with your affected hand. With your arms bent at 90 degrees, open your arms up so that your forearms come out to your sides.

Keep your elbows pinned to your sides as best you can. Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together.

Then, move your arms back to center and repeat this arm rehab exercise 10 times.

12. Side Arm Raise

therapist showing shoulder exercise
therapist lifting up dumbbell

This is the most difficult upper extremity exercise that targets the hand, arm, and shoulder. Be extra mindful about doing the movement correctly.

While sitting on the edge of your chair, bed or couch, hold a water bottle in your affected hand and place your arm out to your side.

Lift the water bottle up while keeping your arm straight. It is essential that the movement is throughout your arm rather than elevating your shoulder.

With slow and controlled movement, lower your arm back down. Complete this movement a total of 5 times.

Level 5: Strength Training Arm Exercises for Stroke Patients

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 start with your arms at your side. Then, while keeping your elbows close to your sides, bend your arms to bring the dumbbells towards your shoulders.

Return to the starting position, making sure that your elbows stay close to your side. Do 10 reps on each arm.

14. Overhead Press

woman doing shoulder press in gym

©iStock.com/gpointstudio

With your weights in hand, position 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.

Push the weights up over your head, bringing your arms into extension over your shoulders. Try your best to prevent elevating your shoulders. Do 10 reps on each arm.

15. Shoulder Abduction

Sit comfortably with your arms relaxed at your sides, dumbbells in hand. 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.

Remember to rest when the muscles fatigue to prevent muscle soreness. Good luck!

Bonus! Get a Free Rehab Exercise Ebook (14 page PDF)

Get our free ebook filled with 14 pages of rehab exercises featuring photos of licensed therapists. Sign up below to get your copy!

When you sign up, you’ll also receive our popular Monday newsletter that contains 5 articles on stroke recovery.

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Get Inspired with This Stroke Survivor Story

Mom gets better every day!

When my 84-year-old Mom had a stoke on May 2, the right side of her body was rendered useless. In the past six months, she has been blessed with a supportive medical team, therapy team, and family team that has worked together to gain remarkable results.

While she still struggles with her right side, she can walk (with assistance) and is beginning to get her right arm and hand more functional. We invested in the FitMi + MusicGlove + Tablet bundle for her at the beginning of August.

She lights up when we bring it out and enjoys using it for about 20 to 30 minutes at a time. While she still doesn’t have enough strength to perform some of the exercises, she rocks the ones she can do!

Thanks for creating such powerful tools to help those of us caring for stroke patients. What you do really matters!

David M. Holt’s review of FitMi home therapy, 11/09/2020

5 stars

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