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 good 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 for more therapy.
First, we’ll start with an arm exercise video from our occupational therapist Barbara:
Video: Arm Exercises from an Occupational Therapist
Watch Barbara, OTA, 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 an occupational 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
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
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
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 prop the cane on your leg 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.
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.
Some patients may find them easy, others may not. Start where you feel able yet challenged and work up from there.
These arm exercises should be accessible to most people, including those with post-stroke paralysis.
That’s because they involve stretching and passive movement, which helps you retrain your brain to improve arm movement.
4. Straight Push
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 hiking your shoulder (a common synergistic pattern).
Slowly guide your arms back until you are upright again. Repeat this arm exercise 10 times.
5. Circle Movement
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 big, slow circles for this arm and hand exercise.
6. Cane Leaning
Start by sitting in chair with your legs hip width apart 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.
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
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.
Again, try your best to avoid hiking your shoulder. Although your shoulder may want to help, you should isolate your arm as much as possible.
Repeat this punching movement 10 times.
8. Pushing Movement
For this arm exercise, 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
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, not building stronger muscles.
For this exercise, you won’t need any weights or dumbbells. 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 tricep. Both are equally important, so focus on them equally, too.
Also, notice how small the movement is. Start here and you will still make good progress. Then try to push your range of motion and make slightly bigger movements each time.
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
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 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
From a seated position, hold a water bottle with your affected hand. Then, 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
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 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.w
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 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.
Proper Arm Exercise Form: What to Do If Your Shoulder Keeps Hiking Up
If your shoulders keep hiking up when you do these stroke recovery exercises, that’s ok!
This is called synergistic movement 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 without your shoulder stepping in.
This happens as the brain slowly rewires itself through consistent practice of rehab exercises.
Try to do these arm rehab exercises daily for the best results. Good luck!
Featured image: ©iStock.com/Prostock-Studio