Find the Right Resistance

Use this resource as a guide to determine your 'just right' when it comes to adding resistance to movement.

How Much Resistance Is Best for You?

Exercising with resistance is one of the most important ways to help reduce pain, build resilience, and increase strength. Adding resistance will help prepare your body for tolerating greater loads during both daily and recreational activities.

The right resistance: When it comes to adding resistance, your ‘just right’ is the point between doing too little and overdoing it. It’s important to find the right type and level of intensity with exercise that challenges your body and pain system and strengthens your muscles over time.

Too heavy resistance: If pain upticks or flare-ups occur when you add or increase resistance to movement, it does not mean that the load or movement is inherently bad for you. Sometimes you can continue with the added challenge and adapt to it. Other times it may be best to scale it back to find your movement sweet spot.

Too light resistance: When you consistently remain unchallenged with intensity of a movement or exercise, your body and pain system are not challenged enough to adapt. That’s why it’s important to gradually move more or with more resistance or load.

Ways to Add Resistance

  • Use a resistance band

  • For upper body: Hold one end or both ends of a resistance band as you move your arm(s). Secure the band either by standing on it, or by tying it to a sturdy anchor. Make sure it is secure before starting to exercise.

  • For lower body: Tie or place a resistance band around your knees (easier) or around your ankles (harder) as you move your leg(s).

  • Use free weights

  • Use anything handy that has some weight to it (a can, a bottle, or a bag)

Guidelines When Adding Resistance

  • Start with a resistance that is challenging, but allows you to complete repetitions with good quality and your full range of motion. It’s ideal to add intensity without sacrificing form.

  • The right resistance for one exercise might not be the same for another exercise. Try different bands or weights and choose the appropriate resistance for that movement.

  • If you want to slightly adjust the resistance of the band you’re using, you can adjust how much slack is in the band by holding the band closer (more challenging) or with more slack (less challenging). You can also stand further away from (more challenging) or closer to (less challenging) where the band is anchored.

  • Don’t be discouraged if you cannot complete all reps with a certain amount of resistance! Even if you add resistance for just one set or some of your repetitions, you are challenging yourself.

Pain and Adding Resistance

  • Some pain is part of the process. Continuing to move despite ongoing, tolerable pain can nudge and retrain our pain system, so we experience less pain over time. But, don’t push through intolerable levels of pain as it is unlikely to be helpful.

  • Setbacks are common. Recovery is rarely a simple straight path, but your effort is not wasted. Ups and downs are common. Avoidance of lifting or pain can be a contributing factor to ongoing pain, so it is important to keep trying, even when setbacks occur.

  • Stay consistent! Consistency is the key to change. It can be alluring to look for quick fixes. But with persistent pain consistency wins every time.

  • Gradually do more. It can take dedication to get your body and pain system to adapt. Continuing to challenge it is important to reduce pain and prepare your body for new challenges.

Remember the Buffer Zone

In the diagram below, your pain trigger line is when you first feel pain and the actual injury line is when damage would occur. A protective buffer separates the two providing a safety cushion between hurt and harm where pain acts as a warning signal.

That warning signal can get to be overprotective with persistent pain, and pain can often accompany new stresses. This might occur even with movement that is familiar to you, but maybe you recently increased the amount of resistance you’re using. Nudging into a bit of pain is almost always safe, and over time your body will adapt to the new level of resistance. The pain buffer zone makes re-injury less likely even if pain and flare ups occur along the way.