Strength Training for Diabetes Patients

The benefits of cardiovascular exercise on lowering blood glucose (sugar) levels in people with diabetes are well documented. But increasingly, evidence demonstrates that adding strength training offers similar benefits—especially when paired with cardio.

It’s not surprising, considering that strength or resistance training strengthens skeletal muscles (the biceps, for example) which are are under voluntary control and help us move. Skeletal muscles, along with the liver and pancreas, help regulate blood sugar by consuming glucose and using it to create energy.

What the Research Says

Len Kravitz, PhD, of the University of New Mexico’s Exercise Science program in Albuquerque, has reviewed studies that examined strength training in people with diabetes. In seven of nine studies, the practice lowered results of patients’ HbA1c tests, which show average blood sugar levels over the previous three months. Results were small but significant: Researchers found that just a 1 percent decrease in HbA1c test results was associated with a 37 percent lower risk of microvascular complications (damage to small blood vessels as a result of diabetes) and a 21 percent reduction in risk of diabetes-related death. And another review of 20 studies concluded the available evidence suggests that strength training could help improve blood sugar control.

According to Kravitz, the benefits of strength training for diabetes management are numerous and include:

  • Improved blood cholesterol, insulin sensitivity, and blood sugar control
  • Increased heart function
  • Better bone and muscle strength
  • Increased power and endurance
  • Lowered blood pressure

Starting a Strength Training Program

Combining strength training and cardio exercises is most beneficial in patients who are physically able. The American College of Sports Medicine advocates resistance training of the major muscle groups at least two days per week, with a minimum of 8 to 10 exercises and 10 to 15 repetitions of each exercise.

Kravitz suggests starting with 1 to 2 sets of each exercise. To build strength, focus on fewer repetitions with higher weights, and higher repetitions with lower weights for building endurance. Allow 30 to 60 seconds rest between sets.

Talk to your physician before beginning a strength training routine and, if possible, seek help from a qualified fitness expert who can teach you proper technique so you’ll avoid injury and get the most out of your workout. Be sure to warm up and cool down, and discuss how to plan your meals and snacks around exercise with your physician or diabetes educator.

Amber Taylor, MD, reviewed this article.


Jeffrey Janot, MS, and Len Kravitz, PhD. "Training Clients With Diabetes." University of New Mexico, accessed February 11, 2014. 

Len Kravitz, PhD. "Resistance Training for Clients with Diabetes." University of New Mexico, accessed February 11, 2014. 

Neil D. Eves, PhD and Ronald C. Plotnikoff, PhD. "Resistance Training and Type 2 Diabetes: Considerations for Implementation at the Population Level." Diabetes Care 29(8) (2006): 1933-1941, doi: 10.2337/dc05-1981. 

Marlene Busko. "Aerobic Exercise Plus Resistance Training Best for Diabetes." Medscape Medical News. May 23, 2013. Accessed February 11, 2014. 

Miriam E. Tucker. "Resistance Training Benefits Type 2 Diabetics." Medscape Medical News. March 13, 2013. Accessed February 11, 2014.