To evaluate the 5-year course of physical work capacity of participants with early symptomatic osteoarthritis (OA) of the hip and/or the knee; to identify trajectories and explore the relationship between trajectories and covariates. Methods In a prospective cohort study, physical work capacity was measured at baseline, using a test protocol (functional capacity evaluation) consisting of work-related physical activities. Participants were invited to participate in 1, 2 and 5 year follow-up measurements. Multilevel analysis and latent classes analysis were performed, in models with test performances as dependent variables and age, sex, work status, self-reported function (Western Ontario McMasters Arthritis Scale-WOMAC), body mass index (BMI) and time as independent variables. Multiple imputation was used to control for the influence of missing data. Results At baseline and after 1, 2 and 5 years there were 96, 64, 61 and 35 participants. Mean (SD) age at baseline was 56 (4.9) years, 84% were females. There was no statistically significant change in test performances (lifting low and high, carrying, static overhead work, repetitive bending, repetitive rotations) between the 4 measurements. Male sex, younger age and better self-reported function were statistically significant (p < 0.05) determinants of higher performance on most of the tests; having a paid job, BMI and progression of time were not. Three trajectories were identified: 'weak giving way', 'stable and able', and 'strong with decline'. Discussion In subgroups of participants with early symptomatic OA, determined by age, sex and self-reported function, physical work capacity seems to be a stable characteristic over 5 years.