Wheelchair Exercises and Mobility Workout Equipment

A young man twists in his wheelchair while holding a medicine ball outside

For the more than 250,000 Americans with a spinal cord injury, working out as a wheelchair user can be challenging for a multitude of reasons, and it isn’t always easy to know how to start. Fortunately, many personal trainers have developed chair exercises and wheelchair workout plans for both the elderly and people with disabilities. Are you looking to increase your fitness level for a New Year’s resolution? Here’s what you need to know to get started.

The Benefits of Regular Exercise – Even for Users of Wheelchairs

In a report in Pediatrics, the inclusion of children with disabilities in recreational activities and physical activity was discussed, saying, “…children with disabilities have lower levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, lower levels of muscular endurance, and higher rates of obesity than typical children. In addition to the physiologic benefits of decreased body fat and increased fitness overall, regular physical activity for children with disabilities has been shown to help in controlling or slowing the progression of the chronic disease, improving overall health and function, and mediating the psychosocial impact of the condition on children and their families.” 

This isn’t just isolated to children with disabilities; it applies to anyone with a physical disability that makes personal fitness challenging.

For many people, a New Year’s resolution around exercise has more to do with losing weight than it does about improving mental clarity, slowing the progress of a chronic disease, or alleviating muscle and joint pains. But exercising regularly has been shown to increase cardiorespiratory health, mental health, and metabolism while decreasing insulin resistance. In fact, there is nothing shown to increase overall quality of health quite like regular exercise.

Training Videos Are Key to Learn Wheelchair Exercises

A simple search on YouTube for “wheelchair workout trainer” will yield tons of results, some featuring people in wheelchairs and some not, and at a variety of difficulty levels. Like any workout training program, it’s important that you understand and respect your body’s comfort level. Don’t attempt to outlift, over-extend, or over-commit to your mobility workout. Taking your wheelchair workout slowly, but diligently, is the best way to avoid injury and build strength.

Many of these instructional videos will give variations to either increase or decrease the intensity of a particular move. If you are elderly, but still have limited use of your legs, you may be instructed to flex certain muscles in your legs while you lift with your arms. Other athletes could be interested in core exercises for people in wheelchairs, but a spinal cord injury or other condition could limit their range of motion. Choose the level you are most comfortable with.   

Man in a wheelchair adjusts his weight on a piece of workout equipment
Elderly woman in a wheelchair holds free weights at her side with the help of a female trainer

How Do You Plan to Work Out?

One of the best things you could do for yourself as a novice to mobility workouts is to hire a personal trainer that has experience working with people with physical disabilities. Trainers will work with you to find exercises that optimize the amount of effort that you exert into each workout as well as readjust if something isn’t working well for you. Helping you learn what is both safe and challenging enough for you is great early on until you feel comfortable enough to take over on your own.

Are you interested in taking classes? The benefits of taking a workout class as a wheelchair user are that you may inspire your local gym to create more classes or train their instructors to cater to people with disabilities. Additionally, the support you get from the instructor and your classmates will likely help you persevere when the going gets tough.

Maybe you prefer to work out alone. That’s okay too! Often we are the best judge of our own abilities, and monitoring your pain and exertion levels is important when trying new movements.

Whatever you decide to do, there are many online resources that list the best workout equipment and workouts for wheelchair users.

Best Equipment for Wheelchair Workouts

Not all workout equipment is suitable for people in wheelchairs. We break down the most common and safest equipment to get the most out of your workout.

1. Gripping Gloves and Push Gloves

Gripping gloves almost look like slim boxing gloves and hold your hand in a firm grip to let you hold onto objects from free weights to adaptive bike handles. This gripping aid is marketed as ideal for tetraplegic/quadriplegics, stroke recovery or those with cerebral palsy. Users say the gloves increase the amount of workouts they can feasibly do because they aren’t worried about losing their grip on the bar or handle. 

Push gloves are hand protection used while pushing the wheels on a wheelchair. These would be used for wheelchair cardio workouts and allow you to work on your speed without risking blisters or cuts to the palms of your hands.

2. Cuff Weights

Cuff weights came into vogue in the 80s and while today they aren’t as common, many people with disabilities find strapping weights to their wrists to be much more manageable than trying to hold a weight in their hands. Often used in physical therapy, cuff weights can be ordered for under $10, depending on the level of weight you want. 

3. Therabands or Resistance Bands

Therabands and resistance bands work in similar ways, utilizing the resistance provided by stretching the band in various motions to tone and build muscle. Therabands are typically closed-loop bands – like a big rubber band – versus a resistance band, which usually resembles a jump rope cable. These tools can also be great for easy or advanced stretching.

4. Medicine Balls

Medicine balls resemble basketballs of various sizes and come in a range of weights. They are ideal for working on core strength, balance, and coordination.

5. Free Weights

Free weights are excellent tools for upper body and core work. Unlike medicine balls, free weights have even more versatility in movements and come in low weight increments and increase by 5-pound increments as weight increases. Use these to strengthen arms, shoulders, and upper core areas.

Best Workouts for People with Disabilities

1. Chest Squeeze

Sit up straight, contracting your ab muscles to support your back. Push your palms together with continuous pressure and extend out away from your chest until your arms are nearly straight. Slowly pull your hands back in towards your chest, squeeze your shoulder blades together, and repeat. Ready for a challenge? Hold a rubber ball or a medicine ball for a harder workout.

2. Chest Press

Wrap a resistance band around your wheelchair or a chair you are sitting into workout just below the level of your shoulder blades. Hold the resistance band so there is no slack when your arms are at a 90-degree angle. Extend the band out and hold for three seconds before retracting your arms again. Remember, keep your core engaged to support the muscles in your lower back to avoid injury.

3. Captain’s Chair

This one will feel familiar to a lot of you! The Captain’s Chair exercise nearly mimics the movement one would use to adjust yourself in a wheelchair. Sit up straight and grab the sides or the front of your seat and push your upper body up – and potentially – off the chair. If you have lower core control, lift your legs up toward your chest as you rise for an extra challenge.

4. Side Bend Stretch

Start at your baseline: always sitting up tall and supporting your back with a strong core. Keeping your core engaged, extend your right arm toward the ceiling, keeping your arm close to your right ear. Slowly and carefully, bend your upper body into the movement, reaching over the top of your head and making a “c” shape with your spine. Repeat the movement on the other side.

5. Seated Crunches

Many people will search “exercises for wheelchair bound person,” without realizing working out from a seated position can be very beneficial toward working out your core muscles. To perform a seated crunch, sit up straight with your arms crossed at your chest. Pull your belly button in like you are trying to make it touch your spine. Press your lower back into your chair as you curl your upper body toward your thighs. Straighten to come back to a neutral position. Want more of a challenge? Loop a resistance band around a door to increase intensity.

 

The new year is a great time to adopt a new exercise program. Whether you choose to work with a trainer who has experience working out with people with disabilities, or if you want to fly solo and try our top 5 wheelchair workout exercises, there is no wrong way to take measures at improving your physical and mental health. 

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