Wheelchair Exercises and Mobility Workout Equipment

at home workout from home gym

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 wheelchair exercises and wheelchair workout plans for both the elderly and people with disabilities. Are you looking to increase your fitness level from the safety and comfort of your own home gym? Here’s what you need to know to get started.

Man in a wheelchair adjusts his weight on a piece of workout equipment

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, adopting a new exercise program 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.

Benefits of Exercising while in a wheelchair

  • Increased endurance
  • Alleviation of muscle and joint pains muscle/joint pains
  • Improved balance
  • Prevention of injury
  • Build muscle and bone mass
  • Enhanced range of motion

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 wheelchair workout. Taking your seated 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.   

Personal Fitness With a Physical Therapist

Were you visiting a physical therapist to work through a physical disability or injury when the coronavirus emerged? Suddenly, everyone is asked to stay home for non-essential activities. However, as you know, the healthcare provided by physical therapists are essential to your daily function and comfort and most are staying open during this uncertain time.

Be sure to contact your physical therapist to see if a family member is able to step in for your therapy exercises or if you are needed in-person at the clinic. Some places are scheduling particularly at-risk patients at lower traffic office hours when possible and limiting the amount of staff in their clinics. Your appointment schedules may change and you'll need to know what precautions to take when visiting.

Trainers will work with you to find exercises that optimize the amount of effort that you exert into each workout or stretch 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 and strong enough to take over on your own.

 

Elderly woman in a wheelchair holds free weights at her side with the help of a female trainer

Best Equipment for Wheelchair Workouts and Chair Exercises 

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 number 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, and delivered right to your home. 

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 and provide an excellent chest workout or arm workout at home.

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 and are often considered a must in many home gyms. 

5. Free Weights

Free weights are excellent tools for upper body exercises 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 in your home gym.

 

How to Set Up a Home Gym

Many people with disabilities choose not to visit public gyms because many, especially small gyms, may not have enough pieces of exercise equipment that can be adapted to use from a wheelchair or the entrance may not be wheelchair accessible. For this reason, many wheelchair users install a home gym. If you plan to work out from home, we can help you get started building a home gym, even without traditional exercise equipment.

If you are ready to order home workout equipment, the five different items listed above are a great place to start setting up a home gym. But if you would rather work with things you have around your house, many items can act as weights to complete a full-body workout at home. 

  • For a great back workout at home, fill a suitcase with books. Most suitcases have one or more handles to make lifting easier from the front or side. Increase the number of books to make for a more challenging back workout. 
  • To work out your arms at home, practice stationery holds with cooking pots and pans. For an extra challenge, go for the heavy-duty cast-iron! 
  • Look through your sock drawer or ask a partner for an old pair of tights or pantyhose. These items can make an impromptu resistance band and can be used to strengthen legs, arms, and chest when working out from your home. 

These simple, but effective, tools will help you get a full-body workout at home and set yourself up to establishing your own home gym with traditional exercise equipment later on. 

Best Chair Exercises for People with Disabilities

1. Chest Squeeze

This is an easy and effective chest workout at home. 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 a 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 Exercises 

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 and it is a key move for arm workouts at home. 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

Many core exercises require you to get on the floor to complete. But the side bend stretch is an effective ab workout at home that you can do while seated. 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. Be careful not to overextend yourself in this position. When you feel your abs engage, stop, and come back to the center.

5. Seated Crunches

Many people will search “exercises for a 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.

 

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

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