Looking to improve your strength or stamina when going on outdoor adventures? We’ve compiled resources to help you find in-home wheelchair exercises that work for you!
Of course, no workout or single exercise is perfect for everyone. Everybody starts from a unique place, pursues different goals, and has varying levels of ability. But, if you want to put your body in motion, there is always a way to do it safely and productively.
GRIT will always defer to the personalized instruction you receive from a qualified professional. If you cannot perform any of the below movements or exercises with 100% safety, either modify it or don’t do it! Stay safe, stay creative, and be patient with yourself.
What to consider when planning your wheelchair exercises
Whether you’re trying to build strength for getting around the neighborhood or for hiking a mountain trail, you can still train at home in advance. Here are some of the muscle groups and concepts that apply specifically to wheelchair users. A holistic exercise plan will target as many of these groups as possible, but remember: There is no one size fits all fitness plan—use these idea-starters to make a plan that works for you.
Core: If you are able to work out your core, you should! As you shift position in a wheelchair during a hike or any kind of all-terrain adventure, having a strong center will help power all of your other muscle groups.
Back: On a long hike, your upper back will be particularly important. Whether you’re using a standard wheelchair or a lever-driven, all-terrain wheelchair, a strong back will help you push through, over, and around any obstacles, inclines, and whatever else may await.
Chest and Shoulders: Propelling a manual wheelchair usually means a whole ‘lotta chest and shoulder work. Flexibility and strength in these two areas will set you up for success over any terrain.
Triceps: Located between your shoulders and elbows, your triceps can be as important to your wheeling as your chest and shoulders. If one side of your body is inherently stronger than the other and you can safely focus on improving range of motion and strength on that weak side, that’ll help spread the workload across your whole body.
Endurance: When we talk about endurance, we’re talking about people’s ability to exert themselves over a long period of time. Hikes are often many-hour adventures, so while you may be able to beat your able-bodied friends in a wheelchair sprint, you’ll also want to focus on heart health and lung capacity. Endurance training will help make sure you have enough “gas in the tank” to make it to the end of the trail and back.
Grip Strength: Your grip strength will be tested on a hike of any length. And, no matter who you are, what lifestyle you live, and what kind of activity suits you best, good grip strength will help make every day just a bit more manageable.
Rest Days: Rest days can be (and often should be) active days as well. However, you should design your plan for those days to give your body a chance to recover. Your recovery shouldn’t undo the work you put in every other day. Your body can heal while in motion. In this section, we’ll share a few ideas to make that happen.
Teamwork and Community: Outdoor adventuring, while sometimes done as a solitary act, can always be made better with some help from your friends. Sometimes, these friends are right there on the trail with you, but often, these friends are folks you’ll never even meet! There are communities that exist solely to help all people get outside and stay active. In this section, we’ll share some online communities you may find helpful.
If you are looking to improve core strength, here are a few options! The folks at Invacare recommend five different ab and core exercises–check out their list here.
From the list of workouts provided by Invacare, we’re big fans of the “Zombie Twist.” If you’re looking for an additional challenge, perform the motion while holding a single towel in both of your hands. As you do your “Zombie Twist,” create tension in the towel by pulling outward on it with both hands. Maintain consistent tension in the towel as you complete your twists, focusing the whole time on making controlled movements and engaging the muscles in your core.
Looking for more core-busting work? Check out the exercises in this video:
Not many people are lucky enough to have a rowing machine or a lat pull-down machine in their house. But, most folks do have a floor and a towel, and that’s all you’ll need to engage the ever-important muscles in your back!
Here are some exercises you can do from the floor, with only a towel for equipment:
Also try: Rows and punches. See the below video for a demonstration:
Chest and Shoulders
Seated shoulder rotations can be a fantastic way to improve range of motion and strength in your shoulders. See the below video for an example of the movement. If it feels too easy, consider holding a couple of canned goods, a light dumbbell, a book, or another object in one or both of your hands. If you can’t hold an object, get some wrist weights! These weights will either secure tightly to your wrists or incorporate finger-loops you can use to keep them stable while you do your workout.
Also try: Seated resistance-band bench presses! Sling a resistance band around the back of your wheelchair, holding either end of the band in one hand. Start with your hands at either side of your chest. Then, push both hands forward, creating even tension along the length of the resistance band. Extend your arms as far as you are able (but stop before you lock your elbows), and then, in a controlled motion, slowly return your hands and the band back to your chest. Repeat.
Triceps can help anyone with transferring in or out of a wheelchair, making adjustments while in the chair, or powering along a hilly trail.
Go to 3:25 in the below video for an example of tricep presses. Do either one-handed or two-handed presses, making sure to use slow and safe movements no matter what. No weights available? Grab that can of beans getting dusty in your cupboard. Still not heavy enough? Put those canned goods in a bag or backpack and tricep-press away!
The best way to build endurance in a wheelchair is, of course, to ride. But, finding an open space to workout can be tough. So, here are a couple of other options to get the blood flowing, the lungs working, and the heart prepared for your next outdoor adventure.
1) Wheelchair boxing! Check it out:
2) Wheelchair Zumba! Who says you can’t have a good time with your cardio?
3) Also try: Putting your wheelchair on rollers! This may take a bit of ingenuity, but if you put your rear wheels on rollers and then lock out your front caster(s), you’ll have a way to log as many miles as you want without ever leaving your home.
4) Finally, the burpee. Designed in the 1930s by someone named (and we’re not kidding here) Royal Huddleston Burpee, the burpee has taken the fitness world by storm. Trainers, athletes, and fitness organizations around the world (including obstacle course races) now incorporate this anaerobic exercise in their programming. But, a “strict burpee” requires some movements that aren’t quite wheelchair-user friendly. So let’s modify it!
Burpee modification #1: The National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD) published this burpee modification (click here), which incorporates transfers instead of squats and arm jacks instead of jumps.
Burpee modification #2: Also check out this burpee modification, called knee burpees.
Grip strength plays a role in virtually everything we do. By strengthening the hands, fingers, and forearms, you’ll be better able to power through long, arduous hikes (and days in general). Check out this page, from Independence Blue Cross, that features some great ways to improve your grip!
If we’re working out regularly, it is important to use “rest days” to give your mind and body a chance to recover. But, when possible, we should always recover in a way that keeps our bodies moving! Rest days are a perfect opportunity to focus on improving range of motion and flexibility—these will be less taxing on your muscles than other workouts, but will absolutely yield results.
Wheelchair yoga is the perfect rest-day solution. Here’s Adriene, of the extremely popular series, “Yoga with Adriene,” with a full session of wheelchair yoga:
Also check out Ben, from Adapt to Perform, with another wheelchair yoga routine:
Teamwork and Community
We don’t think you should have to reinvent the wheel…or the wheelchair workout. There are many resources available—most abundantly in the form of other active wheelchair users sharing your same goals. Below are a few resources you may want to check out. Join a conversation or start a new one with likeminded people from around the world.
Disabled Sports USA (DSUSA) – This organization has an awesome calendar of at-home virtual fitness classes available here. These offerings include yoga, conditioning, nutrition, strength training, and more—all held over video platforms like Facebook Live and Zoom, where you can work out “with” other folks from afar. Head over to their site and enjoy a class (or two, or four, or fifteen). But wait, there’s more! DSUSA also has their own database of at-home exercises you can do whenever you’d like. See the list here!
Handicapable Fitness – Curated by a friend of GRIT Freedom Chair, Handicapable Fitness (HCF) is a motivational page that often features workouts from adaptive athletes around the world. Need some workout motivation? Head over to HCF on Facebook (here) or Instagram (here) and you’ll find plenty.
Beyond the Pavement (BTP) – This Facebook group covers anything relating to outdoor, adaptive recreation. Whether you’re looking for workouts, trails to hike, equipment tips, or something else altogether, give BTP a look!
WheelWOD – If you haven’t checked out WheelWOD yet, buckle up—these folks are the real deal. This organization attracts some of the most physically fit adaptive athletes in the world; they also are a terrific resource for adaptive fitness at any level.
Adaptive Adventures – Based out of Colorado, this awesome group has put together a calendar of online fitness classes, including yoga, cycling, dragon boat racing, and more. Find and register for an event today!
Adapt to Perform – We shared some of Ben’s videos here, but he has put in a tremendous amount of work to create many more resources for wheelchair users. Check out his YouTube channel, here.
Be More Adaptive – This Facebook community exists to provide information about adaptive events and resources to the adaptive community.