Exercising On Wheels: How Those With Limited Mobility Can Find Their Strength

Our world is made with mobility in mind. Cities, sidewalks, and subways are all designed for those who can walk unassisted; to the able-bodied, traversing through life is a cakewalk.

Unfortunately, not every human being in the world is able-bodied. Whether through accidents, infections, or preexisting medical conditions, an estimated 65 million people across the globe require the use of a wheelchair; America alone sees around 2 million new wheelchair users every year. Despite having the odds stacked against them, there are a variety of strength-building exercises designed to help wheelchair-bound individuals lead a more active lifestyle. With the right techniques, dedication, and commitment, the world opens up for those with disabilities.

Reach For The Stars

Take 13-year-old Matthew Rodriguez. Despite being diagnosed with spina bifida at birth, the energetic and passionate teenager is just like any other kid his age: he’s eager to pursue his dream of playing basketball, hopefully through one of the schools in Chicago or Arizona that offer wheelchair basketball scholarships. By focusing on weight training with the help of his coach, Becca Gonzalez, Rodriguez is building his core and upper body strength with every visit.

“He likes to be challenged. He likes to show you his full potential,” she said. “He always has a smile, ready for the workout. He has a great attitude.”

Weight training is an excellent way to improve mobility for those who depend on wheelchairs: by developing muscles in the arms, shoulders, chest, and core, the act of pushing yourself around becomes much more manageable.

The Trouble With Terrain

Wheels rely on smooth surfaces to roll with any success. Even if you remove the fact that much of the world isn’t paved, you must consider that what is paved (most likely with concrete because it’s the most-used manmade material in the world) might not be in great condition. Even if you have the income required to purchase higher-end wheelchairs with efficient shock absorbers, you still need to have the muscle to propel yourself over broken concrete, split asphalt, and uneven surfaces. Let’s take a look at where to begin.

An Unstoppable Upper Body

The body has more than 650 muscles. Wheelchair users only use the ones from the waist up, making their strength and ability to endure long workouts all the more important. As with all workout regimens, it’s best to start out small and add more weight as you grow stronger. Consider the following beginner’s exercises.

  • Shoulder retractions: Sit up straight and contract the abdominal muscles to support your back muscles. Hold a light weight (even something you have around your house, like two small books, would work) in each of your hands and hold your arms out at a 90-degree angle at shoulder level. Push both arms straight out in front of you, extending as far as possible without locking the joints. Then, pull your arms back until your elbows are just slightly behind your torso, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Repeat as many times as you feel comfortable.
  • Chest press: Wrap a resistance band around your wheelchair. Sitting tall and with your abs tightened, grab each end of the resistance band and hold your arms at a 90-degree angle with your palms facing downwards. Extend your arms straight out in front of you, as far as you can go without locking your joints. Hold your position for two to five seconds, and then bring your arms back to the start and repeat.
  • Side bend stretch: Keeping your abs tightened and your hips facing squarely forward, sit up tall and extend your left arm toward the ceiling. Keep the inside position of your upper arm very close to your ear. Hold your left arm in that position, and then slowly bend your entire upper body to the right, making a “C” shape with your spine.

With enough practice (and maybe even a personal trainer), wheelchair users will find themselves going farther and faster than they’d ever imagined.

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