Quads and cardio: How much benefit am I really getting?

Category: Training Tips / Workouts

If you are a quadriplegic or have a higher sustained SCI, you may have noticed that getting your heart rate up during exercise is either difficult or feels almost impossible.  

So what’s the point of doing cardio you may ask, if you aren’t able to get the heart rate up high enough to reap the benefits?  

Before we get to answering the question at hand, I want to go over some points on cardiovascular exercise.

Without getting too technical: When we do a cardio workout (also known as aerobic exercise), our heart rate elevates to allow for proper amounts of blood flow and oxygen to travel to our body’s working muscles.

Usually to accomplish this we need to use bigger muscle groups for a sustained amount of time.

Let’s now look at heart rates, which are measured in beats per minute…

A healthy and able bodied 30-year-old woman going for a high- intensity run may have her heart rate go as high as 185-190 beats per minute.

If you have a high-level SCI, the beats per minute of your heart may not even exceed 130 during exercise.

 Why does this happen?

The culprit of this is from what we call the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS).

An easy way to understand this system is to imagine that you were to be chased by a Grizzly bear.

How is your body responding?

You may notice that automatically things start to happen: Your heart is pounding in your chest, you start to sweat, and you suddenly have enough energy to sprint as fast as an Olympic runner!

This is what we call ‘fight or flight’ response, and you can thank your SNS for that!

Now, if you are a quadriplegic or have a higher sustained SCI you may notice that some of these automatic signals from your body are missing.  This is because when a spinal injury occurs at or higher than level T-6, your SNS has been damaged.

This now leads us back to the question at hand:

If I am a quadriplegic, will I still be getting benefit from aerobic exercise when my heart rate cannot go as high?

The short answer is yes!

The effects of your cardio may just be benefiting you in different ways than you think.

One of these is called increased work capacity. This translates to:

  • Increased strength
  • Increased endurance
  • Increased performance

These benefits will be seen not at a cardiovascular effect, but more at a local muscle effect.

The takeaway is (and the great news is) that cardio benefits everyone, regardless of your level of injury.

The new international exercise guidelines for SCI state that in order to receive cardiovascular fitness benefits, we must be performing moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic exercise for 20 minutes twice a week (click here for guidelines).

 What does this translate to?

Find an activity you like that you can sustain for at least 20 minutes; This could be wheeling, the ski erg, a hand cycle, or maybe even playing a wheelchair sport.

My advice for you is to find something that is fun and gets you working the biggest muscles you have.

So get out there, maybe even grab a buddy or coach and get moving!

Your coach,
Megan Williamson

Want Even More Custom Workouts?

Join Ocean Insider Club, our monthly subscription training program, and gain access to a library of custom workouts and exercises, one-on-one calls with Megan, and more!

Become an Insider