Wheelchairs and Workouts: the Do’s and Don’ts for Safe and Effective Exercise

Category: Trainer Tips / Training Tips / Workouts

People living with disabilities face many barriers when it comes to exercise. One of the largest of these barriers is the knowledge and education of the individual. It’s very easy to open our phones and download a fitness app that can give us our pick of thousands of workout routines, guiding us on aspects like exercise selection, rep schemes etc., but better yet, it may even be a video that you can just play and follow along to.

But what if you use a wheelchair?

The issue here is that these apps don’t discuss adaptations that may need to come into play for a safe or effective alternative for you. Let’s say you use a walker or a wheelchair or deal with things like spasticity, in this case, you may need to adapt a movement or exercise.  Unfortunately, these apps are primarily geared at people who would be considered ‘able-bodied’, and won’t have any advice or alternative exercise selection that will serve you.  

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of these apps are great in the sense that many of them offer a decent amount of education on form correction, periodization ideas and motivation tips. But because these apps are not inclusive, many people living with disabilities may not think to turn to them to educate themselves on specific form or exercises.

I don’t blame them.

This is why we created Ocean Insider Club an adaptive online exercise platform where you can have access to dozens of tailored adaptive workouts and exercises complete with trainer tip videos and clear instructions.

Do’s and Don’ts for Safe and Effective Exercise

How can you gain confidence in the gym and increase the effectiveness of your workouts? The following tips I would recommend looking at and educating yourself about. This way you can gain some education and knowledge just by reading this article. No sign-ups or extended research are required.

Okay, let’s dig in.

Do NOT pull the bar to the back of your neck on a Lat pulldown

Lat pulldowns are an imperative exercise in anyone’s program. The only reason I wouldn’t recommend this exercise to someone is if their arm overhead range of motion is suffering (but even here we can adapt because the benefits of this exercise are too high to skip).  Not only will pulldowns help strengthen your postural muscles and back muscles, but the Lat muscles also act as core stabilizers, which is a bonus for those that have higher-level injuries or compromised trunk function.

Decades ago, big-time bodybuilders, like Ronnie Coleman, used to perform this exercise by pulling the bar down and behind their necks, which we know now is not recommended. Taking the bar behind the neck encourages forward head posture as well as places your spine into misalignment. This can cause serious problems down the road to your spine and shoulder joints.

What TO do instead: 

Pull the bar straight down in front of your chin, almost like you were aiming for your collarbone above your chest (basically where a necklace would lie). As you do this, make sure you keep your eyes forward and do not look up at the top of the cable. This will also help keep our necks in proper alignment. The focus of this movement should be squeezing behind your shoulder blades.

photo source unknown – how not to perform a pulldown

Do use your brakes

If you have been using a manual wheelchair for many years, I would bet a lot of money that at least one of the brakes on your chair isn’t working. Brakes are on chairs for a reason. The importance of this statement comes into play, especially in a gym setting. For example, if you are lifting dumbbells, it can throw you off balance or even lead to a crash between you and another gym peer. Keep in mind that this is explicitly talking about day-use manual chairs. If you are lifting weights in a sports chair, you will most definitely not have any brakes.

If you know that your chair brakes aren’t working properly, the second-best option for getting them fixed is to prop something under your wheels to stop you from moving or rolling away (and yes, if you have one working brake, you will still need to prop yourself!) I find that dumbbells work well in this scenario (if they aren’t round on the ends) or even using something like sand-filled ankle weights to prop in front or behind your wheels can be helpful.

Do NOT think grip assists are cheating

For folks that have compromised grip strength, there are many great options out there in terms of grip hooks to help assist when doing larger muscle group exercises. I’ve seen clients in the past struggle with completing exercises or saying that they avoid certain exercises because of their grip strength or lack thereof. They seem to think that if they can’t use their own grip strength, then they don’t have the strength to complete these exercises.

What’s important to understand, however, is that compared to your trunk muscles, your grip muscles are very, very small. Because of this, they will almost always fatigue quicker, even if they aren’t considered weak.

When you do exercises like rows and pulldowns, what you are actually training are these larger trunk muscles, specifically the back. If your grip strength is hindering your ability to complete these exercises, then you are missing out on some foundational strength exercises that will do you a lot of good in the long run.

What to do instead: 

Bypass these weak gripping muscles and train your trunk muscles!

In this sense, grip assists are exactly what you would need so that you can access these back muscles that are quite strong in comparison to gripping muscles.

Note: if you still want to work your grip strength in other ways, I do recommend getting those stress balls that you can squeeze throughout the day, like the ones found here.

Do ask for help  

I’ll admit, I used to hate asking for help. For some reason, I had always seen it as a sign of not having independence. Over the years though I have learned that asking for help is actually a sign of strength and courage.  

Many clients have told me over the years that they also don’t like asking for help. They either feel uncomfortable because it draws attention to them or sometimes it’s because they fear someone not stepping up to the task. Others have expressed that it’s related to a past trauma of not feeling worthy enough to be helped.

If any of these discomforts described above are relatable to you, I would recommend checking in with yourself and asking yourself where does the resistance stem from? Is it related to worthiness? Is it a feeling of self-consciousness from having attention brought to you? Sometimes naming these insecurities can help us move past them and face the fear or discomfort.  

Don’t skip cardio

Cardiovascular training can help offset the heightened cardiac disease risk among those who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids. To snowball this, those who are found to be more sedentary are also at a higher risk of obesity, which leads to a plethora of new problems from joint damage, musculoskeletal injuries from transfers, and pressure sores, to name a few.  

What to do instead: 

Find an activity (preferably that you enjoy doing) that will help get your heart rate up and get your blood pumping. Ideally, this would be done at least 2-3x per week for about 20-30 minutes, goals depending.

There are many ways you can perform cardio, and you don’t need fancy equipment to do so! Try going for a wheel in your neighbourhood for 20-30 minutes at a quicker pace than normal or try the hand cycle at your gym. If you don’t have access to a hand cycle, you can join us online at Ocean Insider Club from the comfort of your home with little to no equipment.

Do use the wall (If you don’t have anti-tips)

This may be a no-brainer to some, but to the newbie wheelchair user, this aspect of gym safety can easily get overlooked. Typically, if you are performing any exercise with your arms over your head (like Dowel Around the Worlds) or a twisting dynamic motion (think Kayaks), you are at a risk of tipping because these moves are challenging your equilibrium. If you don’t have anti-tips on your wheelchair, this means that you are at risk of falling backwards, which won’t be a good outcome.

The best way to avoid this is to wheel your back up against a wall and put your brakes on. If you don’t have brakes, here is a good time to wedge something between your wheels to keep you secure against the wall. Now when you go to do the movement, your chair should not risk flipping backwards and you can focus more on the movement itself, instead of risking tipping over.

Don’t forget to stretch

Not only does stretching feel good, but it has great benefits long term for your body and mind, especially when in conjunction with a strength and conditioning (cardio) program. Some benefits of stretching include decreased joint and tissue pain, decreased spasticity, increased joint range of motion, improved posture, decreased tension headaches, improved performance in sports or activities such as gardening or transferring, improved blood flow and improved concentration, to name a few.

BONUS COACH TIP: Try long-held stretches (30-60 seconds) after your activity or before bedtime and stick to more dynamic-based movement prior to any exercise or activity.

I hope that this list of dos and don’ts can help empower you in the future. Whether it be in the gym or working out at home, or even training for a wheelchair sport, having a little bit of knowledge and education is power and can help us achieve our fitness goals in a safe, effective way.

Your Coach,

Megan Williamson 

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