Establishing and maintaining an active fitness regimen is important for everyone regardless of age, sex, and even disability. For those who are in wheelchairs, the need for upper body exercises can be of utmost importance to maintain health, strength, and even good posture.

For those who use manual wheelchairs, there is an increased demand placed on the shoulders and arms through the repetitive motion of pushing one’s chair. This can cause shoulder pain or impingement. Other muscles in the back, chest, and the trunk can also become neglected. A well-rounded strength training program can help avoid injury and address the muscles that are not routinely used by those in wheelchairs.

There are a variety of exercises that can be done in a seated position that will raise your heart rate and increase muscle strength. VitaGlide®, technologically advanced exercise equipment intended for seated users, combines endurance conditioning, a cardio workout, and strength building of the core, oblique, back and arm muscles. For wheelchair users looking for an all-encompassing workout with one machine, the VitaGlide® should be considered as part of one’s exercise routine.

Upper body resistance exercises are also an excellent way to improve movement and, when combined with other strengthening exercises, can decrease pain and mobility in one’s daily life.

For strength-building exercises, wheelchair users can utilize dumbbells, resistance bands, or everyday items around the house such as canned foods or bottles. You can even use your own body resistance by squeezing your active muscles tightly. The suggested exercises below can help build upper body strength and should be repeated with 8 to 10 reps, at least two to three times, or as tolerable. Make sure the wheels of your chair are locked in place to avoid sudden movement.

  • Overhead extensions – will strengthen your triceps as you lift a manageable object above your head, extend your elbows back, and then straighten your arms;
  • Bicep curls – can be performed with dumbbells or by wrapping a resistance band under your feet and holding each end in your hands;
  • Overhead raises- will help strengthen both your shoulders and core. Pick up any weighty, manageable object and hold it over your head. Bring it as far back as you can and bring it back;
  • Side twists –targets the obliques and core and can be performed by simply twisting your body from side to side. To add resistance, hold an object such as a ball stretched out in front of you while twisting your body.
  • Shoulder presses –Hold a dumbbell or heavy object in each hand at shoulder height with your palms facing away from you. Press the weights directly upwards until arms are straightened and the weights touch above your head. Lower and repeat.
  • Chest presses – This exercise will help the pectoral muscles in the chest as well as the biceps, deltoids, and latissimus dorsi muscles. Wrap a resistance band around the back of your chair and hold one end in each hand. With palms facing down and elbows out, press forward using your chest handles until the handles touch at the top.
  • Lateral raises – This shoulder exercise can be done with or without weights or resistance. Place your arms down at your side and lift them forwards until they are above your head. Then lift them sideways until they are above your head. Rotate these actions and repeat.

Most wheelchair users do not think they can achieve an aerobic and cardiovascular workout without the use of their legs. This is simply not true. There are various ways that people in wheelchairs can achieve a heart-racing workout using their upper body.

Most of the muscle-building exercises above can get your heart pumping but in addition to them, cardio exercises can include:

  • Hand cycling – Doing with your hands what other people do with their feet and cycling in circles as fast as you can will help you get in an aerobic workout.
  • Swimming – More and more swimming pools have wheelchair lifts designed to assist in transferring people with disabilities and limited mobility into a swimming pool. Being immersed into the water provides almost zero pressure on the body which can help with water activities and swimming to improve heart health.
  • Rowing -The push-pull motion of a seated row can not only get your heart pumping but is a great way to build upper back strength. Most wheelchair users can replicate the motions of a rowing machine through the use of resistance bands. However, recent technology such as the VitaGlide®, replicates the push-pull motions of rowing giving your core and upper body muscles a great workout while also addressing cardiovascular function.
  • Boxing – This can be a surprisingly effective cardio workout for wheelchair users that will get the heart pumping after a few right hooks and left jabs!

Overall, there are several effective upper body exercise programs that a wheelchair user can partake in. Engaging a personal trainer, for those who wish to, can help formulate a routine that alternates the muscles worked. The more exercise you do, the easier it will be to increase the number of days per week that you exercise. Best of all, a well-established upper body exercise program can provide relief for stress and become an enjoyable part of your day!