Whether it’s a hard cardio session in a spin class or a rigorous muscle building session with weights, gyms and fitness centers are dedicated to helping people feel the burn, but what do they offer to those of us active, fitness-loving chair users who want to “wheel the burn?” From beginners to full-blown bodybuilders, fellow wheelchair users weigh in on their experiences at the gym and provide helpful advice to those looking to get “wheelie” buff.
The Bodybuilder: Reggie Bennett
As a wheelchair-using bodybuilder for the past 23 years with numerous titles to his name, Reggie Bennett is no stranger to the gym, calling it his “second home.” A lifelong athlete, Bennett acquired a T12-L1 spinal cord injury 33 years ago at the age of 13, but found solace and comfort shortly after that through working out.
As a lifetime gym member with a strenuous workout regime, Bennett acknowledges the lack of accessibility at gyms but says with a little trial and error anything can be adapted.
“There is very little access for a person with disabilities in a standard gym as the equipment is not set for us, nor are there programs in gyms today that offer much assistance,” he says. “All of my workouts had to be modified to fit me. It took years for me to find what worked and what didn’t. There were times I fell while attempting to use some of the equipment, but I was determined to win that battle of being able to work out on my own.”
Reggie’s advice: “There are no tricks — I would say just get in there and do it for you. Learn to be healthy and physically active to reduce your risk of dependence.”
The Regular: Rachelle Friedman Chapman
As the mother of an energetic toddler, devoted wife, full time blogger, motivational speaker and author, Rachelle Friedman Chapman has a busy schedule, but the C5-6 quadriplegic always dedicates time to stay active and hit the gym. A member of Planet Fitness for two years, Chapman spends a few days a week in the gym strengthening her arms and core.
With no finger function and weak triceps but strong wrists, biceps and shoulders, Chapman says she concentrates on using equipment that will continually strengthen her upper body. Her number one piece of advice to quadriplegics who want to use the gym is to have a companion to help with access to less accessible equipment.
“At my injury level I need my husband to help me strap my hands to the equipment with Active Hands gloves because I have no grip,” she says. “There’s a bunch of options for me where I can roll up and not even have to get out of my chair. The standard arm equipment with built-in seats are still useful, but my husband helps me with the transfer.”
Rachelle’s advice: “If you don’t have hand function, then you definitely need the Active Hands gloves. If you can transfer and have hand function, then you could easily get a full independent workout.”
The Noob: Rick Hayden
Although he’s been rolling through life on wheels since a motorcycle accident left him a T8 paraplegic in 1976, Rick Hayden’s fitness journey as a frequent gym member only began less than a year ago.
“I turned 61 last April and realized I was in the worse shape I’ve ever been in,” Hayden says. “So I made the decision to go try the new gym in town that promised to be different. It was, and it was a great decision.”
Hayden goes to his local gym three to four times a week and says the experience has only been a positive one. “Access to the gym is excellent, including parking and restrooms. I can use approximately 80 percent of the equipment. They offer two multipurpose machines where I don’t have to transfer on and off,” he says. “I have access to experienced and knowledgeable trainers willing to experiment to find what would work best for me.”
Rick’s Advice: “Meet with the decision makers prior to joining, and see what reasonable accommodations they are willing to make.”