The best exercises are the ones you’re actually going to do, and for many that means being able to get a workout in without leaving home. Fortunately, getting into a regular fitness routine as a wheelchair user doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. All it takes is a little bit of knowledge and a few readily available fitness products to set up a home gym capable of delivering functional, balanced strength and keeping you healthy and energized for the long haul.
This is a representative selection of exercise equipment that can be used by a wheelchair user with limited grip strength and balance for a variety of workouts: from light range of motion and shoulder stability routines, to muscle-building and strength exercises, to high-intensity circuit training and cardio intervals. Start with light weights until you have mastered form and figured out how to best stabilize yourself. YouTube and SCI-Ex (an adaptive fitness app from the Shepherd Center) are great resources for researching both specific exercises and how to combine them into workout routines for different goals.
(1) Theraband: A must for a home gym. Theraband is light, cheap and it comes in a variety of resistances ($11.65 on Amazon for a combo pack). Hang it from a hook and you can do lat pulldowns. Tie it around a doorknob and you can do a rotator cuff maintenance routine. Loop it around your back and you can do chest presses. Its elasticity also works for upper body plyometric workouts. The flat bands allow those with limited grip strength to wrap the ends around their hands and wrists for a secure grip. Theraband also sells handles that easily attach to both their tubing and flat bands, as well as door attachments if you don’t have a good wall to put a hook into. Not for heavy lifting, but great for warming up, Theraband is useful for focusing on form and quality with your reps, and for high-pace, high-rep cardio intervals.
(2) Active Hands Gloves: The Active Hands company makes a variety of gripping aids, but the most bang for your buck is the general-purpose model. They’re strong enough to support your body weight, make dumbbells a lot more functional and less dangerous, and can even be used for gripping a handcycle pedal. The only problem is that it’s difficult (though not impossible) to strap both hands onto objects at the same time. For linear motions with a dumbbell, cable handle, over even pullups, a good pair of lifting hooks make for a quick, easy attachment to lift with both arms at the same time.
(3) Kettle Bell: Kettle bells make a good free-weight for chair users because they are more stable in your hand than a traditional dumb bell. A simple 15-pound kettle bell (pictured) lets someone with limited grip strength do bicep curls, shoulders shrugs, overhead presses, and triceps extensions, among other exercises, without any additional gripping aids. Nice for doing circuits where you want to be able to transition between exercises quickly. Typically available from 5 to 60 pounds, a kettle bell in the 10- to 25-pound range would be the most versatile for chair users with balance issues.
(4) Bowflex SelectTech Dumbbells: Bowflex weights let you lift from 5 to 52.5 pounds at the turn of a dial, taking up less space and costing a lot less than a similar range of traditional dumbbells. With that kind of range, you can do a wide variety of exercises, and you don’t need to buy heavier weights as you get stronger. Many dumbbell exercises can be done directly from your chair, or lying down on a mat or a bed, depending on your strength and stability. SelectTech dumbbells are available from Bowflex for $299 a set, and an additional $139 for the stand pictured here.
(5) Wrist weights: A good pair of adjustable wrist weights allows you to do almost any lifting movement. These, from All-Pro, are technically sold as ankle weights, but close tight enough to use on the wrists ($35 each on Amazon). They are adjustable from 2.5 to 10 pounds each, with a padded, durable construction, and strong, easy to use Velcro closure. You can’t lift heavy, but they are great for doing circuit training and getting your heart rate up. Double bonus: They also make a good pair of wheel blocks if you don’t have brakes.
(6) Lighter wrist weights: A pair of 1- to 2.5-pound wrist weights ($26 on Amazon) is good for shoulder exercises as well as bending over your lap and mimicking your push stroke. When done in timed intervals, this can provide a good high-intensity cardio workout that engages the muscles that get neglected when you’re actually pushing.
(7) Medicine Balls: From a sitting position, medicine balls make for a great addition to a functional strength circuit: Bounce them on the floor, throw them against a wall from different angles, even squeeze them for static strength building. From a prone position, you can do chest passes or overhead throws, as well as range of motion exercises to build functional flexibility. Pictured here are 4, 8, and 12 pounds ($20 to $40+ each on Amazon, depending on weight).