Just like regular exercise, you should warm up before you begin doing wheelchair exercises. This is especially important for those who have muscles that have been inactive for a long period of time. Your physical therapist can help you stretch, or you can stretch your arms overhead, and then stretch them by using one arm to pull the other arm close to the body. The University of Iowa cautions that wheelchair athletes are susceptible to arm injuries and tendinitis, so stretching is an important way to start your workout.
Dynamic stretching helps to increase blood flow circulation, which is helpful when you’re sitting in a wheelchair for long periods of time. It can also play a critical role in enhancing muscle tone and flexibility for people in wheelchairs, reports the University of California San Francisco’s Multiple Sclerosis Center. Example stretches include shrugging your shoulders by rolling them forward and up toward your ears. Hold this position for 10 seconds, then roll them backward and back down into a relaxed position. Swinging your arms back and forth at your sides can also help stretch and warm up your arm, shoulder and neck muscles.
Forward Elbow Rotations
Because the shoulders muscles are used extensively by paraplegics who use manual wheelchairs, it is wise to stretch them and the upper back to increase circulation and avoid tight muscles. Place your hands on your hips and rotate your elbows forward, rounding your upper back. Keep your head relaxed, looking down toward the floor. Hold the stretch for a moment, and repeat for 20 to 40 repetitions, advises the Canadian Paraplegic Association.
The military press is an exercise to build strong shoulders, which are a benefit to anyone who uses a wheelchair. Hold a dumbbell weighing around 10 lbs. to 25 lbs. in each hand, depending on your strength level. Raise the dumbbells to shoulder level with your palms facing your head or out in front of you. Slowly press the dumbbells up above your head, then lower to your shoulder. Perform as many repetitions as you can without pain.
The shoulder raise is done with a much lighter weight than the military press. Hold a 1-lb. to 5-lb. dumbbell in each hand with your arms down. With straight arms, raise the dumbbells up to shoulder level with your thumbs pointing up. Pause at the top, then lower and repeat for 10 to 20 repetitions.
Pressing your body up off your chair will help strengthen your shoulders, triceps and back. To perform the exercise, lock the wheels of your chair, then place your hands on the tires. Press your body up as high as you can, or until your arms are straight. Do 10 to 20 repetitions, or as many as you can.
Sitting push-ups don’t just help you develop your arms, abs, chest and shoulders, but the University of Iowa also recommends them because the exercise helps to take some of the pressure off your legs and lower extremities. Grab the arm rests on each side of your wheelchair. Push yourself straight up out of the seat and try not to use your legs as any kind of support. Go as high as possible or until your arms are straight, then slowly lower yourself back down. Aim to do a couple of sets of 10 repetitions each.
Depending on your level of physical mobility, you may be able to swim. Many community centers, gyms and recreational centers offer wheelchair-accessible pools. The water can help you stay buoyant, while stroking and paddling helps to tone and build upper-body strength. In some training situations, you can also affix specialized flotation devices to your waist so you can focus on improving your upper-body form.
Many kinds of weightlifting can be done from a seated, wheelchair position. For example, the National Institute on Aging suggests doing bicep curls to help build your arm muscles. To build your triceps, try tricep extensions. Hold a dumbbell in your hand and raise it toward the ceiling, then bend it down toward your wheelchair’s back. Raise it back up to complete one repetition. Try to do two sets of eight to 15 reps on each arm.