Fitness Articles

Strength Training with a Disability

More Strength Means Greater Independence

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Whether you have a disability or a chronic condition that limits your mobility, exercise doesn't have to be out of reach or even painful. In fact, depending on your condition, your health care provider has probably recommended that you increase your physical activity. That may have you wondering, "How am I supposed to move more when I have these limitations?"

Exercise provides so many health benefits, from decreased risk for heart disease to a better ability to maintain a healthy weight, and even a more positive body image and outlook—and these benefits extend to individuals with limitations as well. In fact, exercise may even help alleviate pain and degenerative symptoms associated with chronic conditions like arthritis, helping many people increase their mobility and independence while decreasing pain.

Why Strength Training?
Strength training exercises help increase your overall muscular strength, making everyday tasks and caring for yourself, others, and your household easier. Overall, maintaining your strength can help you remain independent and enjoy life experiences. For more details on strength training and its benefits, read SparkPeople's Strength Exercise Reference Guide.

Keep Your Safety in Mind
Before starting any exercise program, always check with your health care provider first—especially if you have a chronic condition or disability. Your doctor knows firsthand about your condition and health history and she can provide not only exercise ideas but also limitations based on your condition. This is especially important if you suffer from a condition that directly affects your muscles (such as cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis) and requires specific modifications.

In addition, remember to listen to your body and not to attempt any form of exercise that makes you uncomfortable or puts your safety at risk. For example, some individuals are comfortable swimming with only the use of their upper body to propel them. If you lack swimming training or upper body strength, or fear counting on your arms alone to keep you afloat, don't attempt this form of exercise—especially without help or supervision.

Remember to start out slowly. If it's been awhile since you've exercised or lifted heavy weights, always try strength exercises with no weights first so that you can ensure proper form. When you can complete 1-3 sets of each exercise with no weight, then move on to light weights, and gradually increase from there as you build strength. Remember that to build strength and stamina, you have to push your body past its limits, a principle known as overloading.

Last but not least, always warm up and cool down during each exercise session.

Special Considerations
Ninety-four percent of gyms do not offer machines that are accessible by wheelchair, according to recent surveys. But more progressive gyms are taking deliberate steps to be more inclusive to individuals with disabilities and mobility issues by making their layouts and equipment wheelchair-accessible. Before joining a gym, find out if their space and features are accessible to you. Freemotion, for example, is one major brand that makes weight machines that are accessible to both wheelchair and able-bodied exercisers. You may be more likely to find these features in university or hospital fitness facility, many of which offer memberships to the public.

If you have trouble using your hands, wrist cuffs that help secure weights in your hands can help. You may also want to consider using wrist weights or weighted gloves (instead of dumbbells) if this is the case.

If you suffer from a condition that causes your limbs to move involuntarily, try to use strength training machines instead of free weights. Machines (both those with wheelchair access and those without it) are designed to help your body stay in good form and offer more support so that you work in good form and within a safe range of motion.

SparkPeople's Seated Exercises
You can perform almost any strength training exercise from a chair or seated position. Virtually any upper body exercise can be done while seated instead of standing, and you can also strengthen your legs and abs from a chair as well. Many of SparkPeople's exercise demonstrations involve sitting in a chair and several standing exercises for the upper body can be modified to be done while seated, whether you're using dumbbells, resistance bands, or even no weights at all.

The following list includes strength training exercises (and the muscle groups they work) with demonstrations that already involve sitting on a chair. These are great for individuals with limited mobility. SparkPeople's Adaptable Exercises
The following list links  to exercise demos that you can easily modify to perform while seated in a chair. Each exercise lists the muscles worked and a note for how to modify it to meet your needs (sitting or standing). Not only will exercise tone your muscles and strengthen your heart, but working out can also help to improve your self-esteem and your feelings about your body. Talk to your doctor about starting your strength training program today!

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Member Comments

  • I am not disabled but sometimes I have a lot of achiness, soreness and exercises like these come in handy.
  • Finally, a program for fitness with exercises that include the disable!!!!!! I am a paraplegic for the past 19 years and with absolutely no permission from Spa/Health clubs I have no NO Opportunity to get exercise to help take off the 65 mg of cortisone I take each day. Yes! In 19 years I am become Petite elefante!!!!

    I sincerely thank your organization in recognizing that there are ALOT of PHYSICALLY DISABLED people dying to get in shape and do exercises as they morethan likely did before thei life-changing experience,

    YOU ARE WONDERFUL!!!!!!!!
    !!!

    Thank you for your sensitivity to ALL PERSON OF THE UNIVERSE!!!!!!
  • Finally, a program for fitness with exercises that include the disable!!!!!! I am a paraplegic for the past 19 years and with absolutely no permission from Spa/Health clubs I have no NO Opportunity to get exercise to help take off the 65 mg of cortisone I take each day. Yes! In 19 years I am become Petite elefante!!!!

    I sincerely thank your organization in recognizing that there are ALOT of PHYSICALLY DISABLED people dying to get in shape and do exercises as they morethan likely did before thei life-changing experience,

    YOU ARE WONDERFUL!!!!!!!!
    !!!

    Thank you for your sensitivity to ALL PERSON OF THE UNIVERSE!!!!!!
  • I hated strength training until I discovered the seated videos. Thankfully I don't have mobility challenges, but I find these exercises valuable because they allow me to focus on one muscle group at a time.
  • SHAHAI16
    I'm sharing this with my sister-in-law, she has a lot of health issues that limit her mobility and has become very depressed about her weight gain. She can only stand/walk for short periods of time.
  • Thanks for sharing.
  • KARENK1024
    Thank you so much for this..I was severely injured in a car accident that had me in a wheel chair for 5 yrs.. 18 leg and feet operations..Well I packed on pounds
    I'm up and walking but with a lot of pain so the weight gain continues. I so tired of talking about what I can't do instead of doing what I can do.
    I sooooo need to get moving!!!! Thanks!
  • I need to use this resource more often! I do have a hard time finding exercises that work for me and then I get discouraged and quit! I know this is here but, I am horrible at using it! Time to make a change!
  • Thanks for this article...I will give it a try. I will also be starting a water workout soon. I have limited mobility & use a wheelchair due to 2 back surgeries (lower & upper) that didn't do much but left me with severe back pain still, osteoarthritis & trouble with my knees & hips. I also have lost grip strength & have numbness in my right hand. I get some cardio by walking & rolling in my wheelchair.
  • ANNEMILNES45
    Thank you for this as I need to be able to exercise but am limited what I can do so now I feel I can do more so bless you.
  • Thanks for this one.
  • Perfect timing now that I've severely injured my knee.
  • I can try yhis when my hip is hurting.
  • This is a great article for me; I can use these exercises while my fractured ankle is healing.
  • Eureka! I've been looking for these articles and links. Now, I can do some strength training that's appropriate! Thank you!

About The Author

Nicole Nichols Nicole Nichols
A certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with a bachelor's degree in health education, Nicole loves living a healthy and fit lifestyle and helping others do the same. Nicole was formerly SparkPeople's fitness expert and editor-in-chief, known on the site as "Coach Nicole." Make sure to explore more of her articles and blog posts.

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