Free Weight Exercises

Wheelchair Exercise Index

Below is an index of different options for a wheelchair lifter.  Again, this is mostly focusing on free weight variations as a majority of wheelchair users, who can perform basic transfers, can use most of the upper body pulley-based machines.  This is a focus on the free weight options broken down by body part.  Over time I will try to add in videos and/or pictures of how I do the specific exercise from setting up, stabilizing myself and then actually executing the lift.


For shoulders I prefer pressing as the main exercise.  From the Wheelchair you will have to get a bit creative on how you do a free weight Military Press.  I actually use an adjustable Incline bench and put it on a setting over 45 degrees, but well under a straight 90 degrees.  At 90 degrees we have almost no balance.  When starting out with the military press it may be wise to utilize the Smith Machine at your gym, as this is one of the only exercises I would ever recommend Wheelchair users to touch that piece of junk.  For the military press, it can work quite well.

  1. Military Press
  2. DB Military Press
  3. Landmine Military Press from Bench
  4. DB Raises (Lateral, Rear, Front)


Shrugs are almost always the only exercise people do for their traps, and it does hit the traps well enough but people too often use crappy form and too much weight.  With this combination the lifter gets almost no benefit over time.  For both of the exercises listed I prefer to place a Barbell on the floor with one end up against the wall with NO WEIGHT, and I actually pull up by grabbing the collar from the other end and add weight to that end. (I will add pics!)  

I love the 1 arm snatch, it acts as a quick and explosive movement where you lift the weighted end of the barbell from the floor up to your armpit.  Ive received incredible results over the years once I introduced this exercise.

  1. 1 Arm Snatch from Floor w/ Barbell - Video
  2. Shrugs w/Barbell


Chest is among the easiest exercise for us wheelchair lifters to get started with as simple pushups from the floor or even on a bed will be beneficial, but as you get stronger you will want more of a challenge.  I again prefer any bar pressing as the main lift, although dips are incredible and there are several ways you can do Dips in a gym.  ANd almost none of them involve using the actual dip mechanism in a typical gym as the handles are often WAY too high.  For dips in a gym for wheelchair users find the Glute Ham machine that people often are doing back extensions from.  Something like this, as the handles can be moved up and down and we can do these straight from the chair by wheeling up to the handles.


  1. Bench Press
  2. Incline Bench Press
  3. Dips
  4. DB Press
  5. DB Flys


Back can be broken into Vertical Pulling and Horizontal Pulling.  The back is among the most important areas to work out yet way too many people neglect the back.  And as important as the back is to hit it does not require a crazy variety.  Do pullups and rows and you are good.  The back responds well to heavy work, especially on the rows so sticking to a 5-8 rep count per set is ideal.  For Pullups you can use a squat rack and place the bar high (you may need help on this), and you can also use a smith machine and again place the bar high.  For rows the best bang for your buck for us wheelchair lifters will be a plate loaded row machine.  One issue with a lot of these types of machines in a gym, however, is the area where you load the plates may be too high.  Because of this I often do 1 arm rows while laying face down on an incline bench set at a low incline.  This keeps me well balanced and plenty of leverage to go heavy.

  1. Pull Ups (Neutral, Wide Grip) Wide Grip Video
  2. Machine Row
  3. DB Row

Biceps and Triceps

Most lifters already spend way too much time on Bis and Tris, or at least the Bis.  For Biceps I prefer any bar type curl, my favorite is from the Preacher Curl Machine.  Then add in any dumbell or cable curl variation that you prefer.  For Triceps the Close Grip Bench Press is KING!  This allows you to go quite heavy, then finish up with the Universal Tricep exercise, the cable pushdown.  Way too many Bro's at the gym go straight to the cable machine for a workout and they are pretty much wasting their time.  Hit the body with heavy stuff like the Close Grip Bench, then goto the cables.  Going heavy on the cables is pointless and will just injure your elbows over time.


  1. Pull Ups
  2. Preacher Curl
  3. Dumbell Curl (Hammer, Supinated
  4. Cable Curl


  1. Close Grip Bench
  2. Cable Variations (Pushdown, Extension)

Complex Lifts

I am adding in a new category for Complex Lifts.  These are lifts that are olympic variations for us wheelchair lifters.  Just like olympic lifts these do not focus on a single body part and go above a compound lift such as the Bench Press and Pullup by hitting more than two bodyparts.  Start light with these exercises until the form becomes solid.

  1. Barbell Clean and Press
  2. DB Snatch