Wheelchair Fitness

Military Press With Chains

Military presses are my preferred exercise for the shoulders.  Overhead pressing was once a benchmark of upper body strength but now days too few of trainees do them.  They have gotten a bad rap in the training community which I find to be a lot of BS. If you have chronic shoulder problems it may be wise to avoid them, just as it would be wise to avoid almost any pressing movement.  If you have occassional shoulder soreness, is wiser to figure out what is hurting your shoulders.  It is quite possible some other exercise you perform is actually the culprit as the shoulder is incredible complex.  In my case I was irritating my shoulders via incline curls.  The stretch was great for the biceps but terrible for my shoulders.  I have now permanently removed that exercise and experience 0 shoulder issues.

Back to this exercise.  In the video I am performing military presses from a slight incline as this helps me stay a bit more stable.  This is also among the only exercises I recommend performing on a Smith Machine as the bar is meant to go straight up and down which is all you can do on the smith.  I use a strap across my chest to further secure my body while I perform the movement.  I am also using chains for a more dynamic feel which will help with explosion.

Note: Chains are fairly advanced and  not something beginners or even intermediate lifters need to bother with.

If your bench press has stagnated military presses will help you get over a sticking point.  Getting a bunch of weight from the ground to over your head is a primary feat of strength.  Building up your overhead press is a big part of that.  If you are use to benching, but have not actually performed military presses with a barbell, you will likely be humbled depending on your shoulder strength.  Start light until you get the movement down, then over time your strength on these will increase very quickly.




Wheelchair Exercise Selection Criteria

There exists some basic criteria that we as wheelchair lifters must focus on. These should be our primary heavy movements that most of our focus on Progression via added weight or reps should apply to.  These criteria are as follows:

  1. Ability to go Heavy
  2. Are Safe or Stable
  3. Are Low Maintenance


Every set does not have to be an attempt to break a world record, or a personal record.  But for an exercise to be highly beneficial to the wheelchair lifter it must be something that you can continually progress on via the Double Progression Method.  It must be an exercise you can go balls to the wall on in a max effort set, a dynamic set or a high rep set.

Safe and Stable

To meet the above criteria the exercise must have the lifter in a stable position, where you are locked in and are not concerned with bracing yourself.  The lifter should not have to spend a lot of energy bracing themselves, or more importantly not falling out of their wheelchair or tumbling the entire chair over.  If on a bench or machine we must feel fairly safe performing the lift as it becomes extremely difficult to focus on a lift if we are wobbling all over the place.  We can enhance this security via straps to lock down our legs or across our lower chest to help lock us in. 

Low Maintenance

This really applies to answering this question, "can I do this exercise without the help from someone else."  This applies to getting in position to do the lift as well as adding the weight.  It may be no problem getting on a machine and setup for a specific lift, but if we cannot safely load the weight on for the lift that is obviously a problem.  This specific criteria item applies more to my situation as  I most often lift alone, but may be less of an issue for others.  If you are always lifting with a partner where you have assistance loading the weight on than half of this problem goes away.  

Even if you do lift with a partner I highly recommend NOT depending on that partner to help stabilize you as you lift.  When lifting on any lift you must have a consistent platform from where to exert the power, speed and energy to execute the lift.  This stabilization should not be coming from another person in most situations.

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


Intro to Exercise Preference

Within this area I will be posting information about exercises that I believe can work great for the wheelchair lifter.  I will mostly focus on variations of free weight, compound exercises that hit multiple muscle groups.  All of these exercises will also be ones that a wheelchair person can do completely independently while they perform the actual lift, as well as the setup.  Very often I lift alone so I have spent A LOT of years seeking variations and methods that allow me to lift A LOT of weight, safely.

Some very high level basics on my lifting philosophy and exercise selection.  

  1. Exercises that involve BOTH arms at once are preferred.  This is for the fuller body involvement benefits as well as time efficiency.  There is a time and a place for single arm exercises as well as isolation exercises, but the foundation of any program should be big, two arm lifts.
  2. Efficiency.  For both time purposes and for convenience.   There are a lot of programs online that have the lifter changing the weights after every set.  This is F-ing stupid for a wheelchair lifter on most lifts as the practice of getting on/off the bench, securing themselves after every set would allow for very little time to actually get work done.
  3. Efficiency cont.  I prefer shorter rest periods and rarely rest more  than a minute unless I am performing max effort lifts.  I want to get in and out of the gym well under an hour as I experience a great loss of performance as the workout stretches past 50 minutes.
  4. Max Effort.  I stated max effort above, but in truth I rarely lift any weight that I cannot get AT LEAST 2 reps, if rested, on a given set.  The damage to your central nervous system and impaired recovery just do not make MAX single rep attempts worth it.  Plus, as wheelchair lifters we still have to live normal life such as transfers, wheeling, etc.  These things are impossible if we are SHOT.