Wheelchair Bodybuilding

Prioritize Relative Strength

Relative strength for the vast majority of humans is much more important and much more applicable than absolute strength.  

Relative vs Absolute

Relative strength focuses on your strength related to your own body, more specifically, being able to perform numerous movements at your bodyweight.  Absolute strength does not care about how much you weigh, it is all about the maximum amount of weight you can lift for an exercise, think of powerlifters and offensive linemen.  While it would seem logical that these two would be linked, that if you improve your absolute strength on a lift that would immediately translate to your relative strength it simply does not work this way.

Relative Movements

The most simple relative strength test is the pull up.  Can you perform X number of strict pull ups?  This can also move into dips and pushups.  Those three movements are the starting point.  A guy who can bench press 415 pounds may not be able to do a single pull up.  Another guy can only bench 225 pounds, but can do 20 strict pull ups.  In this scenario it is also likely there would be at least 100 lbs separating these two individuals in bodyweight.

THere are very few times in your life where actually doing a max effort movement applies in real life.  Especially when you consider the positioning and setup most high max lifters utilize when performing a lift.  But I would bet every single person out there needs to move their body around using pulliing and pushing movements similar to pull ups and dips.  Getting out of a pull is essentially a muscle up where you pull yourself out of the water, then dip all the way up.

Relative Progressions

I am a lifelong meathead who has always loved pushing the iron around, and often going as heavy as possible, sometimes beyond.  Over time, this beats the living shit out of your body.  I always did dips and pull ups so my relative strength was quite solid from a baseline perspective.  What I did NOT know was the level of progressions that were possible.  If you do not believe me, and you can do pull ups and dips from bars, than try doing them on rings.  You are welcome.  This is a whole new world on rings and it will absolutely humble most of the strongest people on the planet.  I certainly was.  

Perfect Athlete

A perfect athlete would have a unique combination of Speed, Strength and Flexibility.  Along with a whole lot of skill in their specific sport.  But if you were to take someone with extremely high levels and scores on strength, speed and flexibility it would be HIGHLY likely that that athlete could be dropped into any sport and perform above average.  These are the types of physiques we should be chasing as well.  Think NFL running backs, receivers and defensive backs.  Think gymnasts and MMA fighters.  These are the bodies most of us should be chasing.  Guys with incredible relative strength along with flexibility and speed.  Not offensive lineman who can move the most MAX weight, but at the expense of carrying around an extra 100 or more pounds.  Not bodybuilders who cannot perform ANY sport at a reasonable level.  No thanks.

Getting Too Big

One major problem with bodybuilders, especially professional level bodybuilders, is their complete lack of flexibility and even relative strength.  Some guys in the gym can work themselves into a fury, setup on the bench with an incredible bridge and bench a house.  Yet they cannot do a pull up, their dips are shit, and in the case of many of the massive bodybuilders they cannot wipe their own ass.  Is this an enjoyable state of every day living?  ALmost always sore and probably too big for their own good.  And as a bonus when it comes to many day to day activities they are actually weak as shit.  No thanks.


Priority is an extremely simple thing that most people butcher.  When asked for a list of top five priorities from your boss, you now know your boss is a moron.  There can only be 1 priority.  There can be only one winner at the end of the day if you have to choose 1 person to eat over every other choice.  The same is true in training.  You can do a lot of different things that mix in max lift days and bodyweight relative strength days.  But if you have to make a choice of continuing to push your max XYZ lift up, versus no longer being able to do Pull ups or Dips or really anything with your bodyweight because you got too big or heavy, then skip the max shit because you may get absolutely stronger but at the expense of becoming a worse athlete.

Stimulate! Don't Annihilate

There is a great saying in lifting circles, Stimulate your Muscles, DO NOT Annihilate them.  It's a saying that I have not followed closely enough over my years of training but I am taking much more seriously now days.  On a basic level, stop piling on useless volume once muscles are properly stressed.

T-Nation has a solid article published back in January, The Best Damn Workout Plan for Natural Lifters  by Christian Thibaudeau that re-surfaced this topic in my mind.  I believe this practice applies even more-so to fellow wheelchair lifters as we have a limited amount of areas we can truly work on the body.  We have Chest, Triceps, Back, Biceps, Delts and Traps that we can train.  That is it if your injury puts you at Para or worse like myself.  One of the main themes of the article is that the biggest mistake experienced lifters make is doing way too much volume.  We fall into the trap of thinking more is better but this is not how the body works and we actually get to a point where we cause more damage than benefit.

Once a newbie lifter graduates into intermediate or advanced they tend to continually applying way too much volume.  One way to help prevent this problem is to limit your workouts to 50 minutes or less.  If you split your workouts into a Chest/Tris day, Back/Bis and Delts/Traps I would recommend staying well below 30 sets.  For me 20 to 25 seems to be a sweet spot of getting a challenging workout in but not throwing tons of useless sets at the end that bumps up the volume.  A very basic breakdown is as follows:

  • 5-ish warmup sets
  • 5-10 sets on your main lift (Bench, Military Press, Rows)
  • 3-6 sets on an accessory lift (Close Grip Bench, Dips)
  • 3-6 vanity lift (Cable Curls, Cable Extensions, Dumbell Raises)

Another approach is to do fewer workouts per week, but hitting all areas.  Full disclosure, for wheelchair lifters I am NOT in favor of a workout that hits all the areas unless it is a challenge for you to get to the gym at least 3 times per week.  Doing too much work in a single session is obviously better than doing nothing, it just gets to a point of diminished returns as bodyparts in the latter part of the workout get hosed.  

As an example, the shoulders get way too much work on most chest movements so adding some military presses or dumbell raises to an already exhausted pair of shoulders is counterproductive and will do little for your delts.  The first lift of the day should be the focus of the workout, that is the lift that should be the biggest mover, involving the most bodyparts and pushing the highest volume or weight.  This lift is the showcase, the main attraction, everything else is a supporting actor. Each exercise after that first lift is an accessory or cosmetic lift.  One could split this major movement into a press and a pull but the quality of work will suffer on that second movement.  If it doesn't suffer, than you were not working hard enough on the first movement.

My preference is working out 4 days per week with three of the workouts spent focused on Chest/Tris one day, day two focused on Back/Bis, day three focused on Delts/Traps and then the fourth day is a do whatever the hell I want day where I may mix in several supersets in a crossfit timed fashion.  Or it can be spent on focusing on a bodypart that I feel needs some attention or is just a fun/challenging movement.

Another problem with too much volume for wheelchair lifters is your joints will give out.  If you pile way too many cable pushdowns after already doing heavy bench and other triceps movements your elbows will F-ing HATE you!  Same goes for pounding set upon set of isolation curls after you have done a bunch of heavy rows, pullups and barbell curls.  And when you feel a pop in your elbow, good luck buttercup; cause you will be babying that elbow for weeks.

So just follow these basic principles:

  1. Get in the Gym and favor frequency over longevity.  
  2. Hit your muscles hard, but smart.  (better have a GREAT reason to be there > 50 minutes.)
  3. Then get the hell out with your limbs still attached.


Have a Plan and Stop Training ADD

In almost any avenue in life try to keep things simple.  For lifters that can simply be to have a plan, stick to this plan and track your progress.  It is not rocket science.

Over-analysis or ADD

Too many lifters spend countless hours pouring through article after article on the internet addressing a new training modality THEY MUST TRY.  They see something new on T-Nation.com  and switch up everything they do based on the newest article they read.   Whether this is a complete program or a new lift they must try out it results in a completely different set of exercises every single time they go to the gym.  This is variety overload and not effective for long term training progressions which result in continued gains.  There is a saying amongst the smartest minds in training that the BEST program is probably the program you are NOT doing.  There is absolute truth to the axiom that you do need variety in your workouts over time, but NOT chaos.

 Achieving or seeking muscle confusion is one thing, but this constant changing every workout is training ADD; jumping around from program to program like a gypsy.  It's similar to the people who go out to a bar or nightclub only to spend the entire time trying to decide what bar to goto next, as if that next bar will be the magical experience they seek.  Spoiler Alert, that next bar is no better than where you are now, because once there you will ruin any experience by thinking of the next bar, then the next bar and so on.  If you never stay any one place long enough how do you know if it is was any good or actually did suck?


4 Weeks

One can apply the same logic to workout programs with folks that are CONSTANTLY on the look out for the next best thing.  Whether you are doing volume work German Volume Training of 10x10s, full body strength based workouts of 5x5s across the board, or 10x3 for all the big lifts for max power or dynamic effort.  It doesn't really matter as long as you hit each bodypart at least once a week (ideally 2 or 3times).  If you spend more time actually DOING a workout versus looking for the next best workout they all present value.  It is perfectly fine to switch things up but try sticking to something for 4 weeks before moving on.  If you absolutely must have variety add in 5-10 minutes at the end of each workout for single joint vanity lifts that are just "for the pump".

Four weeks provides you with the opportunity to actually progress through a program via adding more weights and more reps through the Double Progression Method.  If you are changing up EVERYTHING every single week or worse, every single workout, you have no way to gauge your progress.  You may get some results for a while simply due to the muscle confusion but without consistent progressions any gains you achieve will be lost next time around and over time you will get stuck in a rut.

Any solid program is based on a weekly set of workouts comprised mainly around your big lifts that progress over a time span.  For wheelchair lifter these lifts are Bench Presses, Military Presses, Rows and Pull-ups.  A couple big pushes and a couple big pulls.  Each workout add in some quality ancillary work for the smaller muscle groups (triceps, biceps, etc), and as mentioned above the finishers for each workout is where you can add the day to day variety if you must retain some of the ADD.  If you read something new and wonderful that you want to try out, great, but don't go overboard with a constant change in direction.  Work in a new movement into your existing plan.  If the new thing is an entire training program, finish out your current program before jumping into the next thing.  Give something a long enough chance before deeming it sucks.


Some basic rules for any trainee: 

  1. Have a plan for the week, month, whatever.  Plan out what days you will workout, and which bodyparts you will hit.
  2. Stick to this plan for a minimum of 4 weeks.  
  3. Track Progress on each main lift via reps and/or weight every workout.

People jump from program to program way too often just as too many people jump on and off every single diet fad.  Try something new, give it a few weeks and if you are happy with the results add it to your long term arsenal for the future.  Have a plan, stick to this plan and track your progress.



Rowing Options for Wheelchair Lifter?

At the most basic level weight training for Strength, Power, Speed or Size is not rocket science as you must perform vertical pulls, vertical pushes, horizontal pulls and horizontal pushes.  There are a lot of assistance moves that can help balance out the major movers for each of these movements, but those are the main movements.  In terms of upper body wheelchair lifters are set with horizontal and vertical pushing with bench and military press variations, vertical pulls with pull up variations and lat pull downs but there is a bit difficulty with horizontal pulls.  There is a saying in weight training circles, "You Must Row to Grow".  Rows are a vital exercise for basic body balance and strength and to support anybody going for world record bench presses.  But what are our options for rows?

I was just reading an article on T-Nation, 8 Great Rowing Variations and this is a GREAT example of why I created this website as a lot of info out on the internet for exercise selection for a wheelchair lifter is crap.  I must preface by saying I really appreciate T-Nation, I have learned more about general lifting and nutrition from this website than anywhere else over my lifting years.  And the article also mentions the "Must Row to Grow" principle.

As wheelchair lifters we must focus on exercises that:

  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.  It must be an exercise you can go balls to the wall on.

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.  This criteria can be injury specific as I am a T7 Para and often need to use one of my arms to stabilize my self on a lot of lifts while in the chair.

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, loading yourself and the weight.  This applies more to my situation as  I most often lift alone, but may be less of an issue for others.

These items are the basic criteria, and will probably break off into their own section under Exercises in the future.  The article lists eight different rowing variations and I would argue that not ONE of  these meets my criteria, each mainly failing on the Heavy and Stable criteria (related to your injury).  In the Wheelchair Exercise Index I only call out 2 variation of rows that meet the criteria and I stand by these.  In the T-nation article nearly every row involved a standing, bent over row variation.  Trust me, from my experience these lifts are mostly shit over time compared to the exercises I provided.  If you do not have your chest supported as you pull the weight horizontally towards you the stability is terrible.  There is a third rowing exercise that I will be adding to the index that works for the wheelchair lifter but is an advanced lift and requires some accessories making it a bit high on the maintenance side.

I have tried variations of bent over rows by staying in my chair, bending over with my chest nearly resting on my knees to lift a dumbell or a loaded barbell in a landmine fashion and the same problems arise.  

NOTE:(And these must be done with one arm as there exists no stability whatsoever to attempt to lift with two arms, which is a mute point since the wheelchair itself is in the way.) 
As I add more weight the chair itself becomes tippy, and doing a somersault while trying to do some rows is not the goal.  

Plate Loaded Row Machine

The best of the best options is a plate loaded row machine with a chest support.  The negative with this machine can be the plate loader is too high to reach from the chair.  Or we can reach it but adding a plate heavier than a 25 is difficult.

Dumbell Rows from Incline

This one always works!  This is my goto rowing exercise because I am in complete control.  I have stability and do not need help loading an apparatus that hits the ceiling.  The ONLY negative is I have to do these one arm at a time since I cannot grab the dumbells from the ground with both arms at once.  My progressions on this exercise are infinite with a simple dumbell handle where you add plates for weight versus having to keep a full set of dumbells in my garage.


Be careful with what you read on the internet regarding exercises.  Even at a respectable site such as T-Nation the articles can be oblivious to the needs of the wheelchair lifter as we are not the typical lifter or audience they have in mind.  At sites that are less respectable the exercises in question could be downright dangerous to your health!!!!