Exercising and Working Out

Working out and exercising has many benefits for people with spinal cord injuries. By getting stronger, everyday living activities, such as transfers and pushing a manual chair, will become easier.

My exercise program started as soon as I was able to sit up in my wheelchair, and I was still in in-patient rehab in Spokane, Washington after breaking my neck. My therapists really guided me towards exercise while I was in rehab and I am very thankful for that. I can remember leaving therapy and continuing to work out regularly

One of my most vivid memories from working out was while I was still in college. I would go to the gym at my school. One such day, after leaving and heading back to my car, I decided to push up an awfully steep ramp. I had never made it up this ramp before without someone behind me helping me.

However, this day I felt great and thought I would try. I pushed right up the ramp with no one behind me. I knew this confidence was from consistently spending time in the weight room and getting stronger. It was such a great feeling of independence that I will never forget. I now work out 5-6 days a week. I am doing all types of workouts i.e.; lifting weights, pushing my chair, using a UBE (upper body ergometer), swimming, hand cycling, and, of course, playing tennis just to name a few.

Some of my favorite workouts are lifting weights in the gym, going for a push, and using the UBE. I enjoy these three exercises because they are things that I can and will do long after my tennis career is over. When I lift weights in the gym, I like to focus on muscles that I don’t always use. As a person with a spinal cord injury, and someone who pushes a manual chair, the front half of my body does most of the work, the majority of the time. My chest, biceps, and front of my shoulders are always working in a forward movement. When I go to the gym, I am working on a balance between the front side of my body and the back side (lats, traps, back of my shoulders, etc.). Since the front side of my body gets a lot of work while I’m pushing and playing tennis, I focus most of my time in the gym on my back muscles. This means I do a lot of rowing and pulling type exercises. By focusing a lot on my back muscles in the gym I have more balanced strength front to back on my body.

Going for a push is one of my most enjoyable exercises. I am very lucky to live where I have a flat 400 meter track within walking distance of my home. I enjoy pushing around the track almost every day. On certain days I work for speed while on other days I work duration.

On the days I work for speed, I will sprint (push) 90% of my max speed 200 meters 5 times, with 90 seconds rest, then repeat. On days I work on duration, I will look to push non-stop for one and a half to two hours. When I use the UBE, which is a stationary hand cycle, I also go for speed and duration. Again, depending on the day, I am either sprinting hard with rests in-between, or I am arm pedaling for one to two hours straight - going for duration. This is a small glimpse into the exercising that I do to stay in shape to be the best wheelchair tennis player I can be. This type of hardcore exercise isn’t for everyone, so if you are completely new and have never lifted weights, or exercised before, I would suggest you work closely with a trained professional to help get you started.

If you are going to start working out, I would also suggest you start slow and consider how much function you have. For example;

  • Is your grip strength limited?
  • Do you have use of your core and trunk muscles?
  • Can you move your legs?

There are many assistive devices out there to help while working out. Since I am a quadriplegic, I have limited grip strength and no core muscles. I need help gripping when lifting heavier weights, so I use wraps around my wrists which have metal rounded hooks that go around the weight bar.
There are many different styles to use if you have limited grip. Since I don’t have use of my abs and trunk muscles, balance is always an issue while working out and lifting heavy weights. I will often use a large weight belt that wraps around my stomach and the backrest of my chair, acting as a seat belt, to help keep me balanced.

I don’t focus on what I can’t do, but rather I put all my effort into what I can do. Just get out there and have some fun!


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