Upper-Body Wheelchair Exercises

shot of a male caucasian wheelchair racer as he trains in a rural red rock setting

Just because you're in a wheelchair doesn't mean you can't tone and build your upper-body strength. Not only does regular exercise help you develop stronger muscles, but it can also help you burn off excess calories -- the sedentary nature of using a wheelchair can make it easy to pack on weight -- and improve your mood. Because everyone's health condition is different, your doctor or physical therapist can offer you additional, personalized guidelines on exercises that are appropriate for you.

Sitting Push-Ups

Sitting push-ups don't just help you develop your arms, abs, chest and shoulders, but the University of Iowa also recommends them because the exercise helps to take some of the pressure off your legs and lower extremities. Grab the arm rests on each side of your wheelchair. Push yourself straight up out of the seat and try not to use your legs as any kind of support. Go as high as possible or until your arms are straight, then slowly lower yourself back down. Aim to do a couple of sets of 10 repetitions each.


Depending on your level of physical mobility, you may be able to swim. Many community centers, gyms and recreational centers offer wheelchair-accessible pools. The water can help you stay buoyant, while stroking and paddling helps to tone and build upper-body strength. In some training situations, you can also affix specialized flotation devices to your waist so you can focus on improving your upper-body form.


Dynamic stretching helps to increase blood flow circulation, which is helpful when you're sitting in a wheelchair for long periods of time. It can also play a critical role in enhancing muscle tone and flexibility for people in wheelchairs, reports the University of California San Francisco's Multiple Sclerosis Center. Example stretches include shrugging your shoulders by rolling them forward and up toward your ears. Hold this position for 10 seconds, then roll them backward and back down into a relaxed position. Swinging your arms back and forth at your sides can also help stretch and warm up your arm, shoulder and neck muscles.

Arm Weights

Many kinds of weightlifting can be done from a seated, wheelchair position. For example, the National Institute on Aging suggests doing bicep curls to help build your arm muscles. To build your triceps, try tricep extensions. Hold a dumbbell in your hand and raise it toward the ceiling, then bend it down toward your wheelchair's back. Raise it back up to complete one repetition. Try to do two sets of eight to 15 reps on each arm.