The Paraplegic’s Guide to the First Time in the Gym

Reading time: 9 minutes

Substance:
Pre-Gym
At Gym
Post Gym


Being fit and healthy is crucial. Every single person in a wheelchair needs to workout and stay healthy. There are many reasons. Making a good first impression, being able to do what you want, having self-confidence, keeping your mind sharp, becoming more successful, being happier, living longer, and most important of all, being independent. If that’s not enough, read this.

As you should know, I’ve only been in a wheelchair for a small fraction of my life. When I was a kid, I was super into skateboarding, then I moved to basketball, after that I got into boxing. Included in the boxing phase came weight lifting. I started getting more and more into it and the next thing I remember is somehow finding myself on stage competing as a bodybuilder, winning my division and best abs, going home with a sticky coating of spray tan and then turning 15 the next week.

Since then, I’ve been working out with a substantial amount of competitions tossed in the mix. I proudly have this website bookmarked.

Although I’m not certified by any means, through experience in the gym, self education and getting plenty of unsolicited advice, I know enough to merit giving advice on going to the gym for the first time in a wheelchair or otherwise.

My first workouts after getting injured were in rehab and more functional than to build muscle, though that’s also an aim. We did a lot of shoulder exercises and lots of reps with lower weight. With my reliable tenacity, I refused to use any weight lower than 9lbs and mostly used 10lbs, which were the highest the weights went. The strength and function that I gained over those 4 weeks in rehab lead to my rapid recovery.

Since I was a little more strength oriented, I was able to muscle my way through most things and figure out how to do it with grace later.

I loved doing any type of workout, most of the time I’d just smile from how great it feels to be working out and sweating. The feeling of progress and growth.

Sadly, when I left rehab, all that bravado and eagerness for the iron had taken an unannounced vacation. I didn’t go to the gym for a while. I didn’t even know how I would do it. I kept telling myself that I would go when I wasn’t as busy. To be honest, and that’s what I always aim to be, I was fucking scared.

I used to be king of the gym. I leg pressed 1000lbs+ when I was in highschool. People used to be amazed that I was 15 when I talked to them at the gym. When I was 17, they thought I was a college student. I grew into it and it became less unique and now I was about to go back in less than agreeable circumstances.

Going to the gym for the first time is a bit intimidating for anyone, but when you’re in a wheelchair it’s a little more so. Since I didn’t feel confident to go back to the gym, the inertia became a vicious cycle. It was’t easy the first few times, feeling like the king that had fallen off.

Even the man was scared to go back to his own kingdom!

I obviously did go to the gym, I adjusted rapidly because I planned out and used the basic tactic that I’ll be describing below.

If you find yourself getting worried or scared about going to the gym, then you’re in the same place I was. I did have a lot of prior knowledge, but all you need to do is watch a few hours of credible videos and you’ll know the fundamentals. Just remember that even me, the guy who was the guy in the gym was scared to go back.


For and before your first time at the gym, there are checklists. They’re pretty much mandatory. Unless you don’t want to make rapid progress, in that case you can just stop reading this.

Before we even get to the gym, we have to wax on and wax off.

We have to do our research.
We have to prepare.
We have to have a plan.
We’re going to cover all that first and then we’ll talk about exactly what to do during our first time in the gym.

Pre-gym:

Before we begin going to the gym, we need to have a clear goal. Having goals for the gym will motivate you, keep you on track, keep you focused and give you a purpose in the gym.

As a former bodybuilder, I know more than ever that having goals/desired outcomes and a plan is the way to be successful in the gym. If you go in without a plan, you’ll come out without progress.

Here’s what we need to do BEFORE going to the gym:

First, assess what you can do.

  • What muscle groups can you work out? Any muscles that you have control over can, should, and will be exercised.

Split these muscles into groups

  • For me, this is Chest, Back, Arms, Shoulders/Traps, and Abs.

Have a clear vision

  • Next, take a look at yourself and envision what you want to become. Do you want to be stronger? Leaner? More muscular? You have an ideal body image, that’s your goal, and you will reach it.

Write out your goals for each muscle group or workout

  • Over time, you’ll be raising your goals as you get closer. I like to always keep my goals out of reach so that I keep moving forward. For me, I chose specific workouts for each muscle group and created a weight and rep goal with a timeline.
  • An example would be to do 50 dips. I started around 25 and every other chest day I would do dips until I dropped and wrote that number down to see how close I was. I reached 50 after about a month.

Find a gym

  • Now you need to do your homework, find a few gyms nearby, call them and ask them how accessible their facility is.
  • If you’re deciding between gyms, some important factors are: the weights/machines they have, the entrance/parking lot accessibility, the locker room, and how helpful the staff are (probably the most important).

Do your homework

  • Once you have a gym to go to, you want to make sure that you show up with some knowledge.
  • Study the basics of the muscular system. Watch some videos explaining how each of your muscle groups function

You really need to know this because in the gym, we have to get creative and that means using some machinery in an innovative way. The best way I’ve found to be innovative in the gym is to master the fundamentals and after that, I can find unique ways to use anything in the gym to help me in working out a certain muscle group or doing a certain workout.

Here are the fundamentals, though I highly encourage getting more detail from another source.

  • Chest is a pushing forward motion
  • Back is a pulling in motion, squeezing your shoulder blades together
  • Biceps are a curling in motion
  • Triceps are a pushing out motion
  • Shoulders are any motion with stiff arms
  • Traps are a shrugging motion
  • Abs are a crunching motion
  • Lower back is a curling of the lower back to lift your torso up

Know your wheelchair

It’s good to know about how your wheelchair reacts to movements as well. An example of when its good to know is the case of doing overhead extensions – having a substantial amount of weight above and behind your head will cause you to tip backwards and fall if you’re not quick to react. The solution is to back up against something so that you can’t tip over.

Knowing how the muscles are exercised means that you can look at anything in the gym and visualize new ways to use it for different muscles. This is absolutely crucial for success in the gym. I’ve been complimented many times for my innovations in the gym.

Learn about the basic workouts

  • There are going to be at least 10 workouts you can find for each muscle, after seeing those, you’ll be able to sieve through and find the one’s you’ll be capable of doing. It helps to know which workouts exist so you can avoid wasting time discovering them on your own (or never discovering them).
  • Knowing what machines the gym has will be helpful in figuring out what workouts you can do. I have a list on my phone of all the workouts I can do for each muscle, half of them are unconventional and definitely not the intended purpose.

Build up strength to workout

  • Once you’ve learned about how the body works, you should really do home workouts. Before going into the gym, you need enough strength to lift the weights, re-rack them, transfer to the machines or benches, and have enough strength to use the machines and weights.
  • It’s also about safety, you’ll end up hurting yourself if you try to do too much weight, and if you can’t do a lot of weight, you’ll probably do too much just to keep your ego intact.
    • All you need to do is search for home workouts (normal ones) and then go through them and see which ones you can do or get close to doing. Knee push-ups, crunches, planks, etc.

Pay close attention to form

  • Once you’ve built up strength, search up the basic workouts such as bench press and learn about proper form. Having proper form is another very important aspect of going to the gym. If your form is bad, you’ll hurt yourself, which could have catastrophic results if you have issues with your back or injure your shoulders.

Don’t go alone

  • Find a gym partner(s). Ask a friend to come to the gym with you, or if you know someone who goes to the gym, ask to have them join you or if you can join them.
  • You can go to the gym alone, but it’s much more helpful to go with friends and have people you know at the gym. My first time back at the gym, I went with friends and it really helped me. Correction, *they* really helped me.

This looks like a lot, and it is, but don’t be afraid to choose only the ones that you want to do and add things you think will help. This list is all-inclusive and is meant to help you build up the momentum so that you can smoothly and confidently transition into the gym, if you have gym buddies already or have a favorite gym, then obviously you don’t need to figure that out.

First time at the gym:

This part is important. All of this is important, but when it comes to the first time at the gym, you’ll want to make sure to follow this.

Your first time at the gym, you won’t be working out.
Cosmo, you’re crazy!
Yes, I believe I am, but for your first time back in the gym, don’t plan on having a full work out.

This is possibly a new gym and even if it isn’t, the circumstances are new.

You will do some exercises, but not a complete workout. Your first time at the gym will be to scope out some potential workouts you can do and learn the lay of the land.

When I first went to the gym, I did a tour of the whole gym, twice. I looked at every machine, then quickly went through each muscle group in my head, and then analyzed what possible workouts I could do.
This is why you need to know the basic mechanics of how your muscles work and what workouts exist.

After tour de iron, you and your friends will loop back around to a few promising workouts, maybe the bench press or some machines. Having your friends with you, or a staff member, will not only give you confidence to try some new things, but they’ll help you with transfers or other things.
Trying out as much as you can is crucial for you to build up your list of “known-to-work” workouts.

While at the gym, go through your list of muscles that you can (and will) workout. Try to find 1 or 2 workouts for each muscle group. Give each one a try and then move on to the next.

It’s also a good thing to tell your friends about this process before they come with you so that they know that this isn’t going to be a real workout. Having your friends or staff members help you will also add to the creativity, with everyone pitching in ideas.

Take note of what workouts you discovered and for what muscle groups.

Post gym:

Now that you’ve gone through the gym, and you know what workouts you can do, we plan.

Write down each of the muscle groups and the workouts below. This is the foundation for your gym plan.

For each day that you go in, you can now take these workouts, mix them up, and add how many sets and reps of each workout you want to do. It’s much easier to do this when you have an objective.

Remember we talked about goals? For each of these workouts, you need to set a weight, rep, and timeline goal. I prefer using workouts as the goal because they’re very measurable, body weight likewise.

Keep a separate list of those goals and track where you are at least once a week so you can measure your progress.

This is how you’ll motivate yourself in the gym and to keep going back. I like to have end of month goals. I track where I’m at right now and then I’ll have about 3 weeks to reach the next goal.

Now you’re ready to go and dominate at the gym.

And if you want to see some workouts, tips, and trick in action, check out this amazing playlist I found on YouTube. (more will be added).


Immediate action items: Pick the steps you presume you’ll find most helpful, and go through them.

Summary: Lots of things to do before, during, and after your first time at the gym.

Overdeliver: Look at other people in the gym for ideas. Some of my best workouts are from seeing other people doing a workout.

Remember to stretch!!!!!

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