Having limited mobility can be frustrating — it might even feel fruitless to attempt strength training. But it's important to exercise regardless of your ability level, says Heather Jeffcoat, Los Angeles-based physical therapist. With the right fitness programming, it's totally doable.
"If a person has limitations that require them to exercise seated, they need to make an extra effort to keep what they have strong," Jeffcoat says. And it all starts with your core. "Think of your core as the foundation of your house. If your foundation is weak, your house will not last. If your core is weak, it can't support optimal function for your upper or lower extremities."
Strengthening your core, along with the upper-body muscles in your arms, shoulders and make daily life activities easier. "Upper-body and core strength are essential in doing seated transfers from chair to bed, for example," Jeffcoat says. With the right exercises, such as the ones below, you can get a good strength-training workout even if you stay seated.
Check out more of our 20-minute workouts here — we’ve got something for everyone.
If you like these exercises but you need help performing them correctly, consider seeing a physical therapist. Always make sure you understand proper form before executing a movement, and ask a professional for modifications if you need them.
“There are ways to adapt exercises in every position,” Jeffcoat says, “and if a person feels limited, a good physical therapist should be easily able to provide them modifications to address their needs.”
Move 1: Engage Your Core
- Fill your stomach with a breath and brace it — think about pulling your belly button to your spine.
- Hold the brace for 5 seconds.
- Exhale, and repeat for 10 reps.
Every rep of all the exercises in this workout should start with core engagement. Bracing your core before beginning and exercise helps to ensure you won't get injured.
Move 2: Arm Circles
- With your core engaged, extend your arms out to the side like a T.
- Rotate your arms in a forward circular motion for 10 reps.
- Then rotate your arms in a backward circular motion for 10 reps.
- Repeat both (forward and backward) one more time.
Part 3: Shoulder Press
- Close your hands into a fist (do not hold a weight), engage your core and press your right arm up overhead.
- Lower it back down to your shoulder, the repeat on your left side.
- Do 10 on each arm.
Do: Perform 2 to 3 sets of 10 reps of every movement listed here. Rest 30 seconds between sets, and rest 60 seconds before moving onto the next movement.
You can do all of these movements without the resistance bands if you don’t have any. Adding resistance is a great way to build strength, but if you’re just starting out, doing these movements with just your body weight can help, too. If you don't have a resistance band, ask your physical therapist if you can do these movements while holding lightweight dumbbells or small objects, such as cans of soup.
Move 1: Seated Anchored Chest Press
- Begin sitting upright, holding the ends of a resistance band that's anchored behind you and slightly above shoulder height. You can either have someone hold the bands behind you or anchor them to a sturdy object such as a tall bed post.
- Slowly press your arms forward, with your palms down.
- Return to the starting position and repeat.
Make sure to keep your arms straight and don’t shrug your shoulders.
Move 2: Seated Triceps Extension
- Begin sitting upright holding the ends of a resistance band in each hand.
- One hand should be resting on your opposite knee, while the other rests beside your thigh with your elbow bent.
- Straighten your elbow, pulling against the resistance band.
- Hold briefly, then slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
Make sure to keep your core engaged and back straight during this exercise.
Move 3: Seated Anchored Row
- Begin sitting in an upright position holding both ends of a resistance band that's anchored under your feet, with your legs straight and your palms facing inward.
- Pull your arms backward, bending your elbows.
- Slowly straighten them and repeat. Think of squeezing your shoulder blades together as you pull back.
Make sure the band is anchored around the arches of your feet, rather than the ball or heel, where it might slip off. Keep your back straight and don't shrug your shoulders during the exercise.
Move 4: Seated Press-Up
- Begin sitting upright with your hands resting on the armrests of a chair.
- Straighten your arms, lifting your hips completely off the seat of the chair.
- Maintaining this position, squeeze your shoulder blades downward to lift your torso up a few more inches.
- Hold briefly, then relax and repeat.
If you’re in a wheelchair, make sure your wheelchair is locked and keep your neck relaxed during the exercise. Try to keep your elbows slightly bent if able.
Move 5: Seated Crunch With Resistance
- Begin sitting upright with your hands held close to your chest, with a resistance band looped around the back of your chair and your chest.
- Lean forward, hinging at your hips and pulling against the resistance.
- Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
Make sure to keep your neck and back straight during the exercise — you're truly just bending at the hips.
Move 6: Seated External Rotation With Resistance
- Begin sitting upright with your elbows bent at your sides, supported on armrests, with a towel roll tucked under each arm.
- Loop your resistance band around both hands.
- Without moving your elbows away from your torso, slowly rotate your arms outward.
- Hold, then return to the starting position and repeat.
Make sure to squeeze your shoulder blades down and back when you rotate your arms outward. Do not shrug your shoulders during the exercise.
Move 1: Spinal Twists
- Gently rotate your torso from side to side, pausing for 1 or 2 seconds in each position. Don't push it too much — just until you feel a slight stretch in your spine and abdominal muscles.
Move 2: Belly Breathing
- For 3 to 5 minutes, take deep breaths into your belly. Fill your belly as much as you can with each breath; try to inhale for 4 seconds and exhale for 4 seconds.