Exercise + disability

They make gym stuff colourful to cheer you up! Shae Sackman

Adapting weight training techniques can be necessary when equipment design is one size fits all

Working out can be a daunting undertaking for everyone. Finding the right kinds of clothes, learning how to use different machines and equipment, and facing challenges to things like your motivation are all familiar obstacles. Incorporating exercise into your life gets even more complicated when accessibility needs enter the fray. 

Changing the way their bodies work to compensate for structures, tools, and environments that are not adaptive, disabled people put forth immense energy, effort, and time to move through a world that disregards their basic needs. Willingly choosing to exercise at all after expending all the energy it takes to live day-to-day is a heavy obstacle. Being faced with equipment or exercises that are not accessible can be the end of that whole endeavor.

However, this hurdle can be overcome. The key lies not in fancy, expensive equipment, or the sort of toxic positivity that disabled people are often offered as an answer to practical challenges.

The key is knowledge. This can come in the form of a helpful article with explanations of adaptive equipment options that can help fill gaps that average machines present. It can be through YouTube videos and demonstrations of how to adjust for limb differences and mobility challenges. This knowledge can also come from people who are trained, or who have experience with exercise and can explain how to properly modify exercises to engage your body and muscles in safe ways while still targeting the things that need to be worked on.

The best adaptive tools are often the simplest and the least expensive. Creative problem-solving in tandem with a better understanding of the movement of the body is often the most effective approach. Some flexible ideas aimed at weight training include:

Foam padding. Limb differences often mean that pressure is placed on skin, muscle, bones, and joints that are not used to that sort of weight. Foam padding used for lining bars for squats can slip onto the bars of machines easily, and hugs the metal tightly. There are many different styles and sizes that can ease the load of metal crushing parts of the body it normally shouldn’t. An added bonus: Sometimes the padding can make up the difference in distance, helping you to balance more steadily.

Handles, straps, hooks, and gloves.* Handles for cable machines or resistance bands can be used in many different ways and come in many different styles; some you can wrap around forearms, some have silicone or rubber grips lining the handles, and some are wide enough to accommodate different parts of the body. Ankle straps with D-rings and Velcro can be adjusted and hooked up to cable machines, opening up many different lifting possibilities.

Weightlifting hooks can work for some, helping to modify grip and take the load off of joints or contact points without needing to grasp. Gloves or braces lined with silicone on the exterior can be slid up on forearms, wrists, palms, and fingers, and can help with absorbing shock and gripping exercise equipment with a more secure feel.

Exercise bands. Resistance bands can come in plain loops of different widths, or with hooks, handles, or even just a stretchy latex you can wrap around body parts. In addition to being endlessly useful for stretching, lifting, or even just starting to learn about how to engage in adaptive fitness practices, they’re incredibly practical. They can also be used to stuff into or around metal bars or handles on a machine, and can provide extra grip or a more secure hold.

Understanding how your body works, and what it can and can’t do, often brings fraught, frustrating, futile feelings. Using creative problem solving in tandem with a growing knowledge can help bring a sense of ease and enjoyment into exercising.

* The author of this article definitely did not have to look up ‘grippy gym glove’ to find out what this kind of glove was called.


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