Top 5 Adaptive Fitness Exercises for the Gym

Staying active and healthy can present unique challenges for people who live with a disability of any kind. Here at STRONG fitness, we are dedicated to helping individuals and personal trainers alike overcome the hurdles of getting fit as a person with a disability; that’s where adaptive fitness comes in.

Obstacles to Traditional Exercise are Overcome by Adaptive Exercise

Disabilities that cause difficulties at the gym vary wildly, and the root of the problem can be very different from one person to another. While the challenge may be great, we have seen time and time again that adaptive fitness exercises have helped change the lives and increase the quality of life for many — no matter how different they may be.

Special Strong Gym Franchise Learn More

Adaptive training can benefit individuals who fall into any of these categories:

  • Neurological disorders
  • Neuromuscular disorders
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Physical disabilities
  • Intellectual or Learning Disabilities

The Best Adaptive Fitness Exercises For The Gym

Below, we will list the top 5 adaptive fitness exercises that you can do at the gym. Understandably, some of these exercises might not be possible for every person, so choose the ones that work for you. We recommend working closely with one of our personal trainers for increased effectiveness and safety of each workout.

1. Shoulder Retractions (With or Without Resistance Bands)

Begin this workout in a seated position, either in a chair or your wheelchair, then follow the steps below:

  1. Bring your hip as far back into the chair as you can and sit up straight.
  2. Reach your arms straight out in front of you without locking your elbows with your hands gripping imaginary bike handles.
  3. Pull your elbows back as if you were pulling a bar toward your chest until your elbows are slightly behind your torso.
  4. As you pull your arms back, squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold the position for a second before starting the process again.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4.

If you have access to resistance bands at your gym, you can wrap them around a pole and use them to perform the same motions described above. If you’re using a wheelchair, be sure to lock the wheelchair into place before beginning.

Depending on the weight, this workout can help increase endurance as well as strength. Use lightweight repetitions (reps) to focus on endurance and slower, heavier, repetitions to focus on strength.

2. Seated Knee Raises

Begin seated in your chair with your hips back in the seat and sitting up straight. While performing this exercise, make sure you are engaging your core by flexing your abdominal muscles. 

Follow these steps:

  1. Put your feet flat on the ground or squarely on your wheelchair’s footplate.
  2. Slowly lift one foot off the ground in front of you as far as you can comfortably do so.
  3. Bend your knee back toward your body as close as you can.
  4. Hold that position for five seconds or as long as you can.
  5. Repeat this exercise ten times for each leg, alternating legs each time.

This workout will help not only with strengthening your leg muscles, but it will also help with your flexibility over time.

3. KettleBell Row Boat

As always, begin seated with your hips back and your back straight. For this exercise, it’s important to take it slow and use a weight that you’re comfortable with. 

  1. Pick up a kettlebell by the handle with both arms and bring it to the middle of your chest.
  2. Bring the kettlebell to your right side and pull it slightly behind you, keeping contact with your ribs.
  3. Come back to the starting center position before bringing the kettlebell slightly to your left side and then pull it behind you.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3. It should look like you are paddling a boat left and right.

As mentioned earlier, make sure you are using an appropriate weight. If you can’t hold a kettlebell, this workout can be used without weight — just make sure you are engaging your core.

4. Chest Squeeze

Begin this workout sitting up straight with your core engaged. Depending on your unique ability and strength level, you can do this workout using a medicine ball, basketball, or even a balloon or stuffed animal.

  1. Bring your medicine ball or another object to the center of your chest.
  2. Squeeze the ball between your hands, making sure to use your chest muscles.
  3. While still squeezing the ball, slowly extend your arms until your arms are almost straight out in front of you.
  4. Slowly pull the ball back to the center of your chest while continuing to squeeze it and repeat 10 times.

It’s important to do this workout with intention and focus on working the chest muscles.

5. Medicine Ball Slam

This adaptive exercise can be done either from a standing or seated position. This workout is a good warmup and endurance exercise. It also helps relieve stress that accumulates day over day because it lets you simulate a “smashing” motion.

  1. Raise a medicine ball above your head
  2. As you bring the ball down to the ground, flex your abs.
  3. Slam the ball as straight down as you can without coming close to hitting your feet.
  4. Retrieve the ball and repeat.

If you cannot lift a medicine ball, any soft object can be used. We recommend against using anything too “bouncy” as the ball can bounce back up and become a danger. A deflated sports ball of any kind also works rather well.


Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.
Special Strong provides adaptive fitness for children, adolescents, and adults with mental, physical and cognitive challenges. Start your own Special Strong gym franchise today and create a lasting impact on your community.