Alyssa Bialowas

athletic woman in wheelchairThere now is widespread acceptance that disability is a social construct with roots in societal attitudes. Individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities often face discrimination in many societal institutions, such as access to education, and participation in the labor force. Sport and physical activity provide a context for the physically and intellectually disabled to exceed expectations associated with their disability. Participation through sport can emphasize alternative representations of disabled bodies and people with disabilities.

The increase in the number of athletes with disabilities has provided a need for physiological study and training protocols to study performance effects on athletes with disabilities, as this population tends to be left out of athletic and exercise narratives. Depending on the mobility level that an athlete has, various methods of aerobic training can be utilized to lead to positive cardiovascular benefits among this population. Wheelchair ergometers are used for aerobic fitness training in wheelchair athletes, as upper body aerobic training is a practical solution for those with limited and zero lower body mobility.

The Study

Upper body endurance training is effective in improving the performance capacity in athletes with varying degrees of mobility. A study conducted by Hettinga et al. (2016) measured the effects of HIIT in handcycling in able-bodied men over a 7-week training intervention. Twenty-four men who responded that they were recreationally active were randomly assigned to three different groups –

  1. HIIT group

  2. Moderate intensity continuous training group (MICT)

  3. Non-training control group

Participants in the HIIT group completed 21 training sessions and participants in MICT completed 21 training sessions (training sessions between the two groups differed in the length of the session as well as the energy expenditure per session).

The Results

Following the training sessions, changes in peak oxygen uptake were compared between the three different groups. Peak oxygen uptake after HIIT significantly improved compared to participants in the MICT group and the control group, despite training 22% less in total time than the participants in MICT. HIIT proved to be a significantly effective way to improve the performance capacity of upper body exercise in able-bodied men, citing the potential for HIIT to be included in training programs for athletes who use handcycling as a means of upper body exercise.

Related Article: Pull-Up Power! – The Road To Your First Pull-Up


Future research should incorporate people with disabilities and wheelchair athletes rather than able-bodied athletes in their study. This will lead to a greater understanding of physiological functioning in diverse bodies. Participation through sport can emphasize alternative representations of diverse bodies, and positive health and performance outcomes should be equitably pursued for the success of athletes of all abilities.

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Hettinga, F.J., Reed, K., Schoenmakers, P., and Van Der Woude, L. (2016). High Intensity

Interval Training In Handcycling: The Effects of a 7 Week Training Intervention in Able-

bodied Men. Frontiers in Physiology, 7: 638.