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Strength training Modifications for Students With Disabilities

This is an excerpt from Functional Strength Training for Physical Education With HKPropel Access by Nate J. VanKouwenberg.

Students with special needs require strength for general health, performance in daily activities, and long-term durability, just like their peers. Unique daily challenges that many other students do not need to deal with can present additional needs for strength in order to combat the physical demands that come with certain disabilities. Unfortunately, students with significant needs often receive a modified PE curriculum that does not include strength training, because teachers do not know how to modify exercises or they are afraid of causing injury. In most situations, students can participate in some form of strength training safely, regardless of their situations.

Because there is a wide spectrum of cognitive and physical disabilities, concrete suggestions will not apply to all students. Modifications will depend on the unique, individualized needs of each student. Teachers will need to use their best judgment on a case-by-case basis to ensure that all students receive modified instruction that is safe and effective.

Regardless of the situation, teachers must prioritize safety. Always err on the side of caution, but this does not mean to avoid strength training altogether. In most cases, regressing skill selection to basic movements for each functional pattern and performance focus will allow students to participate safely and successfully.

For more significant special needs, teachers may need to alter activities beyond regressing skill selection. If a student has use of only one limb, for example, teachers can modify exercises to a unilateral skill. Examples include the following:

  • Front squat → one-leg squat to box
  • Bench press → one-dumbbell bench press
  • Chin-up → half-kneeling one-arm cable pull-down

Selectorized machines can also be great tools that allow students with significant special needs to strength train safely, because the machine guides the user through the movement and there is very little risk of injury. Machines also allow teachers or aides to offer additional physical assistance if needed. Although I preach that we need to send most selectorized machines to the junkyard, I do recommend that districts keep a few machines for special populations. To maximize benefits and limit the space needed, I suggest prioritizing one upper body pull machine (horizontal row or vertical pull-down), one upper body push machine (horizontal push or vertical press), and a leg press machine. Some companies also offer multiuse cable systems that are fairly compact.

Regardless of the modifications required, the goal is to have all students safely participate in some form of strength training regularly to experience benefits that can drastically improve their quality of life.

More Excerpts From Functional Strength Training for Physical Education With HKPropel Access