Still, all compete in classes divided only by weight — which means, on top of everything else, there’s an uneven playing field for competitors. “It’s crazy how in the same sport, you’ve got two injured individuals looking at it from two different perspectives,” says Neil Picone, a 32-year-old wheelchair bodybuilding middleweight champion and overall champion from Clinton, N.J. “But so many good things come out of this that an able-bodied athlete couldn’t even fathom.”
Beyond just the physical benefits, the competitions provide people with renewed purpose at a moment when there often seems to be little. Scott’s road to redemption, for example, started with the basic bench press, a move he had loved doing in his high school gym. He recalls relearning the movement all over again. His center of balance had shifted; he no longer could press his feet against the ground and drive through them for support. But as he added weights to the barbell, his confidence grew, and he eventually began to win bench-press events in which he was the only entrant in a wheelchair. “To have something to strive for,” he says. “That’s what really snapped me out of my depression.”
The strength, both mental and physical, he found there soon drove him to work harder through rehab — and, despite his prognosis, he regained some use of his upper legs, walking across the stage to retrieve his high school diploma in 2000. A few years later, when he discovered wheelchair bodybuilding while surfing the Web, the challenge of focusing on physique rather than just brute strength seemed almost absurd, but not inconceivable.
Picone recalls a similar glimmer of hope in 2007. The then-26-year-old lost control of his Yamaha R6 motorcycle during a track race, hitting a concrete wall, severing his spinal cord and fracturing several ribs and neck vertebrae. “I remember laying in the hospital bed and just Googling stuff I could do. Everything I came across didn’t really stick with me as much as the bodybuilding did, because it was one of those sports where you couldn’t really fathom somebody in a chair being able to accomplish it,” he says. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s got to be a huge pain in the [butt] — so I’ve got to do it.’ ”
Still, Picone and his peers may have not realized just how much of a pain it would be at the outset. For the average bodybuilder outside of a wheelchair, bringing one’s “best package,” or a winning physique, to the stage is an unpredictable and often heartbreaking art. Athletes are judged totally subjectively, on factors like individual muscle shape and fullness, size and “conditioning,” the layer of fat covering the muscles. Even the quality of one’s stage tan can increase or decrease the total score.
To compensate for differing levels of leg function, wheelchair bodybuilders are judged only from the waist up. Still, because no two athletes have the exact same abilities or limitations, there’s no standard program for building a championship torso. “It’s been an uphill battle figuring out how to get around the gym differently and figure out all the main exercises without injury,” Picone says. “There are a lot of variables with balance and whatnot to figure out now.”
What’s more, there are virtually no trainers or competition coaches in the field yet who specialize only in wheelchair bodybuilding. Picone, for one, chose to hire a traditional bodybuilding trainer, Greg Peterson, at the famously hard-core Diamond Gym in Maplewood, N.J.
Others largely go it alone, piecing together training information from the Internet and figuring out their own move modifications. That’s partially what led Scott to start his website, Wheelchair-Bodybuilding.com, which has, since 2006, grown to be more or less the official Web hub of the sport. “I know how difficult it is when you don’t have anything,” he says. “Nobody really helped me get into bodybuilding. I would ask people, but it was confusing.”
Like any other bodybuilder, wheelchair participants usually focus on one or two body parts per workout, hitting the gym most days of the week. Many basic exercises that are often done seated anyways, with dumbbells — say, lateral raises for the sides of the shoulders — generally can be performed without major changes.