A recent featured article appearing in MEN'S FITNESS 
Magazine on Dr. Franks

Wheelchair athlete Jon Franks 
shows how anyone can build upper-body 
strength endurance and flexibility

"You can just call me a cripple," says Jon Franks. "Worrying about labels is a waste of time." Time is something Franks, a Los Angeles-based chiropractor and personal trainer, hates to waste. He spends enough of it working with a clientele that could fill an entire issue of People: Jane Fonda, Sylvester Stallone, Larry Bird, Eric Dickerson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Howie Long.

But Franks, 39, is also a competitive athlete, with dozens of triathlons and marathons under his belt. If that doesn't hint at a life packed with activity and accomplishment, consider one more thing: He does it all from the seat of a wheel- chair. Ever since a motorcycle accident 10 years ago, Franks has been paralyzed from the waist down.


Fully able sportsmen, recreational or otherwise, rarely give wheelchair athletes a thought, except perhaps to feel glad they don't have the same limitations. But while we all admire their courage, there's more to their feats than simple perseverance. Athletes like Franks have had to reclaim the most basic training concepts, and they've had to reclaim them without much information. Think about-it: You can pick up this magazine and get dozens of training tips each month. Where does a wheelchair athlete turn? To other wheelchair athletes? Fat chance. "Most keep to themselves," Franks says. "They'll do roadwork together, but they're secretive about their workouts. That's because serious wheelchair athletes have to compete in a restricted world, and there's always the danger of giving a prospective rival an edge, he says.

For a wheelchair athlete, arms are everything. "[A fully able athlete] may be able to go forever on a stationary bike, but try getting a cardiovascular workout with your arms," Franks says. "You bum out in five or 10 minutes if you're not used to it."

Burning out isn't an option for Franks. When he enters a triathlon, for example, he swims, pedals a special hand-propelled tricycle and then finishes in his wheelchair. By necessity, he's become an expert on upper-body-endurance workouts, and, the lessons are applicable to anybody, chair-bound or not, who wants useable strength without a lot of bulk.


When Franks lifts, he does sets of 50 to 100 repetitions, training his muscles to function even when they're extremely fatigued. And he stretches. "Strength is important, of course, but stretched muscles are more important," he says'. "Remember the Raiders' Howie Long? He was a big, strong player, but. what made him a great defensive end was his speed. He stretched so much he could do splits. That's why he was so fast."

Stretching also helps prevent injury, a constant danger to wheel- chair athletes because they do so much repetitive work with the same upper-body muscles. In addition, many have to cope with the fact that their disability doesn't permit basic, everyday movements-bending, twisting, turning, stooping-that help keep us supple and enhance the control we have over our muscles. Someone who has to do everything from a seated position is going to be far tighter than his able-bodied counterparts. Stretching thus becomes more of a necessity than a luxury. "Look at [caged] animals in a zoo," Franks says. "They stretch constantly throughout the day." He suggests stretching before, during and after every workout.

But where Franks' training program really differs from a typical athlete's is above the shoulders-the neck, to be specific. The wheelchair racer spends most of his time bent over, head up. Neck exercises compensate for the stress.

He also does his movements in an unusual order. Typically, you're told to perform compound exercises (those using more than one joint) for a group of muscles before going on to isolation exercises (those that use one joint). A bench press, for instance, is a compound lift, meaning you use both your shoulder and elbow joints to move the weight. Normally, you'd do bench presses before flyes, which use just the shoulder joint.

Why do you do them in that order? Probably so you'll be able to press more weight while your muscles are fresh. But if you take your ego out of the equation and acknowledge that the point of chest exercises is to build chest muscles, who cares how much you bench in your workouts? By performing flyes first, you fatigue your chest muscles with an exercise specifically designed for them. You do bench presses later, since other muscles (mostly your triceps) assist on that one. If you were working your legs, you'd do leg extensions before leg presses.

Franks also prefers to work his arms independently rather than in unison, performing biceps curls with dumb- bells rather than a barbell, for example. Aside from the fact that dumbbells are biomechanically friendlier and easier to use for the chair-bound, one-armed versions of an exercise demand more muscular control to maintain stability. More muscle fibers and nerves are used, which means you benefit more from the movements. 


Fully able and disabled athletes have more in common than you might realize, especially when the ambulatory one is training for endurance and speed rather than pure muscle mass. In that sense, as Franks learned, the wheel- chair athlete provides lessons that are otherwise difficult to discover. Disability creates a crucible of extremes where extraordinary challenges can be observed and overcome.

All of which makes you wonder if the term handicap really has much meaning. In Franks' case, what he can't do seems insignificant in light of what he can. 


Terry Mulgannon is former fitness editor of this magazine. 
He wrote "The Lazy Man's Guide to Health and Fitness" in the June issue.