Wheelchair Skills Training - Wheelie

Original Editor - Lee Kirby as part of the Wheelchair Service Provision Content Development Project

Top Contributors - Naomi O'Reilly, Kim Jackson and Amrita Patro  

Performs Wheelie [edit | edit source]

Description and Rationale[edit | edit source]

The learner achieves the wheelie position (balancing on the rear wheels), maintains it for a period of time and brings the casters back to the floor. The stationary wheelie position can also be used to avoid postural problems that can cause neck strain from looking up. The stationary wheelie is also a foundation skill for a number of functional skills that can be best performed in the full wheelie position and that will be dealt with in the next section. 

General Training Tips[edit | edit source]

The sequence of phases trained is not critical but the more natural sequence (and one that is supported by the general motor skills literature) is described below.

Take-off Phase:[edit | edit source]

  • The learner will already have learned how to transiently pop the casters from the surface in earlier skills. 
  • It may be useful to use simulation, having the trainer tip the wheelchair back into the balance position, to give the wheelchair user a sense of how much tilt will be needed. 
  • If properly timed and the wheelchair is appropriately set up, the wheelchair user should require little force to achieve take-off.
  • For the wheelie take-off, many wheelchair users roll backward slowly, then quickly forward. This method is very effective and is to be preferred when the wheelchair user wishes to perform a wheelie in the same position in which he/she started. If using this method, the wheelchair user should start with the hands just ahead of the top center of the wheel (i.e., ~1:00 o’clock on the right rear wheel, using the clock analogy). The wheelchair user should try not to pause between rolling back and pushing quickly forward, otherwise he/she may not tip backward as easily.
  • However, the method of only rolling the wheels forward is preferred when the available space is not an issue because the forward-only method can be used while the wheelchair is moving forward (as is occasionally necessary). The hands will need to start farther back on the wheels (i.e., ~11 o’clock) and slightly more force will be needed by the wheelchair user than for the backward-then-forward method. 
  • The forward motion that is common to both methods can be thought of as an action to get the base of support (the rear wheels) under the center of gravity (located near the lap of the wheelchair user). 
  • Some wheelchair users may find it easier if they lean back into the backrest to cause or help with the initial rear tip. However, skilled wheelie performers can achieve the wheelie position while maintaining an upright body position. Leaning forward is a natural tendency to prevent rear tip-over but this makes it more difficult to achieve take-off.
  • Whichever method is used, the wheelchair user should progressively pop the casters higher and higher until he/she can tip backward far enough to reach and slightly overshoot the wheelie balance point. Once past the balance point, the wheelchair user should then pull back on the hand-rims to prevent tipping too far and to return to the balance point.
  • If the wheelchair user is having difficulty getting tipped far enough backward to reach the balance point, he/she should push forward more forcefully. An alternative is to start the take-off with the casters uphill or on a small level change although there needs to be room for the rear wheels to roll forward if using the forward-only method. 
  • If a learner is having difficulties due to fear of tipping over backward, the wheelchair user can pop back onto the spotter then progress to a self-save (flexing the neck and trunk while pulling back vigorously on the hand-rims). Once the learner is able to tip backward far enough to be caught by the spotter, in subsequent attempts he/she should gradually reduce the amount of overshoot until it is possible to self-save without the spotter’s assistance.
  • Once the learner can consistently perform the wheelie take-off, attention should be shifted to the balance phase.

Balance Phase:[edit | edit source]

  • The wheelchair user does not need to use much force to maintain balance. It is preferable for the wheelchair user to keep a light grip on the wheels (“avoid the grip of death!”). It should be possible for the wheelchair user to slide his/her hands forward and backward on the hand-rims.
  • During the early learning stage, some wheelchair users find it useful to isolate the variations of pitch from those of rear-wheel displacement (i.e. using the motor-learning principle of “reducing the degrees of freedom”). This can be done by reducing the extent to which the rear wheels can move (e.g. by using obstacles such as bricks or pieces of wood in front of and behind the rear wheels). If the wheelchair is well set up and the wheelchair user has adequate strength, he/she may be able to push forward hard enough to tilt the wheelchair into the balance position with the rear wheels blocked. Otherwise, the trainer can tip the wheelchair back to the balance point while the wheelchair user rests his/her hands in the lap. The trainer then turns over control to the wheelchair user by having the wheelchair user grasp the hand-rims. The trainer should then take his/her hands off the wheelchair – it can be confusing to have two people attempt to maintain balance at the same time – and let the learner know (“It’s all you now”). 
  • Once the wheelchair user is in control with the rear wheels blocked, learning exercises can include any or all of the following: 
  • Having the wheelchair user experiment with the extent of tip (more and less than the ideal balance point, where the force to maintain position is minimal).
  • Leaning forward (which increases the amount of tip needed to be at the ideal balance point).
  • Using only two fingers and a thumb of each hand on the hand-rims.
  • Sliding the hands backward and forward on the hand-rims to find the ideal position.
  • Holding on with only one hand while waving the other.
  • Closing the eyes and focussing on the feel of the balance position. 
  • Once these variations are mastered at the high rolling-resistance level (i.e. with the wheels fully blocked), the barriers in front of the rear wheels can be moved a few cm away while the wheelchair leans against the rear barrier. This allows a small amount of forward and backward movement of the rear wheels. At either extreme of movement, the wheelchair user can lean the rear wheel against the front or rear barriers. This stage can be considered analogous to having “training wheels” like those used by children learning to ride bicycles. Once the wheelchair user is familiar with this, the barriers can be moved progressively farther away and removed.
  • When the wheelchair user has become comfortable with not spending too much time leaning on the barriers, the wheelchair can be moved to a surface with medium rolling resistance (e.g. on a gym mat). Here the take-off and balance phases can be combined. The soft surface allows the learner to perform a “slow-motion” wheelie.
  • Once this is mastered, the wheelchair can be moved to a low rolling-resistance surface (e.g. a tile floor).
  • When a basic wheelie can be performed on a low rolling-resistance surface, the learner can refine his/her skill by becoming familiar with and practicing the two balance strategies that have been reported in the scientific literature:
  • Proactive balance strategy: In this strategy, analogous to balancing a meter stick on a finger, the wheelchair user keeps the wheels moving forward and backward over a small area. The wheelchair user should try to move the hands only between the 12:00 and 1:00 o’clock positions. This will allow a safety margin, so that the wheelchair user can react to a loss of balance in either direction. If the wheelchair user wants the wheels to move farther than the intermediate hand position permits, the hand-rims can be allowed to slide through the grip. It may be helpful to time the movement of the rear wheels to the breathing pattern while using the proactive balance strategy.
  • Reactive balance strategy: The reactive balance strategy is analogous to the step strategy used in standing balance – if a standing person is pushed forward or backward hard enough that he/she would otherwise fall, the person steps forward or backward to bring the base of support under the displaced center of gravity. If the wheelchair user begins to tip too far forward, he/she should roll the rear wheels forward to return to the balance point (“when you fall forward, push forward”). If the wheelchair user imbalances backward, he/she should roll the rear wheels backward to re-establish balance (“when you fall back, pull back”). 

Landing Phase:[edit | edit source]

  • To land from the balance position, the wheelchair user pulls back on the wheels, or leans forward to gently bring the front wheels to the ground.

Progression: [edit | edit source]

  • Once the full wheelie can be performed with the spotter nearby, the wheelchair user can practice performing the stationary wheelie with variations (e.g. with the spotter progressively farther away, with low lighting, while multi-tasking).

Variations:[edit | edit source]

  • During the balance phase, the wheelchair user can lean forward or place a knapsack on the lap or footrests to increase the caster height needed for the wheelie position. The wheelchair user can practice this by placing the casters on different height targets (e.g. pylons, steps).
  • See other wheelie variations in the next section.

References[edit | edit source]