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Upper Extremity Exercise Program

Without a Paddle: Upper Extremity Exercise Program – Jason M., OT

In occupational therapy, upper extremity exercises are pretty standard. Whether the goal and purpose is to increase a patient’s general strength or improve their performance with functional transfers, ensure that they have enough arm strength to tackle any tasks is always important. Many OT’s and OTA’s have a BUE exercise “set” or “program” that they have personally developed over their years of practice. I’m not trying to discourage that plan at all; it’s important to fill your therapy repertoire with things you are comfortable with. I would, however, like to share and encourage you to use a program I have utilized with a nautical theme. All of these exercises cover the basic gross motor movements and utilize the major BUE muscle groups, but do it in a fun, activity based way that still allows for easy progressive strengthening development:

BE for BUE: Boating Exercises for Bilateral Upper Extremities

These exercises are best completed with a dowel rod/stick held in both hands and while sitting in a chair for proper technique.


Hold the dowel rod at waist height at shoulder width apart with palms down. Lean forward and stretch out your arms, then pull back and sit back upright.


Hold the dowel rod at shoulder height at shoulder width apart with palms down. With a slight twist to the side, dip one end of the dowel rod below your thigh to one side; return to shoulder height, then repeat to the other side; alternate between right and left.


Hold the dowel rod to at waist height a shoulder width apart with your left palm facing up and right palm facing down. Position the dowel rod vertically to your right side. Leading with the bottom tip, lean forward and reach with the dowel rod, then pull back and sit upright. With each set, alternate the position of your hands and do the movement on the left side.


Hold the dowel rod at shoulder height at shoulder width apart with palms down. With large, smooth movements, reach up, forward, down, and then back with the dowel rod, creating a large circular motion in the area.



  • Secure a cuff weight to the center of the dowel rod for extra resistance.
  • Encourage smooth, slow, complete movements.
  • Elicit conversation about boating trips/experiences.
  • Encourage the patient to imagine they are traveling through water for proper technique and motivation.

I hope this simple program offers a new and fun way for you and your patients to get stronger.

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