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Getting injured is tough because it can throw off your entire routine. You will most likely have to modify some of the activities that you do on a daily basis, from the way you get ready in the morning to how you exercise. Knowing the right workout modifications can keep you training safely without risking further injury.

For some, taking time away from exercising is even worse than getting hurt. However, once you’re ready to head back to the gym, there are certain things to keep in mind in order to avoid any setbacks or further injury.

Today, we will show you 12 workout modifications to help you get back in the gym after an injury without derailing your progress.

Workout Modifications

Tip #1: Watch your volume

workout modifications for weightlifting with dumbbells

Everyone uses specific calculations, like training volume, to measure workout intensity. Depending on your fitness goals, training volume is altered through the equation below.

Volume = (amount of weight that you’re lifting) x (number of sets) x (repetitions)

Each (or all) of these variables can be altered so you can train with the least amount of pain. Some examples of ways in which you can alter your training volume include: 

  • Decrease total sets (or rounds, for those who participate in CrossFit) 
  • Limit number of repetitions performed
  • Change overall training volume by limiting the number of training days per week

Fortunately, you can still make gains in the gym if you need to modify your training volume after an injury. In doing so, you will greatly decrease your risk for additional injury or excessive stress on surrounding muscles.

Tip #2: Lighten your load

Training load refers to (1) the amount of weight that you are lifting and (2) the effort it takes for you to lift it. By figuring out your one repetition maximum (1RM), you can calculate training load and intensity. 

From there, lighten your load by lowering the number of repetitions as you use a higher percentage of your one repetition maximum (1RM). Conversely, you can also perform a higher number of repetitions using a low 1RM percentage. Lowering your training load can still allow you to increase or maintain muscle strength, even if you are working at 40-60% of your 1RM. 

Another good rule of thumb is to use a rating scale to determine training load. For example, if squatting 100 pounds requires 10 out of 10 effort, then decrease the intensity of your workout accordingly.

Tip #3: Change your positioning

Depending on your injury, you may need to modify your hand or foot placement for certain exercises. Oftentimes, small changes in hand placement, hip rotation and squat stance can go a long way in altering the pain response. 

For example, painful squats can be alleviated by taking a wider stance or slightly rotating the legs outward. Those noticing some pain with overhead shoulder press may need to use a wide grip on the barbell. 

Tip #4: Watch your time

Recovery time between sets should also be considered when returning to exercise after an injury. In the beginning, give yourself a little more time than necessary to recover in order to avoid pushing beyond your limits.

For strength workouts, consider taking one to three minutes between sets. Individuals who are looking to improve muscular endurance may only need 30-60 seconds. Certain injuries may allow you to train with your normal weight and rep scheme, but may need an extended recovery period to prevent a flare up of the problem. 

Tip #5: Faster is not always better

Going through the motions will as fast as possible while sacrificing form may place you at a higher risk for injury. In sports where time is a key component to success like in CrossFit, swimming, or sprinting, it may be best to focus on taking your time with specific movements that aggravate the injury. 

Move slowly and with control during each exercise, especially during motions that trigger pain and discomfort. Doing this will also allow you to avoid future problems or more serious issues that may require surgery.

Tip #6: Focus on unilateral or isolated strength work

workout modifications for training at home

Shift your training focus to weak areas of your body in order to help your recovery process. You can accomplish this by training with exercises that work one part of the body at a time, known as isolated movements. Movements that address one side of the body are known as unilateral movements. 

Unilateral and isolated movements address key accessory muscles that contribute to stabilization and proper form for bigger, multi-joint movements. This will help provide control to the larger muscle groups, avoid compensation and start the healing process.

Exercises that emphasize unilateral movements are: 

  • Bulgarian split squat
  • Single arm shoulder press
  • Single leg RDL
  • Lateral step up

Tip #7: Consider cross training

Good news – you can still improve your strength and cardiovascular health as you recover from injury. One of the best ways to achieve this is through cross training. 

Cross training involves participating in various forms of exercise to develop one specific component of fitness. Many individuals utilize this principle when aiming to improve cardiovascular health and endurance.

Modifying exercises after injury by changing the activity mode allows injured areas of the body to rest as you continue to work towards your fitness goals. For example, using an elliptical or rower may be preferable over a treadmill for individuals recovering from lower body joint pain or plantar fasciitis. The elliptical provides a moderate intensity workout while minimizing lower body joint impact forces that tend to aggravate pain. 

Swimming is also an excellent form of aerobic exercise that is commonly substituted after a lower body injury. 

Tip #8: Use weight-bearing to your advantage

Unless you have been in rehab before, you are probably unaware of the effect of bearing weight through painful joints. Most importantly, taking weight away from painful joints can enhance recovery and is a commonly-used concept in physical therapy.

Changing your body position from weight-bearing to modified weight-bearing can make a significant difference in your progress. It also follows the same concepts discussed above regarding training load. By removing the effect of bodyweight during painful exercises, your training load is lessened, which makes modified weight-bearing exercises ideal for recovery. 

For example, the squat is a classic and elementary lower body strengthening exercise that requires equal weight-bearing through both legs. However, after a knee injury, squatting may be uncomfortable because the soft tissues are not ready to handle the load. Practicing a half squat or using the leg press machine may be a suitable alternative to decrease the load on the knee joint while improving lower body strength. 

Modifying the weight-bearing position can also be useful when learning a new lift for the first time. 

Tip #9: Pain-free range of motion is your new best friend

This is self-explanatory but extremely important. 

Pain with movement should be a signal to you that something is not right, especially when exercising. Modify the movement by changing the range of motion or limiting yourself to a pain-free range for a short period of time. 

Do you have back pain with power cleans? Try hang cleans. 

Can’t perform a deep squat due to knee pain? Do wall squats instead.

There are many factors that contribute to an inability to perform full range of motion. However, listening to your body can help you avoid setbacks or, even worse, surgery. 

Tip #10: Move in slightly different angles

workout modifications for barbells training

Most of us have habitual patterns of movement to which our bodies naturally gravitate. Over time, the body becomes adept at avoiding injury within that particular pattern of movement but will be more susceptible to injury in unfamiliar movement patterns. It is important to be mindful of ways in which your body moves, and train cautiously during new movements to avoid injury. 

Rehabilitation experts use this concept to their advantage, especially when reintroducing movement into injured areas. They may ask you to perform an exercise in different angles that will still allow you to increase strength and mobility. One example may be to perform side or reverse lunges as opposed to forward lunges to prevent pain, but target similar muscle groups. 

Tip #11: Substitution for a similar movement

Similar to the idea of cross training, substituting easy exercises for painful ones can still allow you to achieve your fitness goals. 

Instead of performing full deadlifts, try substituting with a trap bar or a sumo-variation. Can’t lay flat while you bench? Strengthen similar muscles through an incline or decline press. Pain with pullups? Try a band assisted pullup instead. One key component to treating most injuries is the removal of aggravating factors, and substitution is a great way to prevent further injury and maintain your workout intensity. 

Tip #12: Focus on your strengths (for right now)

It is important to understand your body’s unique strengths as well as its limitations.

Sometimes, exercise modifications after injury may not be enough. If your body cannot tolerate a particular movement after an injury, then it may be best to stop for right now. Allow your body to heal before trying again and, in the meantime, focus on other exercises that you can perform without pain.

Once you are ready to reintroduce movement to the injured area, begin by scaling similar exercises. 

Scaling allows you to strengthen the same body parts while limiting the risk for reinjury. For example, exercises like ring rows are a great alternative and starting point for unassisted pull-ups. 

Workout Modifications: Key Takeaways

  • Returning to exercise after an injury can be challenging, but there are many workout modifications that allow you to move in a pain-free manner. 
  • Consider modifying your training volume, rest breaks, and body position as you slowly ease back into physical activity. You can also focus on unilateral movements or another mode of exercise that still allows you to meet your training goals. 
  • Scaling back on certain exercises that provoke pain despite workout modifications may be necessary in order to avoid further injury. Try substituting different exercises, or practicing in a different position/range of motion. 
  • Learning to push through pain is not always a good idea, especially when you are recovering from an injury.

In some situations, pain can be a red flag and should not be ignored. If you are still struggling to find workout modifications without relief from pain, then check in with a qualified orthopedic physical therapist. Work closely with the professionals at Peak Physiotherapy and Performance as you learn ways to modify your workouts and exercise pain-free. Call today for a phone consultation at no cost to you.

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