10 Workout Modifications to Try When You Have an Injury

10 Workout Modifications to Try When You Have an Injury

Read Time • 9 Min
  • Category Fitness, Health, Experts


There’s no denying that some injuries just need time to heal. Whether it’s lifting less weight or simply backing off altogether for a few days, giving your body the time it needs to recover can be beneficial in more ways than one.  

On the other hand, experts are beginning to find that too much time off from physical activity is not a good thing either. In fact, with your physician’s approval, it’s recommended that you continue to work out as long as you take precautions. 

So once you’re ready to take up your favorite Fitness Blender workout again, here are 10 modifications that you can use to prevent further injury while maintaining strength in other areas. You might also want to refresh your memory with more on the subject here: Dealing with Setbacks — How to Stay Fit While Injured or Sick.

1. Limit total workout volume.
Unless you’re an exercise science guru, exercise volume may be a new concept. We’ll go over the basics and then show you how to apply it to your workout routine. Exercise calculations, like volume, can be used as a method to measure workout intensity. Generally, volume is calculated using this equation:

Workout Volume = (the amount of weight that you're lifting) x (number of sets) x (repetitions)

For example, if you lift 20 lbs (9 kg) on the overhead shoulder press for 3 sets of 10 repetitions, then your workout volume would be (20 lbs) x (3 sets) x (10 reps) = 600 lbs (272 kg) for that particular exercise. 

When you’re injured, your workout volume should always be less than your pre-injury volume. To calculate this, modify one (or all) of the variables in the above equation. Some examples of ways in which you can change your training volume include: 

  • Decrease the number of sets you perform
  • Limit the number of repetitions you do
  • Lower the amount of weight you lift

The good news is that you can work out and maintain fitness levels even if you need to temporarily lower your workout volume. By doing so, you’re significantly decreasing your risk for greater injury and reduce the possibility of weakness from inactivity. 

2. Modify your positioning or lifting technique. 
Depending on the type of injury you sustained, you may need to modify your body position or lifting technique. For example, deep squats should be avoided for people with hip, knee, ankle, or low back injuries. Instead, take a wide stance and practice mini-squats or wall slides. People who are recovering from shoulder and neck injuries should avoid overhead motions and prioritize shoulder stabilization exercises or upper back strengthening. 

3. Give yourself more time to recover between sets. 
Consider taking more time to rest between reps, sets, and workout days. Rest periods are an underutilized factor when it comes to modifying an exercise routine, especially while recovering from an injury. Many people use shorter rest periods to increase the intensity of the workout; however, increasing the length of the rest periods can have the opposite effect (i.e., allowing for lower intensity). 

4. Focus on unilateral movements to strengthen the weakened areas. 
Unilateral movements is a common term used to describe motions that involve one side of the body. Incorporating them into a workout is an effective way to address weakness and instability in the body. Oftentimes, unilateral movements target important accessory muscles that work to stabilize your body when doing larger movements. Examples of unilateral movements include: 

  • Lunges
  • Step ups
  • Lying leg lifts
  • Clamshells
  • Single leg bridges
  • Single leg RDLs (Romanian dead lifts)
  • Single arm shoulder press
  • Bent over dumbbell row
  • Dumbbell chest press
  • Dumbbell bicep curl

...just to name a few. 

The key to unilateral movements is to focus on control and stability of your entire body.

5. Consider doing different forms of exercise while you recover. 
Look on the bright side: sometimes the "best" part of an injury is discovering a new activity that you otherwise would have never attempted. And one of the most effective ways to maintain fitness levels when you’re injured is through something called cross training. 

Cross training involves participating in similar types of exercise to develop a specific component of fitness. You may have heard this term referenced by marathon runners or triathlon participants, since it’s a widely-used method to improve cardiovascular health and endurance. While these athletes use cross training as a way to rest their bodies from repetitive motions, you can use it as a way to stay physically active during recovery. 

For example, those who are unable to run or jog may prefer to swim or row, since the latter is less jarring to the joints in the lower body. Similarly, people who suffer from wrist and hand injuries may not be able to tolerate cycling and, instead, should jog or go for a brisk walk.

6. Work through a pain-free range of motion. 
This goes without saying, but let’s take a second to discuss why this is important. Pain with movement is a sign that something isn’t right. Along with that, any strong, sharp, or persistent pain that develops during exercise should be considered as a red flag and cause for concern. 

Related: What Is the Difference Between "Good Pain" and "Bad Pain" When Working Out?

If you notice pain or discomfort with movement, especially as you’re recovering from an injury, either stop what you’re doing or modify your movement. Suggestions on how to modify the movement include changing the activity, decreasing your range of motion, or limiting your reps/sets. 

7. Cautiously reintroduce new exercises. 
Our bodies tend to gravitate towards certain patterns of movement. Over time, the body becomes adept at those particular movement patterns, which increases our vulnerability to injury when doing something new. Therefore, when introducing new exercises after an injury, you should move cautiously and with purpose.

The concept of movement patterns is not new, and physical therapists frequently use this principle to help people recover from injury. You can also take advantage of this by strengthening weakened areas of the body using multiple forms of the same exercise. One example of this would be to perform side and reverse lunges in addition to forward lunges. 

8. Substituting pain-free exercises for painful ones is okay. 
Like cross training, substituting pain-free exercises for painful ones is another way to maintain your fitness levels as you recover from an injury. Unable to lie flat for bench press? Strengthen the chest muscles by doing an incline press or weighted push-ups instead. Sore wrists during planks? Drop down to your elbows or make a fist. 

Related: Wrist Pain from Working Out? Ways to Treat and Prevent Wrist Pain

9. Don’t be afraid to take some time off.
Admittedly, there are times when the modifications on this list aren’t enough. If that’s the case, then it’s best to take some time off from exercising or see a specialist. In the meantime, focus on your body’s strengths and exercises that you can perform without pain or limitation. Yoga, walking, and gentle pool exercises are often great alternatives to strength or HIIT workouts.

10. Ease back into exercise after recovery. 

Once you are ready to start exercising again, it’s best to ease back into it. Avoid the temptation to load the same amount of weight that you used before the injury, and fight the urge to do your usual reps/sets scheme. Gradually reintroducing movement and strengthening exercises is the best way to prevent reinjury. Use low reps and sets so you can focus on form, control, and stability. As always, prioritize core stabilization exercises to ensure that your foundation remains strong and healthy. 

Final thoughts. Recovering from an injury can be frustrating, but it doesn’t have to signal the end of your workout days. Find ways to exercise in a pain-free manner that doesn’t place you at further risk for harm. Use some, or all, of the modifications listed above, and share your best tips for returning from an injury with us below in the comment section.

Written for Fitness Blender by Kayla C, PT, DPT
Board-Certified Neurological Clinical Specialist

*The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.