In this article, we are going to cover how to modify an exercise routine if you are having pain. This applies broadly across most pain and injury. 

Table of contents:

  • Reduce the intensity. Reduce weight or speed of movement. 
  • Slow down the tempo 
  • Reduce the range of motion
  • Decrease the volume (sets x reps)
  • Decrease the frequency of working that specific body-part
  • Adjust your grip or stance
  • Change the exercise
  • Rest for a couple of days

Disclaimer:

I’m all for people trying this out for themselves prior to working with a professional, but, as you’ll find out, there is quite a bit of “art” when it comes to modifying your exercise routine. I’m going to try and write this in as plain English as possible and as simple as possible. 

If you’re still struggling on your own after attempting to implement these strategies after ~ 4-6 weeks, please contact your local physical therapist (physiotherapist), or shoot me an email, nathan@kadalystpt.com.

exercise modification tricep overhead extension
Photo by Samantha Gades on Unsplash

Reduce the load (reduce weight used)

This is the first and most reasonable place to start. If you are lifting weights and having pain, try reducing the weight by 50%. If you are running, try slowing your pace by a couple of minutes. 

If you’ve reduced the weight by 50% and it’s still hurting significantly, you can always reduce it further until you are at the lightest possible weight or only bodyweight. 

For many people, this ends up working. If it’s still significantly uncomfortable even with bodyweight, I would then move on to the next step. 

Slow down the tempo. 

This applies to running as well, but that would be considered intensity, in #1. 

In relation to tempo with lifting weights and other bodyweight exercises, an underutilized tool is slowing down the repetitions. 

I would start with 3 seconds down, 3 seconds up and then try 5 seconds up, 5 seconds down. You can try either of these variations to see how they feel. 

Apply this to the exercises that are causing discomfort. 

Reduce the range of motion.

Sometimes people are able to do an exercise fine and with as much weight as they’d like but a certain portion of the movement hurts. In this instance, it is acceptable to shorten the range of motion for a couple of weeks or until symptoms subside. 

This is usually coupled with a reduction of load (weight), too. 

Decrease the volume (sets x reps)

If you were doing 4 sets of 10, or 5 sets of 5, try reducing the number of sets by one or two to see if this has any impact on your symptoms. Volume can also be related to the total number of exercises you are performing at the same muscle group or joint. 

If you are doing a total of 15 sets of one muscle group in a week, try reducing that by 25% or 50%.

Decrease the frequency

If you are bench pressing, squatting, deadlifting, or performing some other exercise 5 days per week, try reducing it to 3 days per week. If you are doing 2 days per week, try 1. 

If you are doing only 1 day per week and it’s still uncomfortable I’d recommend going through the above recommendations and the next few, first. 

Adjust your grip or stance

If your squat, deadlift, bench, lunge, shoulder press, or some other exercise is painful, you can also try adjusting your hand width and/or foot width. This can be incredibly helpful and is very simple to implement. 

For example, if you are deadlifting with a narrow stance, you can try using a wider stance as this will distribute the load slightly differently. 

Change the exercise

If you’ve exhausted the above options, change the exercise for the time being. 

For example, if all the above modifications aren’t working, then changing a barbell back squat to a goblet squat, front squat, leg press, or some other lower body exercise could be a good solution to this problem. 

For something like shoulder press, you can try lateral raises, machine shoulder press, and close grip shoulder press. 

If you’re looking for an exercise replacement of a specific movement you can always just type into google or youtube, “alternate exercise for [insert exercise name].” There will likely be endless results for you there. 

Rest!

I’m a proponent of people continuing to go to the gym, working out at home, continuing running, cycling, etc, even if you have some pain. BUT, it may make sense to take two to three days to rest and recuperate. 

If it’s an upper body issue, you can likely still work your legs. If it’s a lower body issue, you can likely still work your upper body. 

Just use common sense here. 

Which modifications should I try first?

You can go one through eight in that order. You can even try most of them within one session to see which ones work best for you. 

It’s important to note that if you feel fine during the workout but develop symptoms 24 hours afterwards that you try one thing at a time! This way you’ll be able to effectively utilize the process of elimination to find a method that works for you. 

How do I know the exercise modifications are working?

You’ll know it’s working if after a couple weeks your symptoms are reducing and it’s easier to get back to normal workouts without modification. 

How long should I modify exercises, for?

Until symptoms are steadily improving week over week. If they are not improving, are stagnant, or are getting worse, call up a physical therapist you trust and get evaluated by them so they can help you through this process.