Modifying for an Athlete with a History of Low Back Issues
Written by TJ O’Brien

Do you cringe when deadlifts or kettlebell swings show up in the workout? Do bent-over rows leave you feeling like you’re shooting a disc out of your lower back? Did you scoff at the “3 Points of Performance for Hinging Movements” post knowing that even with those tips, you still find yourself hurting? Need help with some modification ideas for hinging days in your program. Coach someone who does? Read on, this post is about you (using our member “Lucy” as an example) and for you!

About the Athlete
“Lucy” has some significant history of back issues, including an L5 Pars fracture. She is pretty mobile, was a dancer growing up, and her back just wants to take over for everything. 

Typical Presentations Include
Trouble connecting to the posterior chain and lower abs.

Athlete’s Laments
This has caused her significant pain – she can’t stand for longer than 30 minutes or so without low back pain, and she recently said that the low back vertebrae have been “clicking”. 

More Backstory on Lucy
Apparently when she used to go to the globo-gym, she wouldn’t experience such pain. Due to this, I think we need to stay away from high rep hinging, burpees, and anything else that might compromise her position during flexion and extension of the low back. She’s generally good to ski and row, just needs to monitor. Even stuff like bench press I would stay away from and sub for a floor press or board press to shorten the range of motion (ROM), keep the ribs down, and lessen low back extension. 

Other Useful Info to Know About Lucy
She is a fan of the sport of CrossFit and she has a deep admiration for athletes like Dani Speegle. During a heart-to-heart, we got into “why” she trains, and she was actually a little stumped. “I guess I know I don’t want to be a competitive CrossFit athlete. I want to feel strong, I want to look good, I want to achieve some goals.” 

She got excited about learning to handstand walk, for example. She also mentioned “It’s hard to modify when I look over at those guys,” gesturing to the Competition Class athletes. So when possible, let’s not set her up facing directly across from that room. 

I work with Lucy 2x/week in private sessions and we’ve had this talk before. The challenge has been for me to balance the “CrossFit” stuff with things that might help her back. 

SO! After this last convo, we’re going to ditch most of the CrossFit stuff, including Olympic lifting, and work on these things instead:

  • Core strength w/ various isometrics, carries. 
  • Isolation work for vanity and the pump. 
  • Hip integrity work – marching, Copenhagens and the likes. 

Here’s how we modified a recent Motor workout which was:
Complete rounds of 21,15 and 9 reps for time of:
Calories of Assault Bike
Burpee Box Jump-Overs (24″/20″) → Modified to: Floor Press 

Rest until the running clock reaches 14:00, and then…

Complete rounds of 21,15 and 9 reps for time of:
Calories of Assault Bike
Strict Pull-Ups → No modification here 

Rest until the running clock reaches 28:00, and then…

Complete rounds of 21,15 and 9 reps for time of:
Calories of Assault Bike
Russian Kettlebell Swings (HEAVY!) → Modified to: Ski Erg 

Invictus University

If you’re a coach who is interested in learning more about modifying group programming for individual athletes, stay tuned for more learning opportunities coming your way soon through Invictus University.

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