Workout Customizations for People With Knee Pain
Written by TJ O’Brien

Have you ever had to deal with an injury at the gym? Yeah. It sucks. But what sucks more than the injury itself is feeling like some special gimp relegated to a corner and no longer allowed to play with your workout friends.

Yes, it totally would suck to do shoulder circles while the class does overhead pressing, or to be air squatting when you were loading up some fat 45’s on your bar the week before.

Alas, this is Invictus, so training with an injury shouldn’t look like this. My goal here is to eliminate the fear that training around an injury will be some Sisyphean task that leaves you feeling worse off, while giving you an example of a super-strong athlete, who still needed a little nudge to do an alternative movement that wouldn’t provoke their injury.

These folks are Cali and Michael, who have both been experiencing knee pain brought on by deep squatting and bounding (like running and double-unders). Both are longtime and consistent members who I perceive to be comfortable in group class. They can read tempo, know how to execute major lifts, and generally know what they’re doing.

Week after week, they would complain of a twinge in their knee, until whispers of pain became shouts. After waxing poetic about all the ways we could modify things, I decided that both really just needed a list of alternative movements to reference for squat day.

In Cali’s case, I went through the following day’s workout with her and explained how we would modify, but still keep the stimulus (the intention of the workout). Know that ANY of our coaches here can do the same for you. Your coach should be able to do this for you too. In case you don’t have a coach for guidance and a watchful eye, here is the list I gave Cali, straight-up cut and pasted from our email, titled “knee subs!” 

List of “Knee Subs” for Workouts 

Box Squat — to just above parallel

Trap Bar Deadlift

Banded Hammy Curls (single-leg, double-leg, seated and standing)

Barbell Hip Thrust

RDLs, single or double

GHD Isometric Holds for Hammy

Banded Abduction

Side-Lying Abduction

Banded Reverse Squats

Sprinter Isometrics

Reverse Sleds (no pain though)

Forward Sleds

Weighted Wall Sits

Heavy Carries (sandbag, farmer, suitcase, med ball)

Horizontal Pulling (ring rows, bent-over rows, single-arm rows, banded rows, landmine rows, rope pulls)

What’s noteworthy isn’t the number of potential substitutes (any of our coaches could add to this list), but it’s the hesitation—the doubt that I talked about at the start of this blog—from both Michael and Cali. And you should expect that too—doing something new or different in the gym is bound to be a little uncomfortable.

Frame those uncomfortable moments as growing pains, learning opportunities, or “eustress” (good stress), that will allow you to move through this injury with grace.

The eventual insight was indeed great. Michael wrote me an email explaining that he tried out all of these variations at the home gym and really liked them as potential subs. I had to coerce Cali into joining class the morning after I sent her this list. But it was well worth it—she did trap bar deadlift, got her workout in, and got to play with the other kids instead of doing open gym alone.

If you’re dealing with an injury or ever need a modification, please speak up, we’d be happy to help you find the right way to customize your workout.

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