5 Smart Exercise Variations for Injury-Prone Bodies


Like it or not, injuries are a part of life. Sometimes they happen during an intense workout; sometimes they happen when you bend over to pick up a child’s toy.  Regardless of how they happen, the important thing is to understand how to manage the injury, whether it’s an acute injury or a chronic injury you’ve had for years.

The worst thing you can do, which I see all too often as a personal trainer, is avoiding working those muscles all together. When muscle groups are ignored, they atrophy and increase your risk of more injury. An injury leads to another injury, and before you know it, you’ve completely fallen apart. Having a proper knowledge of alternate exercises that work the same muscle groups is key to working around injuries and improving your fitness.

Alternates for: Squats
Muscles worked: Quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes.

Squats are often the first thing your doctor may tell you not to do because they’ll exacerbate your knee problems. However, the squat work all of the major muscle groups of the leg and is a very functional movement that the body performs every day.

Before you cut squats out all together, make sure you’re doing them correctly. The most common mistake people make is simply squatting straight down and allowing their knees to go in front of their toes. This is a great recipe for knee pain.  In order to reduce pain in the knee, shift your weight back on the heels and make sure your knees stay behind your toes when you hit the bottom of the squat.

If you want to try an alternate to the traditional squat, try the ball squat. Simply place a stability ball between your lower back and a wall.  Have your feet shoulder width apart slightly out in front of you. When you squat down, lean back against the ball (don’t worry, it won’t pop!), which will force you to stay back on your heels and avoid tension in the knees. Start with no weight and slowly progress by adding dumbbells in each hand.

Alternates for: Lunges
Muscles worked: Quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes.

Lunges are another exercise many with knee pain complain about. Again, this is one that most do incorrectly. Many take way too small of a step when lunging which will, again, force the knees to jut out in front of the toes. This puts a ton of stress on the knees and can cause a lot of knee pain. Simply taking a larger step and keeping all the weight on the heel of the front foot will decrease knee pain dramatically.

If lunges still aren’t for you, try the bench step up. This exercise is less technical and is easier for most to wrap their head around since we walk up stairs every day.  To perform a bench step up, place one foot on the bench or box and take a step up with the other foot. All the weight should be on the heel of the top foot to ensure you’re using that leg and not the leg that’s on the ground.

Alternates for: Military Press
Muscles worked: Deltoids (shoulders), triceps.

The military press develops strength in the shoulders and triceps, but a nagging shoulder injury can make any overhead movements extremely painful. An alternate to the military press that also works the deltoids is the lateral raise. This is performed by taking two lighter dumbbells and, keeping your arms straight, raising them out to the side so your body forms a “T”.  Make sure to control the weights on the way down to ensure you’re working the deltoids during the whole rep.

Alternates for: Running
Muscles worked: Cardio

Running is an extremely popular exercise because it requires no equipment and is a great form of cardio. However, many runners cannot handle the impact of the pounding of the feet. This pounding can cause a great deal of pain in the ankles and knees. Like any exercise, you want to make sure your form is correct before you go tossing this exercise away. I would suggest consult a professional about your running form since there could be a number of things you’re doing incorrectly.

Assuming your running form is perfect and you still have joint pain, a great alternative to running is incline walking. Walking at the right incline and speed (around 12 to 15 percent incline at 3 to 3.5 miles per hour) will actually burn about the same amount of calories as running flat. This will save the joints from pain and still give you as great of a workout as running. 

Alternates for: Crunches
Muscles worked: Abs.

Crunches are without a doubt the most popular exercise for the abs—but unfortunately, most people do it incorrectly. A common mistake is bending the neck and using that momentum to get off the ground. Doing this won’t help your abs get strong, it could also lead to injury.

To do a crunch correctly—and really engage your muscles—pick a spot on the ceiling directly above you and look at it for the entire duration of the rep. This will keep your neck in a neutral position and it will force your abs to do all the work.

If you’re looking for an ab exercise that doesn’t hurt your neck and lower back, try doing a plank. The plank focuses on keeping the entire core and spine aligned and stable. And planks are simple to do: Just hold the top of the pushup position and make sure your body forms a straight line from your head to your ankles.  Watch to make sure your hips aren’t sinking by doing the plank to the side of the mirror.


Brian Maher is a personal trainer in Center City Philadelphia who specializes in weight loss and nutritional counseling. He is the owner of Philly Personal Training, a company offering convenient in-home personal training packages to busy individuals looking to improve their fitness levels. To learn more about Brian and his services, visit his website or follow him on Facebook at Philly Personal Training. Read all of Brian’s posts for Be Well Philly here.