09 Oct 2019 - 9 Movement Alternatives for Injured Athletes

No matter what recreational activity you choose, if you are moving with intensity, training with volume, and pursuing this activity for months, or even years, minor tweaks and injuries are inevitable. CrossFit is no exception to this. Injuries happen within CrossFit, just as they do with powerlifting, weightlifting, bodybuilding, running, yoga or any organised sport.

Despite what some might say, studies have shown (multiple times) that the injury incidence rate associated with CrossFit training is low, and comparable to other forms of recreational fitness activities.

This blog is going to go into more detail on how you can train around injuries (not necessarily about how you should treat injuries).

In general, most movement specialists say that you should keep moving (“motion is lotion!”) when it comes to minor aches and pains and that a small niggle need not keep you out of the gym. But how can we train around injuries?

When looking for movement alternatives there are a few things we want to consider:

  • It needs to be effective and bring about the same/similar stimulus

  • It needs to work similar muscle groups

  • It needs to be safe

  • It needs to promote muscle balance and reduce the risk of further injury

Below we have listed three of the most common movement patterns you will see in CrossFit (squat, deadlift, press). For each movement, we have three variations you can sub in should you suffer a minor injury.

*Note: These are generalisations, and the movements suggested cannot necessarily be applied to any and all injuries. You should always get any injury checked out by a professional before continuing to train.

Squat Substitutions

When we are unable to squat, it is generally because of spine, hip or ankle issues. When looking to change the movements there are a few things to consider for each body part.

In general, where the back is concerned we need to remove load on the spine and reduce opportunities for spinal flexion/extension. With hip injuries, it usually means we need to reduce the degree of hip flexion (aka deep squatting), and when it comes to the ankle, in general, we need to reduce the degree of ankle dorsiflexion (aka deep squatting). The three movements below accomplish all of the above whilst still targeting the key muscle groups involved in squatting.

Weighted lunges or step-ups
Lunges are a great movement variation, especially for those with back issues. Lunges (with dumbbells held at the side) remove load from the spine, as well as decreasing the range of motion required at the hip and ankle. This means you can load these up with some pretty significant weight and avoid aggravation.

Sumo (or trap bar) deadlifts
If hip or ankle issues are keeping you from squatting, the sumo or trap bar deadlift can be a great alternative as they can greatly reduce the range of motion required from these joints. These deadlift variations develop can develop significant leg and back strength making them a great squat substitution. For those with back issues, these may or may not be a good choice for you depending on the nature of your injury.

Barbell hip thrusts
Normally seen as an accessory exercise, hip thrusters can be a great substitution for those unable to squat. They develop the glutes and hamstrings (ideal for a stronger squat) and they can be loaded up pretty significantly for a potent training stimulus.

Deadlift Substitutions

When we are unable to deadlift, similar to the squat, it is generally because of spine or hip issues, so this means reducing load, as well as reducing flexion/extension on the spine and the degree of hip flexion.

Deadlift variations (trap bar, sumo, rack pulls)
Occasionally with deadlifts, we need to reduce the range of motion that is required from conventional deadlifts. The conventional deadlift requires a lot of forward inclination of the torso which places more demand on the back muscles. With trap-bar and sumo variations, we have much less forward inclination (due to the increased knee flexion), so less stress is placed on the back.

Rows (barbell row, seated rows)
The deadlift is a full body movement, not just glutes and hamstrings! Developing a stronger upper body pull can add to your deadlift

Dumbbell deadlifts
Similar to trap-bar deadlifts, dumbbell deadlifts re-distribute the load around the body as the weight is held at the sides and not out in front of your centre of mass (as in a conventional deadlifts). This is a great way to place less stress on the back and is another great option depending on the nature of your injury.

Press Substitutions

When we are unable to press, it is largely because of shoulder or wrist issues. The shoulder is a complex joint, but commonly we need to reduce shoulder flexion/extension or degree of internal/external rotation, and with the wrist we need to reduce flexion.

Using dumbbells over a barbell gives you shoulder more freedom of movement which can be helpful if mobility restrictions are causing issues when pressing with a barbell. Not only that, you can alter your grip to a more neutral position which can provide a slight variation in training stimulus. Dumbbells provide a ton of variety for both bench press and strict press.

Change the plane
Can’t press overhead? Try bench press! Can’t bench press, try overhead press.

Static holds
Sometimes the act of moving through a range of motion can cause pain. This is often the case when on the road to recovery. Static holds can be a great first step in rehabbing muscle injuries as it allows the muscles and joints to adapt to stress without causing damage or extending the recovery timeline.

Small injuries don’t need to mean weeks away from training, in fact in most cases continuing to move and stay active is encouraged to help with recovery.

Whilst you should always have injuries, niggles or pains assessed by a specialist, you can speak to your Coach who will be happy to help with movement substitutions if you are having some issues.


A) Conditioning

“CrossFit Open 17.2”


12 minute AMRAP:
2 rounds of:
50-ft. Weighted walking lunge (22.5/15kg)
16 Toes-to-bar
8 Dumbbell power cleans (22.5/15 kg)

Then, 2 rounds of:

50-ft. Weighted walking lunge
16 Bar muscle-ups
8 Dumbbell power cleans


12 minute AMRAP:
2 rounds of:
50-ft. Weighted walking lunge 15/10kg
16 Hanging knee raises
8 Dumbbell power cleans (15/10 kg)

Then, 2 rounds of:

50-ft. Weighted walking lunge
16 Pull-ups
8 Dumbbell power cleans