Substitutions for Athletes with Back Pain

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Athletes are always dealing with back pain. Sports are not inherently the most back friendly activities.

A lot of people think that back pain is only a function of lifting weights. Back pain can occur from almost any activity. You could bend over to pick up a pencil right now and that could be enough.

There is also an important distinction when we talk about back pain. The cause of it matters.


Back pain can be non specific, meaning we do not know a specific event that started it.

Sometimes the pain is strictly in the muscles that run along the spine. That is the ideal scenario. That kind of pain is a lot easier to manage.

We can often get pain that radiates into the leg, causes numbness, or loses function. That is a lot more to deal with.


Injury would tend to point to one specific event that is causing the back to be pissed off. An athlete could be playing their sport, get hit or fall, and immediately starts feeling it in their back. That is easy to figure out the cause.


Soreness often comes from lifting. You do have muscles on the back of your body. They do need to be trained. When you a train a muscle they do tend to get sore.

Just like when someone tells me that their legs are sore, but its the “good kind” of sore. Soreness in the muscles of the back is normal and not a problem. It will improve over time.

Back pain can be annoying and frustrating. The good news is that we can train around back pain (with an OK from a medical pro). Some exercises are more back friendly than others but will continue to provide a training effect.

The important part is always to get a training effect. The expectations of this may change depending on the severity of the condition but there is always something we can do.

Switch Deadlifts for BB Glute Bridges

Deadlifts are one of my favorite exercises for athletes to improve their lower body strength.

I used to live and die by the mantra that deadlifts aren’t bad for your back, crappy deadlifts are. That idea ignores the fact that someone is pain is not going to tolerate deadlifts overly well. Its not the exercise’s fault.

Switching to a glute bridge is great for a number of reasons. We can still train the glutes with hip extension. We can also load the bar up pretty heavy.

The glute bridge does not load the spine which makes it a good change for the deadlifts. Athletes can still train hard on bridges while not putting extra stress on the spine.

Switch Barbell Squats for Bulgarians

Squats are an exercise that loads the spine and also angers the back pretty well. Switch them for DB Bulgarian Split Squats.

This is probably the hardest lunge variation that anyone can do. There is also an extended range of motion compared to a standard split squat. This means that the athlete cannot load absolutely as heavy but each leg gets taxed well.

An athlete might be able to squat 200 lbs but their back is fried. They can instead do Bulgarians with 50 lbs in each hand, lessening the load, and making it very difficult to walk the next day.

Switch Chest Supported Rows for Unsupported Rows

I like all rowing exercises. People do not pull enough in their programs so rows are important.

A lot of row variations are great for anti-flexion, forcing you to resist curling the torso. This is great for healthy athletes.

Some with back pain are not going to be able to tolerate unsupported rows. Enter the chest supported row.

Lay face down on an incline bench and pull two dumbbells towards you. This will reduce the pressure of resisting the flexion while keeping the loading high.

These three exercise substitutions should be helpful to continue training hard while reducing the stress on the back. Always get the doctor’s OK to start training again and make sure you can get some guidance from coaches/trainers who know what they are doing.