Scaling and Modifying Workouts for Lower Back Pain

Scaling and Modifying Workouts for Lower Back Pain


“Layering strength on top of dysfunctional movement is a gross misunderstanding of the primary responsibility of fitness trainers and coaches: reducing injury.”

“Just lighten the weight.”


Overused, lazy, and amateur.

Three adjectives that properly describe every strength coach that thinks taking a little weight off the bar is the optimal protocol for scaling workouts.

Are you going to get through your daily workout?


Are you going to post a time on the board? Yes.

However, the daily, short-term victories, at the expense movement quality are detrimental to your long term musculoskeletal health.

The benefits of doing 50 thrusters at 65# vs. 95# stops as soon as you peel yourself off the ground and unload your barbell. Your brain and nervous system do not recognize the 30# difference. They do recognize your inability to load your glutes, breathe properly, or stabilize your core.

The speed at which you perform these thrusters is actually more harmful that beneficial. Yes, the intensity will increase your heart rate but it is also hard wiring dysfunctional movement. You burn more fat but your brain recognizes that your body is under attack.

To prevent further attacks, and more dysfunctional movement, it uses the best weapon it has at its disposal, chronic pain.

Instead of lowering weights to increase speed, and power, coaches have the unique opportunity to restore function to the human body.

Optimal movement is a precursor to living pain free but only if coaches recognize their primary role: injury reduction.

lower back exercise scaling workouts


Dogma-Free Coaching


As a strength athlete, I competed in the CrossFit SoCal regional four times. Part of that training is constantly fighting nagging injury.

As a strength coach, I have coached athletes from the WWE, NFL, MLB, and over 70 athletes to the CrossFit regional. Preventing and healing injury is the top priority when coaching athletes chasing optimal performance.

As a six-year gym owner, I have helped thousands of people trying to live a healthier life, restore function to their joints, and live pain free.

At one time, I argued about sets, reps, and energy systems. I dogmatically scaled workouts by lowering weights to maintain speed and intensity. I thought it mattered that people set PR’s. These things seemed important until I was met by a brigade of clients asking why their backs, knees, and shoulders hurt.

If you are in pain, no matter how strong you are getting, you are failing.



A Restorative Approach to Strength and Longevity


Can we be real for a second?

Your daily life is already stressful enough. It is ok to admit it, life is hard.

You wake up late, fight your kids to get ready, sit in traffic, deal with a high stress job, sit in more traffic, and hopefully find an hour to get to the gym. This steady stream of stress in life is handled in the static state of sitting. Your midday movement is a jaunt to the bathroom or water cooler.

When you put it on paper, loading up a 90% back squat for a double, with the expectation of making yourself healthier seems a little silly. You have not focused on quality movement all day and now you want to test yourself against at 90% of the best you have ever been. It is a short-sighted recipe for disaster.

Yin Strength Training is a restorative approach to strength and longevity. The methodology is rooted in restoring function to your nervous system, joints, tissues, and layering movements patterns that promote health.

Your nervous system is the foundation of everything. It is the system that allows your brain to talk to your body. To keep it healthy give it the tool it needs to relax. Instead of “Fight or Flight,” find “Rest and Digest.” Through deep belly breathing you will activate the parasympathetic nervous system and break down the daily stress before you start training.

Joint and tissue health is the next layer. Every joint in your body has an optimal range of motion. If it has too little, you will need to stretch. Too much and the focus should be on controlling those ranges of motion, stability. Both, a lack of mobility or stability, leads to poor movement patterning and chronic pain. Decreasing stress in the nervous system then layering joint and tissue health decreases neural tension that hinders optimal ROM. The issue may not be the tissue length but the stability and stress stored in the tissue.

Movement repatterning is the tip of the iceberg in eliminating and preventing chronic pain. The way you move is a hard-wired signal that fires from your brain to your joints. “Functional Movement,” (a completely bastardized word in the fitpro industry) is a complicated term to describe the way your body is designed to move. To simplify, you want big joints handling the bulk of the load, Lower body movements start with the hips (glutes and hamstrings) and upper body movement starts with the shoulders (lats). To ensure your default movement patterns adhere to these rules, you have to practice them, deliberately, and with intent.

Yin Strength Training is the answer to restoring function to the body and keeping you pain free. There are three major ways to scale workouts to promote the long-term health of your nervous system, joints, and tissues through quality movement.

lower back exercise scaling workouts

First Reps

I stole this concept from my friend Doug Larson of The Barbell Shrugged Podcast. The concept is built off the idea that your first rep in every set is the most quality rep you will do. The quality of all subsequent reps is tarnished by the fatigue of the prior reps. Rep two will be slightly worse than rep one and rep eight will be significantly worse. With each rep, your body fatigues, and the poor movement compounds with each rep.

In a 3×8 rep sequence, you only get three, “first reps,” over a total of 24 reps. That is three perfect reps and 21 suboptimal reps.

By prioritizing first reps, your 3×8 can turn into 8×3 with 20 seconds of rest between sets. Now, you are getting eight, “first reps,” maintain the training volume of 24 reps, and triple the opportunity for optimal movement.


Breaths, Not Reps


When in history did “reps” become the only metric for training volume?

Counting breaths over reps is the most effective way to build functionality to deep core musculature. Despite all things Instagram, your core is designed to stabilize the spine below your ribs. Your ribs are this massive structure that support your mid and upper spine.  Below the ribs however, there is not much there. You have to build those stabilizers and the only way to do it is by developing a strong core.

The next time you see a set of hollow rocks in your workout, instead of rocking, hold the hollow body position, sub out the reps for breathes and watch your movement quality skyrocket.



AFRAP – As Few Reps as Possible


In three minutes, how many front squats can you do with 65#?

Probably a lot. At the end of those three minutes, when you are pushing through the pain for the final reps, your form is trash. Your knees are caving in, your midline is shot, and there is no chance your elbows have stayed in a quality front rack position.

Now, imagine doing one front squat for three minutes. 90 seconds down and 90 seconds up.

I know, absolutely brutal. It is brutal because this type of work goes beyond the physical. You have to become mindful of your front rack position, your core, the breath, and understand how your body moves in space.

Output is secondary to mechanics.

Your whole body will burn as it recruits every ounce of muscle fiber. Your brain will quickly find imbalances and weaknesses. The movement patterns, because you are moving so slow, will be perfected.

At high speeds your strengths compensate for your weaknesses. By moving slowly, there is no escape, your movement has to be perfect.


Injury Free = Longevity


We all love working out. It is awesome. Being strong is fun, gives a way to learn, work hard, and see results. But it should not come with the risk of injury.

The easiest way to ensure you remain injury free is prioritizing movement quality. By taking the importance off of speed and intensity you will find the tools you need to ensure you can enjoy the gym for the rest of your life. Longevity and an injury free life is the ultimate goal.

If you are currently experience lower back pain, Dr. Theresa Larson and I have created this amazing program called The Low Back Fix. We incorporate these methods and combine over 20 years of physical therapy and coaching experience into one program to improve your movement and get you pain free.

To get you started, we have created a morning routine to eliminate stress and incorporate quality movement in less than six minutes.

You can get yours here.

Lower Back Exercise Scaling Workouts

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