Alternatives for Upper Body Exercises When You Have Pain

Alternatives for Upper Body Exercises When You Have Pain

You’re probably only here if you tend to have upper body pain, which is a real bummer for a couple reasons: First, you have pain. That’s never fun. Second, a lot of the moves included in the fitness challenge require shoulder stabilization and engagement, as well as pushing and pressing movements which can exacerbate shoulder problems.

The challenge, of course, is that when it comes to equipment-free exercises for the upper body and core, the common options tend to include things like pushups, planks, mountain climbers, dips, and burpees, all of which engage the shoulder joint in the same general way. If these are off limits, the primary alternatives for upper body exercises are those that require equipment of some sort. My favorite is a rowing machine.

So, what I’ve got for you below are a series of modifications and variations, some of which are equipment-free, and others that require a resistance band. I apologize in advance if this means you have to run out and buy a band, but really, they’re inexpensive and lightweight, so they’re about as close to “equipment free” as it’s possible to come without actually being equipment-free.

A few more notes about upper body exercise alternatives

Because I’m not privy to notes from your doctor or physical therapist, and because I don’t know exactly what type of pain you’re experiencing or when you’re experiencing it, you’re going to have to use your best judgment when it comes to selecting and performing modifications or making substitutions. The good news is, upper body exercises tend to be a little easier to work around than lower body exercises. Here are options you can try:

  1. When dealing with an acute injury, follow your doctor’s orders. If your doctor has suggested you stick to lower-body exercises and lay off the upper body movements, do it. On upper body days during the challenge, opt for steady state cardio, like walking or jogging, and core work that doesn’t require shoulder stabilization (options are included below). If your doctor has prescribed physical therapy exercises, this is the perfect time to add them to your schedule.
  2. Work one arm. If you have pain in one shoulder, elbow or wrist, and you haven’t received instructions from a doctor or physical therapist on how to proceed, don’t push your luck. Opt to only work the arm that’s pain-free, giving your other arm the chance to heal. There are lots of exercises listed below that can be done unilaterally. This means laying off any exercise that causes or exacerbates pain. Again, don’t push your luck, and if the pain doesn’t subside, get in to see your doctor.
  3. Focus more on pulling exercises than pushing or pressing exercises. Sometimes, shoulder pain is related to an imbalance in strength at the shoulder joint, with the muscles along the front of your body over-developed and shortened due to poor posture and overuse, with the muscles along the back of your body weak and underworked. By focusing more on pulling exercises, such as rows, lat pull-downs and reverse flys, you can start to overcome these imbalances and reduce pain. Obviously, if your doctor or physical therapist offers different feedback based on your personal situation, follow his or her orders.
  4. Try modifications. If you have minor or occasional pain, you may find that some exercise modifications are completely safe for you to perform. For instance, if you have occasional wrist pain when doing pushups, you may find that doing pushups while using pushup bars with your wrists in an extended, rather than flexed, position, prevents pain from occurring.
  5. When in doubt, scale things back. There’s no shame in not being able to perform an exercise due to pain. While exercises like pushups and dips are great, equipment-free options, they’re not the only way to build upper body strength. It’s better to switch out an exercise or skip it completely than to cause or extend an injury.

Modifications if you want to give ’em a try

If you think you’re up for modifications for pushups, planks, dips, crab walks, crab abs, or any of the other exercises in the Thrillist challenge that require shoulder stabilization, consider trying your hand at these modifications.

Wall pushup

Due to the angle of a wall pushup, you end up placing less weight and stress on your shoulders, elbows, and wrists.

Incline plank

The incline plank is exactly the same, form-wise, as a standard plank, but it’s performed with your arms on a raised surface, such as a table, desk, counter or bench. As with wall pushups, the incline reduces the weight and stress you place on your shoulders, chest and triceps, making the exercise a little bit easier while still working the same muscle groups. The taller the surface where you balance your arms, the easier the exercise will be. Remember to keep your core tight, and make sure your elbows are aligned directly under your shoulders. Also, don’t allow your chest to “sink down” between your arms – keep your shoulders strong and engaged throughout.

Incline pushup

The incline pushup is slightly more challenging than the wall pushup, with a little more weight and stress placed on your shoulders, chest, and triceps. If you tend to have wrist pain, you may discover that this is the point where pushups start to cause pain. If that’s the case, don’t do them! Return to wall pushups, try a version using pushup bars, or switch out the exercise completely for something like chest press.

Pushup bar pushup

If you tend to have shoulder pain, pushup bar pushups may not be right for you, but if your main deterrent is wrist pain, they’re worth a shot. For many people, the flexed position of the wrists during a standard pushup is what leads to pain – it’s just too much stress on the joint. By using pushup bars, where you grip the bars and keep your wrists fully extended, you prevent the flexion that causes pain.

Even if you don’t have access to standard pushup bars, you can mimic the exercise by using any raised apparatus that can be gripped easily with both hands, such as Lebert Equalizer Bars, a playground monkey bar, or a suspension trainer. As long as you can do pushups while keeping your wrists reasonably straight, it’s worth a shot. Here are a few examples of options:

Negative pushups

Working the eccentric (downward) portion of the pushup is a good modification for two reasons. First, it causes the muscle damage required to build strength through your working muscles, ultimately helping you get stronger. And second, it builds strength without requiring the pushing portion of the pushup that often causes pain. The goal with the eccentric pushup is to lower yourself in a slow, controlled fashion all the way to the floor. Once you get to the ground, you can get back up in whatever way feels comfortable – you don’t have to perform an actual pushup to return to the starting position.

Tabletop bridge hold

This is an isometric exercise that helps open up the chest while strengthening the shoulders and triceps, as well as the glutes and core. If you have wrist problems, consider trying it while holding onto pushup bars to reduce the flexion and pressure on your wrists. This is a good substitute for dips and crab walks if those exercises are uncomfortable.

Dip isometric hold

Again, for most people the problem with dips is the range of motion – you either lack the flexibility or strength to protect your shoulder joint through the full range of motion, ultimately contributing to pain. Here, you target the same muscles isometrically by holding a steady position, rather than moving through the full dip exercise. By working on the tabletop bridge and the dip isometric holds, you begin to develop strength while opening up the chest. This will help you get to the point where you can start testing shallow dips or pushups, eventually working up to the full range of motion.

Exercise alternatives for upper body moves

If pushups, planks, dips, or any of the other moves  just won’t work for you, consider switching them out for the following.

Scapular squeeze

The scapular squeeze is an excellent option if you have significant shoulder pain because it requires no equipment and can help you start to address potential muscular imbalances that often pop up if you have a desk job.

Prone letter exercises (Y, T, I, and ILY)

These “letter exercises” can be performed while lying face-down on the ground, on a bench, or on a stability ball, as shown. They’re equipment-free exercises that work to strengthen the muscles surrounding the thoracic spine while also improving stability of the rotator cuff. As you get stronger, you can consider adding resistance with light dumbbells. You can also do these exercises unilaterally, working a single arm.

Scapular wall slide

Still working on posture, shoulder stability and joint health, the scapular wall slide helps encourage good posture and range of motion through the shoulder. It also requires no equipment, making it an easy exercise alternative for any upper body moves that might cause you pain. If, for any reason, you can’t do the exercise to both sides, try it with one arm, instead.

Resistance band lat pull-down

I love the lat pull-down exercise because it’s a compound pulling movement that targets pretty much all the major muscles of your back, which means it does wonders for helping balance out muscular imbalances between the front and back halves of your body. In the first video below, the exercise is demonstrated using bands that hook securely over a door, but you can do the exercise with a band looped over a bar. If you don’t have anything to loop the bands over, you can try the same general movement by looping the band around a sturdy object, then hinging at the hips or lying on the floor to perform the same exercise, as shown in the second video.

Modified pull-up

Modified pull-ups are another excellent compound pulling movement targeting the major muscle groups of your back. This move is also easy to modify based on the angle of your body and how much weight you support with your legs. All you need is a bar positioned at chest-height or lower, or some sort of suspension strap. Depending on your body’s angle, the movement is sometimes more similar to a row than a pull-up, so play around with positioning to hit the back in slightly different ways. Check out the videos below for options.

Resistance band incline chest press

To this point, we’ve focused on back-strengthening exercises, but if you’re up for trying a pushing movement, you can sub-in resistance band or dumbbell incline chest presses in place of pushups. The slight change in angle of the incline press actually reduces the stress on your rotator cuff, making it a more accessible movement. Plus, when you use bands or dumbbells, instead of barbells, you can do these exercises unilaterally, isolating a single arm if one of your arms experiences pain.

Resistance band row

Rows hit pretty much all the major muscles of your back, but due to the angle of pull, you’ll use less of your lats than you did during the modified pull-ups and lat pull-downs, and more of your rhomboids and traps. There are several ways to set up and perform the row, each of them targeting your back in slightly different ways, so choose the version that works best for you. You can also isolate a single arm to perform the exercise to one side.

Resistance band shoulder press

Shoulder presses help build strength through the three heads of your deltoid muscles. You can do this exercise sitting or standing, or you can isolate a single arm and do it to one side.

Resistance band Triceps extension

If dips are out of the question, you can target your triceps with a resistance band triceps extension. As shown in the video, you only target one side at a time, making it perfect if you have an injury to one arm that prevents you from working both sides.

Core exercise alternatives

If your shoulders are a problem, you may not be able to perform some of the core exercises included in the Thrillist fitness challenge, such as planks, side planks, or crab abs. You’re always welcome to sub in one of these exercises, instead.

Wood chops

Wood chops target your entire core, but they do an especially good job of hitting your obliques, making them an excellent substitute for side planks and crab abs. You can do them without weight, with a resistance band, or with a dumbbell.

Leg lifts

Leg lifts are an excellent, core-stabilizing exercise targeting your recutus abdominis and transverse abdominis. Make sure you keep your lower back fixed to the ground throughout the exercise. Place your hands under your hips for support, and bend your knees to shorten the lever arm if performing the exercise with straight legs is too challenging. You can perform simultaneous leg lifts, or you can do more of a scissor-action by isolating each side.


When performed correctly, situps are effective at targeting the major muscles of your core. The key word here is “correctly.” Go slow, don’t allow momentum to take over, and really focus on using your abs, rather than your hip flexors, to lead the movement.

Oblique twists

Oblique twists are another exercise that target the entire core, especially the obliques. Perform the exercise without weight, or add a dumbbell or medicine ball to make it more challenging. Go slowly, controlling the twist, rather than flinging your body with momentum from side to side.

V-sit holds

A great, static exercise that works on balance, stability and core strength, the V-sit is a basic “sit and hold.” You find your balance and hold the position steady for as long as you can. Sub it in for planks. To make it easier, drop your feet toward the floor or place your hands on the ground behind your hips. To make it harer, extend your legs fully and reach your arms overhead.

Pilates 100s

The Pilates 100s exercise looks so easy, but it’s surprisingly challenging when you do it correctly. Focus on keeping your core tight and engaged as you take deep breaths.

Cardio exercise alternatives

There are lots of cardio exercises, such as burpees, mountain climbers, crab walks and inchworms that might not feel great if you’ve got a bum shoulder. Switch them out for any of the following. A treadmill or best quality rowing machine is number one option for cardio workouts.

Jumping jacks (jumping or stepping)

If the arm swing irritates your shoulder, try making the movement smaller or swinging them in front of your body rather than overhead.

Marching or high knees

Side slides (slow or fast)

Butt kicks

Power skips

You can do these in place, rather than traveling forward as you skip.


Squat jacks


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