Missing Equipment? The CrossFitter’s Guide to Movement Substitutions

Have you found yourself following a training program, but you don’t have all the equipment it requires? Fear not: There are solutions.

So you finally bit the bullet and hired a coach who wrote you an individualized training program. Or maybe you bought a more generic program online.

And now you have a dilemma: Either your home gym, or the gym you’re visiting on vacation, doesn’t have all the equipment your program demands.

What do you do if there are no rings and you need to do ring rows? No barbells and you’re supposed to front squat? No rowing machine and kettlebells? 

Should you just skip the ring rows and the KB swings? Or maybe choose an arbitrary movement to replace them?

As an athlete, I have come across this dilemma more frequently than you might imagine. I’m currently in France following a functional bodybuilding program and training at a gym that doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that I’m used to, and I have been forced to adapt and substitute left, right and center. 

And as a coach, I definitely see this situation arise on a regular basis. Just last week, for example, a client of mine was away for two weeks for work. I had given her a program to follow, but she ended up working out at her hotel gym, which wasn’t exactly equipped with the latest and greatest tools. She texted me once she returned and told me she substituted strict pull-ups for push-ups, wall balls for KB swings, and the air bike interval workout with air squats. 

Considering her choice of (less than ideal) substitutions, I thought it wise to provide some advice for movement substitution best practices when equipment is your limiting factor.

It comes down to this golden rule:

As much as you can, preserve the intended stimulus of the movement.

Whether you’re doing strength training session or a conditioning workout, if you need to make substitutions, the substitution should provide your body with the same, or a similar, stimulus as was prescribed in the training program. 

This essentially means a push should be substituted with a push, a pull with a pull, a hinge with a hinge, a squat with a squat and a carry with a carry. You can break it down even further—a horizontal pull should be substituted with another horizontal pull, for example—but to keep it simple, let’s just stick to push, pull, hinge, squat and carry. 

Hence, in my client’s case, she probably would have been better off substituting ring rows with a bent over DB rows than with push-ups. Meanwhile, a goblet squat would have been a more appropriate substitute for a wall ball than a KB swing.

The same goes for conditioning pieces: If you’re asked to do, for example, 60-seconds of AirBike intervals (where the purpose is to get your heart rate up while expressing maximum power), and you don’t have an AirBike, you’re best off choosing a movement that will mimic a similar outcome. In this case, a rowing machine would probably be a better option than air squats, like my client chose to do. 

That being said, if you were asked to complete a five-round conditioning piece of continuous movement—involving one minute of rowing, one minute of biking, one minute of skipping followed by one minute of burpees—then air squats might be an appropriate substitute for the row. In this case, air squats would allow for continuous movement, and would have a similar effect on your heart rate as rowing in this circumstance.

With this in mind, let’s consider five common situations you might come across, whether you’re in France in some small, stuffy gym like I am right now, or you’re on the road in a hotel gym without barbells or pull-up bars.

1. Help! There are no Rings!

Ring Row substitutes:

Ring dip or muscle-up substitutes:

Still not hard enough to mimic a muscle-up?

When it doubt, add a tempo.

No matter how strong your muscle-ups are, if you do bench dips with a tempo—three seconds down and three seconds to hold at the bottom in as deep of a dip as you can—they will be challenging. 

2. No barbells? No problem!

Back squat or front squat substitutes:

Still feel too light? 

Again, add a tempo to your squats.

Deadlift substitutes:

Bench press substitutes:

Overhead pressing substitutes:

3. How is there no pull-up bar here?

Pull-up substitutes:

Or, you can get creative and preserve the vertical pressing aspect of the pull-up, if you have a squat rack, via seated pull-ups. You can also start in the seated position and then pull your body off the ground and into an L pull-up if you have the strength.

4. What can I do instead of toes-to-bar?

The options here are plenty, as long as you’re preserving the stimulus, which is a supine core movement, meaning your body is facing toward the sky, as opposed to a prone position, where you’re facing the ground, such as during a plank.

Toes-to-bar substitutes:

  • V-sits (slow these down by taking two seconds to V-up and two seconds to descend, and you won’t be saying they’re easier than toes-to-bar)
  • Tuck-ups

5. No sign of sleds

While this one is tricker, there are a few options I have come across that work quite well including:

  • Plate pushes: If the surface is smooth and you have a towel, you can also place a couple weights on the towel and get low and push them across the floor.
  • Partner banded sprints

Really, the sky is the limit here, if you’re creative and you understand the intention of your program. 

Just remember the golden rule: Preserve the intended stimulus and you’ll be sure to reap the most out of your program, even when you aren’t working out in the most glamorous gym of all-time.