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Injury Prevention

Exercise Modifications: Smart Strategies You Need

Do you feel like you always get hurt exercising? Are you confident with exercise modifications if they’re not provided for you? Do you ignore modifications and view them as a phone-it-in moment? If you’re not using modifications to your advantage, you’re seriously missing out.

Exercise modifications are your new best friend.

Every person is different, has different anatomy, injuries, and fitness levels. Smart modifications can mean the difference between always being injured and a consistent healthy fitness program.

Disclaimer: Always seek proper instruction before initiating an exercise program. Not everything is great for everyone! Consult with your qualified health care practitioners for an exercise program tailored to your needs. Stay healthy and injury-free people! Read the full disclaimer.

What is a modification?

Exercise modifications are adjusting variables and decreasing complexity to work with your body. 

The more complex the activity, the more moving parts, the more muscles and joints involved, and the more you have to monitor and keep track of.

Start simple and add progressions gradually. 

Modifications aren’t just for beginners, slackers, older people, or those with injuries.

If you’re constantly hurting yourself when you’re working out because you’re not listening to your body, you won’t be able to keep up with fitness for very long. That’s a red flag that something(s) you’re doing isn’t working for you.

If you’d like to be a healthy and active 40/60/80 year-old, you will need to think about how you can stay active and healthy for more than just today.

Take your ego out of the equation by thinking you have to be at a certain level. Instead, listen to your body and be honest with yourself. 

We get so caught up in what other people will think of us. Be a good example, and maybe your modification will inspire someone else to take one and avoid injury as well. 

Your level can be fluid. How do you feel today?

Since exercise is such a crucial component of a healthy lifestyle, modifications can help remove barriers and make workouts more accessible. 

Grab your free guide: Common Fitness Mistakes & How to Avoid Them

What are some reasons you might need to modify?

Current injury or health condition: Some common conditions requiring modifications include cardiac, asthma or (other conditions affecting breathing), pregnancy, osteoporosis, arthritis, and recovering from an injury. Necessary modifications will vary based on conditions.

This is not a complete list, so speak with your health care providers and learn what you should and shouldn’t do for fitness activities. Modifications are unique to your condition or needs, so be sure to do your research based on what YOU need.

To decrease intensity: For example, if you have heart rate restrictions or limited endurance.

To decrease impact: Jumping and pounding can take a toll on the body over time, especially if you have joint issues or other injuries. Look for alternatives to jumping if this is an area that affects you.

If it just doesn’t feel right: Sometimes, things just don’t feel right. Stop yourself before an injury happens. At the very least, this could be a cue to check in with your form.

So often people think a move is bad for them because it doesn’t feel right. In fact, the real problem could be poor form. Seek out proper instruction and modification options before you swear it off forever.

I’m just not into this today: But I showed up, so I’m going to meet halfway instead of doing nothing at all. This happens from time to time, even in those who love to exercise. If it’s happening all the time, probably best to have a chat with yourself and maybe revisit your goals. Check out this article on tips to stay consistent with exercise.

You have limited strength or flexibility: Learn your limits and how to progress smartly.

You’re not injured, but you’re managing an issue: Maybe X injury doesn’t bother you today but flares up intermittently.

Learn what sets you off so you can avoid that. And if you know when you perform Y you’ll be in pain for several days or weeks, don’t do that!

A girl practicing yoga using a block demonstrating exercise modifications.
fizkes / bigstockphoto.com

What are some ways to modify? 

Decrease intensity or impact: Avoid jumping activities. Take squat jumps for example. If jumping isn’t for you, just squat in place. If squatting is difficult, modify the range and do what your body allows, without paying for it later.

Decrease the Range of Motion: This can be applied to any movement for your own personal comfort. An example is not to squat or lunge so deeply. Move in a challenging but non-painful range. Can you still do the movement and control/coordinate what you’re doing?  

Adjust your angle: When you change the angle of an exercise, it can make it easier or more difficult. Example: push-ups. It can be challenging to do a regular push up. Gravity feels real heavy real quick. Dropping down to your knees changes your center of gravity and can help to improve form and focus on arm strengthening. Doing a wall push up further modifies this move and is a great option when dealing with shoulder or wrist issues.

Use props: This is most common in yoga classes. Using props like blocks, straps, blankets, and bolsters can improve form and ease discomfort by supporting you in various poses.

Blocks are great for bringing the floor up to you.

Straps can assist with stretching by extending your limbs without compromising form.

Blankets can pad and cushion, for example, knees during kneeling positions.

Bolsters are great for support in various positions, particularly in slower-paced classes.

Decrease the weight: If you can’t complete the exercise with proper form, decrease your weight. The answer may be no weight at all until you are confident in your form.

Decrease the number of repetitions: Or change the ratio of sets/reps. Quality over quantity, people! If your goal was 10, and 5 were fabulous, but 5 were sloppy… Guess what? Sloppy form is only good for reinforcing bad habits and getting hurt.

Not exactly a modification but still super important:

Slow down and take your time! Focus on what you’re doing!

Don’t be thinking about your grocery list or the person next to you.

Other Exercise Modification Tips:

Don’t be afraid to ASK for modifications. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Make sure to see the instructor before a class or tell your trainer what issues you’re having and that you’ll need modifications. It’s not your job to know all modifications, but it is your job to speak up and let someone know you’re looking for them and what your concerns are.

No one will magically read your mind. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and advocate for yourself.

Research your own modification options. The one you need may not always be provided. Be prepared.

When modifying strength moves, identify the purpose of the exercise to supplement with a modification targeting the same goal.

Something I see all the time is those with limited shoulder mobility, trying to perform an overhead triceps press, accompanied by a painful grimace and terrible form. That poor rotator cuff. If only they knew that a triceps extension with a hip hinge would be a great option to target the triceps AND keep those poor shoulders healthy. Never sacrifice one body part for another.

Cardio modifications can be less challenging as the goal is really just to keep your heart rate up. So if jumping jacks don’t appeal to you, maybe marching high knees in place does. Walk it out, just keep moving.

If you’re taking a class and you’re the only one modifying, good for you! You’re listening to your body and understand how to keep yourself safe. Chances are others probably should be modifying.

Don’t feel you have to do the exact same thing the instructor or others are doing. Feel free to take a modification. The worst thing is performing movements incorrectly and risking injury. 

Takeaways:

Ultimately, you’re the one who’s responsible for monitoring how you feel.

It’s a good idea to understand exercise modifications that work for you. Have some in your back pocket to seamlessly sprinkle in whenever you need. You can’t always guarantee they’ll be provided. Empower yourself! 

Still stuck on how to work around injuries? Go see a physical therapist!

A few small tweaks can make all the difference and make movements and options more accessible. These tips give you the tools to tailor any movement to your needs.

There’s a difference between challenging yourself smartly by listening to your body and risking injury. Exercise modifications are the key to maximizing your fitness today and make sure you’re still healthy to do it tomorrow and years to come.

What are some of your favorite exercise modifications?

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Featured image credit: Copyright Pixelrockstar

8 Comments

  • Emily Adams

    This was a great explanation of what to modify and why! My favorite has been using a band to help me until I can do an unassisted pull-up. Still working on that strength, but it helps me to make progress each day!

  • Ashley

    I love this post. I’m going into exercise science in college this year. And one of the aspects I hope to learn more about is a modification. Using myself as an example. I was born with underdeveloped muscles in my wrist and chest. I have to use braces for my wrist much of the time. But I would like to strengthen them anyway. Now, bench pressed and push-ups are very difficult for me. I’m now sure what the mod would be for them so in college I’m hoping to learn. Also this past year I started suffering odd back spasms. I’ve injured my back before so I have to be careful of weight. But core exercises have really helped. I want to be able to work with people and kids, since that is a growing group, with particular needs. I love your article. I’ll be sharing this!

    • Maura Blackstone

      There’s always a modification (even if it’s a different exercise but targets the same muscle group) to take, so keep exploring and you’ll learn the ones that work for you. Injury prevention is a big focus in this blog so thanks so much for reading and stay tuned! Good luck with your courses this fall.

  • Kate

    Great tips! As someone with rheumatoid arthritis (and permanent damage to joints from the RA), modifications are soooo necessary for me.

    • Maura Blackstone

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. It’s so important to protect your joints, great job seeking out alternatives that work for you!

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