As hard as you may try to follow a strength program, life inevitably throws a few curves your way. Maybe it’s a scheduling obstacle, recovery from an illness or injury, or some other roadblock. When that “perfect” workout is out of reach, you may be tempted to skip it altogether.
Learning how to tweak your workout through exercise modifications and variations can help you avoid the panic and frustration many of us feel when things don’t go as planned. And it may ultimately help you see better results from your routine.
Knowing how to adjust your resistance routine — or working with a trainer or coach who does — will give you more control over your workout, helping you stay consistent with exercise. You’ll be able to tweak exercises that cause discomfort or pain, work around issues like a lack of gym access or equipment, and continue working toward your goals while — hopefully — getting more enjoyment out of your effort.
“It’s no fun doing an exercise routine that hurts or is boring,” says Life Time personal trainer Jennifer Blake, RKC-II.
Modifying exercises and trying different variations can also prevent your progress from stalling out.
“As muscles begin to adapt to a stimulus, progressing an exercise by modifying its execution can be exactly what the doctor ordered to continue seeing gains and adding strength,” says Toronto strength coach Lee Boyce.
Modifications are ways of adjusting an exercise so it’s easier (or more challenging) for you. For example, if you feel discomfort in your lower back or hips during a deadlift, one way to modify the exercise is by elevating the barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells on yoga blocks or stacked weight plates so you don’t have to bend over as far, Blake says. You can also modify your body positioning: Try adjusting your foot or hand position to find a setup better suited to your physiology and needs.
The number of modifications for each exercise may seem endless, but sometimes you need to make a bigger change to get the results you need. That’s where exercise variations come in.
Variations are different versions of an exercise within the same movement pattern. “A deadlift is a hinge movement, and within that movement lies a number of different exercises, including Romanian deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, and kettlebell swings,” Blake explains.
When you can’t do your workouts exactly as written, find ways to adapt them to your environment, abilities, and goals.
“Knowing how to change a movement to suit you and how to add in different exercise variations will keep your work-out challenging and enjoyable,” she says.