9 Essential Exercise Modifications for Your Workouts

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I know that I can use any program or walk into any workout class and be successful. Why? Because I have a toolbox of exercise modifications that I can use! Exercise modifications make any exercise scale to what I need that day and are the key for adapting any workout plan to fit your body. There are SO many variations of common exercises that will still do an amazing job of getting you to your goals.

There are ways of doing exercises that help keep you safe, of course, but the fitness industry has become so strict about what is “correct,” what “counts,” and what doesn’t. These fitness rules can be rigid, and are honestly usually arbitrary. My take? Let people do exercises in a way that’s comfortable for their bodies! I’m not here to police your form or make you do it my way, because your body probably moves differently than mine. These rules were made for certain body types without considering any type of accessibility or the fact that our bodies show up differently day to day and week to week.

Why would you want to modify an exercise?

When you imagine a workout program that tells you exactly what to do, does it feel comforting or restricting? The truth is that a) our bodies aren’t all the same, so they won’t do exercises the same way, and b) your body doesn’t show up the same every week. When a workout program controls all the variables for you, it’s not giving your body any space to do its thing! Even when you’re working 1:1 with a coach and you have a personalized exercise program, there are still probably days you will want to use the exercise modifications below to adjust it. You might have even done it already without realizing it!

Exercise modifications change different aspects of the exercise- some change how many you do, others change to a different variation of the exercise. All of them can be used to make basic exercises more or less challenging per your needs. Not every variation works for every body! We’re all different and should have the freedom to do exercises in a way that’s comfortable. There’s a lot of messaging in the fitness industry about doing things “correctly” or with good form. Sometimes that means doing it safely, but a lot of times it means doing an exercise one very specific way, even when it’s bad your your particular body.

Exercise modifications might be permanent choices, something that helps the exercise work better for your body long-term. They might also be something you change workout-to-workout or week-to-week depending on how your body feels. Keeping a rigid structure and not letting yourself modify workouts can actually make it more challenging to stay consistent with a long-term workout plan.

Listen to Your Body

Simply put, if an exercise hurts, stop doing it or find a variation that doesn’t hurt! Pain is a different sensation than feeling sore after a workout. Soreness means your workout is making you stronger (Beware of getting so sore that it lasts for days though! That’s not great for your body.), but pain or discomfort while doing an exercise means it’s time to go into your modification toolbox. Experiment with different modifications and find the ones that are comfortable.

Quick note: when I say comfortable, I don’t mean the exercise should feel effortless. Lifting weights is still work no matter which variation you choose. An exercise might feel uncomfortable at first because it’s new- that’s okay; that’s how we grow! As you get to know your body better, you’ll learn which uncomfortable feeling is you expanding your comfort zone and which is you feeling uncomfortable because you’re in a position that makes you nervous or actively causes you pain.

Check In With Yourself

Before each workout, take a minute to check in with yourself. Are you feeling tired? Do you have a lot going on this week? Are you stressed or worried about a situation? What you’re feeling mentally and emotionally can affect your workouts. When you’re not feeling 100%, this is a great place to pull out your exercise modifications and adjust the workouts to the energy level you have. As you get more practice listening to your body, you’ll find which modifications are you go-to for when you’re not feeling good and the ones you go to when you’re feeling amazing and want to give an extra push.

If you feel like your workout was great, but you feel awful or extra sore afterwards, you’ll know that workout was a little too much for your body. This is very common when you’re new to exercising! When this does happen, you can use these exercise modifications to scale back the next workout.

Sarah, in blue workout gear, demonstrates an exercise modification for a squat.

9 Exercise Modifications You Can Use in Your Workouts

  1. Change the Weight
  2. Change the Reps
  3. Change the Sets
  4. Change the Tempo
  5. Change Your Body Position
  6. Change the Range of Motion
  7. Change the Lever
  8. Elevate Parts of Your Body
  9. Combine It or Break It Down

Your Exercise Modification Toolbox

1. Change the Weight

In strength training, weight is usually described as four basic levels: no weight (bodyweight), light weight, medium weight, and heavy weight.

These aren’t specific weights- I’m not going to tell you that a light weight is 10lbs and a heavy weight is 100lbs. The choices for each of the levels is up to you and will likely change as you get more experience. The weight will also change per exercise. A heavy weight for a squat looks very different than a heavy weight for bicep curl.

When you’re doing an exercise for the first time, I always recommend starting with a weight you feel comfortable with, even if that’s no weight at all. Get comfortable with how your body’s moving during the exercise, then slowly add weight as you gain confidence. Feeling like you need to use a weight that makes you uncomfortable is one of the most common ways people get hurt while lifting weights.

If you’re doing a bodyweight exercise and want to modify it, try out one of the following modifications instead!

2. Change the Reps

Reps are how many of an exercise you do all at once before resting. They’re one of the easiest parts of a workout to adjust- you simply do less or more. When I adjust the reps I usually look at what I did the week or workout before, then if I’m feeling really good I might try for an extra rep or two. If I’m feeling tired or a little out of it, I’ll reduce the number of reps I’m doing for this workout.

I also use this modification if I’m following a workout plan where I’m not able to do all the reps in the program. For example, if the workout program is telling me to do 10 pull ups per set and I can only do 4, then I’ll do 4 each set. That’s totally okay! Trying to push past your limits might end up with you getting injured or overtraining your body. In general, you want to stop when you can’t do the reps with the same quality you started with.

Be aware: If you know your workout program is working towards a specific goal, the number of reps might have a purpose (for example endurance training uses 12-20 reps per set). If you know this is the case for your workout, I recommend adjusting the weight or trying one of the other modifications first.

3. Change the Sets

A set is a round of reps. You usually aren’t doing tons of sets per exercise, so cutting or adding sets can have a drastic effect on how challenging your workout feels.

The main time I adjust the number of sets is when I’m not feeling well or want to shorten/lengthen my workout. If I have a lot of time and I’m feeling good, I’ll add sets to get more work in. If I don’t feel well or I’m busy and want to get my workout done quickly, I will cut a set or two for each exercise to move things along.

4. Change the Tempo

Tempo is the speed of each rep. Speeding up or slowing down your movement during an exercise can have a big effect on how challenging it feels.

Slowing Down

Moving more slowly through an exercise usually makes it feel more challenging. It increases your time under tension, or how long your muscles are working for, and causes them to get stronger.

On the flipside, slowing down a fast exercise can make it feel more approachable. For example, take a box jump and turn it into a step up, step down. You can always add speed later. (see also: break it down)

Speeding Up

Speeding up an exercise can give you more momentum and a little extra help completing each rep. One important tip here is that, even when moving faster, you’re still in control of your movement. No flailing or losing control.

When you significantly speed up an exercise or make it explosive, it moves into the realm of power training. Power training can be more challenging because you’re specifically focused on doing exercises quickly and with more force.

5. Change your Body Position

Stability is a big part of strength training- the more stable you are, generally the more weight you can lift. By choosing a less stable body position, your body is forced to create that stability. It makes the exercise feel more challenging even if you’re using the same amount of weight. Not all exercises can be used in all body positions, but you can try mixing it up to see what feels good for you. As your body becomes more unstable, you will most likely need to use less weight.

Here are different body positions you can choose from:

Prone/Supine

Prone: laying on your stomach

Supine: laying on your back

Laying down is a very stable position for exercises because most of your body is supported by the floor. It’s important to note that laying on the ground isn’t comfortable for everyone- you can also lay down on a flat surface like a weightlifting bench for a similar effect.

Quadruped/Tabletop/Plank

This is a stable position because your hands and feet are on the ground supporting you, but it also means there aren’t many exercises that are done in this position aside from quadrupeds and types of planks.

Tall Kneeling

Kneeling on the ground with both knees (add padding for support though!) can be a stable position that is more approachable than standing for upper body exercises. When lifting weights overhead especially, a tall kneeling position is closer to the ground and might make you feel more comfortable while lifting weight around your head.

Half Kneeling

A half-kneeling position is when one knee and one foot are on the ground. This is generally a more unstable position because you have to balance, just like in a lunge. This can make your body work harder during the same exercise, like an overhead press for example, because your body has to use more muscles to balance.

Standing

Standing is another stable body position, and probably the one you’ll use the most during strength training.

When you’re standing, you have difference options for your stance (foot placement). For example, when squatting or deadlifting, some people prefer a wider stance with feet turned out a bit, and others prefer a narrow stance with feet pointed forward. As you set up for exercises, play around with your foot placement to see what’s most comfortable for you body.

Changing this position also goes for arm positions for exercises like a press. Because our bodies are different, putting your arm in a different position could feel more or less challenging, but it can also help you find the position that works well for your body.

Staggered Stance

A staggered stance is also called b-stance or kickstand. By moving one leg slightly behind the other, you’re creating a more unstable position. This can help you strength each side of your body to help it move better.

Single Leg

A single-leg stance is usually the most unstable body position because it involves you balancing on one leg. Doing exercises on one leg involves a lot of stabilization, putting the focus on your legs and core.

6. Change the Range of Motion

Your range of motion is how much space your joints have to move. A full range of motion is moving your entire range, whatever that means for your body. For example, doing a squat with a full range of motion means dropping down as far as your hips and ankles let you go before pushing back up again.

While using a full range of motion is generally advised, that doesn’t mean you have to. Using less range of motion can make an exercise more approachable. A great example of this is doing a squat and only going as far down as you feel comfortable with before standing back up, even if your body can technically go further. Another example is doing a push up, but only going partway to the floor. Doing exercises this way as you gain confidence in your body movement is completely valid!

My favorite way to experiment with range of motion is to do it with support. Use a chair, the wall, or something else to support you so you feel more stable as you experiment with how far your body will move. (see also: change the lever)

7. Change the Lever

By changing the distance between the weight and your body, you can make an exercise more or less challenging. Changing the lever is related to range of motion, but the focus is on a different joint.

Generally, the closer you bring the weight to your body, the easier it will be to move. A great example of this is a lateral raise, which involves bringing weights out to the side with your arms straight. By bringing the weight closer – bending at the elbows – you should be able to do more reps. It might also be easier on your shoulders. Keeping your arms out with the weight farther away from your body will make it more challenging.

Another exercise you can change the level with is dead bugs. By fully lengthening your arms and legs as they move toward the floor, you can make it more challenging. By bending at the knees and elbows, the lever is shorter and it will be less challenging. With any exercise that involves your arms or legs being straight, you can experiment with changing the lever to find what works best for you!

8. Elevate Parts of Your Body

By changing the angle or giving a little support to certain parts of your body you can make exercises more comfortable! You can use lots of different tools and surfaces to support your body, including a chair, foam roller, pillow, countertop, wall, stool, bench, yoga block, book, or stairs.

Here are some examples where elevating might come in handy:

Hips

When you’re doing an exercise while sitting on the ground and it’s uncomfortable on your knees, put a pillow or yoga blocks under your hips to raise them up a bit!

Hands

This is one of my favorite modifications. For exercises like planks, push ups, and anything else that involves that type of position on the floor, you can elevate your hands! Incline your body by putting your hands on a chair, bench, countertop, or wall to make the exercise more accessible for you.

Upper Back

If you struggle to keep your core engaged while laying on the ground, try adding a pillow or foam roller behind your shoulder blades to elevate your shoulders. It will help you keep your core engaged and support your lower back during floor exercises.

Feet

When doing squats, putting something small like a book or a small weight plate under your heels can help you have more range of motion.

You can also use an elevated foot to make an exercise more challenge, like in the case of rear foot elevated (RFE) split squats or deadlifts.>>

The Actual Weight

When the weight starts on the floor, it can sometimes put your body in an uncomfortable position. By starting with an elevated weight, like on a box, you can start in a better position and feel more secure during the exercise. This works well for deadlifts and any time you need to pick up a weight from the ground for any exercise.

9. Combine It or Break It Down

You can combine or split exercises to make them more or less challenging.

Combine It

When you’re doing multiple exercises in a workout and want to make it more challenging, you can put them together into a combination or a flow. This is very common with kettlebell training. One example is a thruster- you combine a squat with an overhead press. By putting exercises together, you work more muscles in less time. It’s more challenging for your body because more muscles are moving at once and your body gets less rest.

Break It Down

Some exercises are already combined, but you can break them down into pieces to make them more approachable! Burpees are a great example of this. Instead of trying to do it all in one, do one part, pause, then do the next part.

If there are exercises where multiple parts of your body are moving, you can make it less challenging by moving one part, then the other.

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During workouts, you might end up using more than one of these options to adjust exercises. Just like I said at the beginning of the article, all of these options are valid! Coaches or gyms that hold you to rigid and arbitrary rules aren’t doing you any favors. You’re allowed to choose what’s best for your body!

Choosing what’s best for your body is an important part of all my programs, but these specific exercise modifications are featured and used frequently in Colorful Strength and Prismatic Coaching. Colorful Strength is my 12 week beginner strength group program, and Prismatic Coaching is my signature 1:1 strength and movement coaching program.

If you have questions about modifying a specific exercise, drop a comment below!

Sarah Siertle

Hey! I'm Sarah!
I'm an inclusive strength & movement coach who helps people get hella strong so they can have fun and live their lives in full color!

My coaching is beginner-friendly, movement-based, and size-inclusive. I believe in coaching that is kind, not shaming or judgmental as so many fitness experiences are.

If you're ready to start your strength journey, you can check out your training options or get started with a free workout!

Mindset Tips

Blog Categories

Strength Training Tips

About Me & My Business

Inclusive Fitness

Exercises

Hey! I'm Sarah!
I'm an inclusive strength & movement coach who helps people get hella strong so they can have fun and live their lives in full color!

My coaching is beginner-friendly, movement-based, and size-inclusive. I believe in coaching that is kind, not shaming or judgmental as so many fitness experiences are.

If you're ready to start your strength journey, you can check out your training options or get started with a free workout!

Mindset Tips

Blog Categories

Strength Training Tips

About Me & My Business

Inclusive Fitness

Exercises

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