Have you ever had to modify an exercise because no matter how hard you tried, you just couldn’t do the full version?
Yeah, me too.
And if you’re anything like me, you don’t exactly like to have to modify exercises. You want to do the real thing. To be strong, fit, and kick ass at everything you do.
But… life doesn’t always work that way. And training, especially, doesn’t always work that way. Because although we all have our strengths, every single one of us has weaknesses and areas we need to work on.
For example, here are just a few of the many exercises I still have to modify:
- Although I can do pull ups and chin ups without assistance, if I want to push past a certain number, I continue to have to use a band, which frustrates me like crazy (one of my New Year’s resolutions this year is to be able to do 10 unassisted pull ups in a row).
- Similarly, though I can do a few full pistols in a row, I need to use a band or hold onto a chair in order to make it past those first few.
- Despite being fairly flexible, I can’t even get close to doing the splits. This drives me nuts in gymnastics class, where some people are able to do it so easily.
And trust me, there are a lot more.
And although it frustrates me at times (as I’m sure it frustrates you), modifying an exercise because you can’t do the full or advanced version is actually not a bad thing.
Here’s why you should never be ashamed to modify your workouts:
It builds strength
While some people certainly have an inherent athletic advantage, every single athlete got where they are today because they worked hard to continue to get stronger and fitter than they were previously.
And you know how you get stronger? You start with the exercise you can do now.
Then you continue to work at that exercise until you can do the next variation, then the next, and so on. Keep at it and before you know it you’ll be able to do the full version, and eventually, even more advanced versions of the exercise.
But the key here is that everybody has to start somewhere.
So if you can’t do a full push up yet (or whatever exercise you’re struggling with), don’t worry too much. Start by doing push ups with your hands on a raised surface such as a table or a countertop. Once you get good at those, move to kneeling push ups, making sure to really focus on your form. Get good at those and soon enough you’ll be on to full push ups, clapping push ups, and even one arm push ups.
Each variation will help get you stronger and prepare you for the next exercise.
It protects you from injuries
If you were to go from being a complete couch potato to trying to do 10 one arm pull ups in a row, what do you think would happen?
Yeah, you’d probably get injured.
And that’s what a lot of people don’t realize about modifying exercises—doing so will prepare your body for even harder versions and help you avoid the injuries that inevitably occur when you build up too quickly and try and do exercises that your body isn’t ready for yet.
By focusing on form and slowly building up to harder versions of exercises, you’ll protect your joints, bulletproof your body and ensure that you’ll actually be able to do those really hard exercises you’ve always wanted to do.
It takes a little patience—but it’ll all be worth it when you’re busting out bridges and pistols and dips with no problem at all.
It helps you avoid being sloppy
It’s fairly common for people to think they’re doing the full version of the exercise, but to be actually doing a sloppy, bad version of the exercise because they don’t have the strength to do it properly yet.
And if you’ve done this, don’t feel bad. I am incredibly guilty of this, especially in my early days of training.
The first push ups I ever did were absolutely horrible—my core wasn’t even tight and sagged to the ground, my elbows were pointed out to my ears, and I probably only made it down a few inches or so—definitely not all the way to the ground.
Looking back, I’m 100% positive I should have been doing kneeling push ups instead to build up my strength. Yet those first push ups gave me confidence. They made me believe I could do it, that I could push past my unathleticness and get stronger and fitter than I ever thought possible.
There are some people, like Paul Wade of Convict Conditioning, who believe you really shouldn’t even try the harder version of the exercise until you’ve really mastered the previous one.
Yet I can’t claim to follow this mindset. I always want to push myself to try new exercises, and even if I can only do a rep or two of a brand new, tough exercise, I get excited because it proves to myself that I’m making progress. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still work on building strength with the exercise I can actually do.
So my take on this? Go ahead and try the tough exercises. Do a pull up, or a push up, or a handstand, even if you’re not that good enough at it yet. Build up your confidence.
But when it comes down to really getting stronger, work on the modified versions. And don’t be embarrassed about it—know that all that hard work you put in will eventually allow you to do the harder exercise with ease.
How to go about modifying tough exercises
I know some of you are probably wondering how to actually go about modifying an exercise when it’s too tough for you to do it with proper form. And while I do try and have beginner modifications of certain tough exercises in the workout videos, I haven’t covered every possible modification yet (hopefully I’ll get to more of these in the near future).
But if you want to try and modify an exercise yourself to make it easier, here’s what you can do:
Try and think about the core purpose of the exercise, and try to keep doing that while finding a way to make the exercise easier.
For example, with push ups, the obvious modification from a full push up is to simply drop to your knees. This simple modification means you end up lifting less of your overall body weight, making it easier so you can focus on good form. If this is still too tough, you might do push ups instead with your hands on an elevated surface to further decrease the amount of body weight you’d be lifting.
Here are some other exercise modifications that follow this same idea:
Handstand push ups: Instead of being fully vertical in a handstand, get into an “L” shape with your feet on a sturdy, elevated surface and do handstand push ups from there. If that’s too hard, try pike push ups with your feet on the ground and butt in the air like in a downward dog position. Here’s a tutorial on how to get started with handstand push ups.
V ups: Rather than keeping both your legs and arms straight when you raise up into a v, tuck your legs on the way up. This puts less pressure on your back if you’re not quite strong enough yet.
Pull ups: Instead of hanging from a pull up bar with your feet off the ground, try doing negatives: jump up to the pull up bar, then slowly lower yourself down with as much control as possible. Another great way to build up your strength for pull ups is to use bands like these ones.
Pistols: Build your leg strength by holding on to either a band or a sturdy object to help get you past the sticking point on the way up. You can also begin on an elevated surface if you’re struggling with the flexibility of the opposite leg. Go here for a full pistol progression.
Box jumps: This one’s pretty simple: if a box is too high for you to jump on, just find a smaller box (or shorter surface), or, just jump in place.
Starting to get the idea? I hope so. When in doubt, bend, kneel, use a band, lower, or whatever else it takes for you to do the exercise with good form.
And just remember—you should never feel bad about having to modify your workouts. Keep pushing yourself and working hard, and you’ll get there eventually—and be all the better athlete because of it.