Benefits of exercise modifications and how to customize the exercises to suit your body

Taking a wider stance is an exercise modification that can help make deadlifts feel more comfortable when you are tall.

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In my strength and conditioning course, I play a game with my students every semester. I ask two people – one taller, one shorter – to come forward and squat with their body weight. When they crouch down, the taller person usually pushes their hips far back and tilts their chest forward toward the floor. The shorter one keeps the chest up and the knees come forward over the toes.

Your techniques look very different. But, you know what? Both people are in great shape.

“We don’t all have the same anatomy,” explains Tony Gentilcore, CSCS, a Boston-based certified strength and conditioning specialist. “Expecting everyone to crouch exactly the same and feel the same is pretty narrow-minded.”

Yes, there is such a thing as a great shape and a less great shape, but that doesn’t mean there is an ultimate shape to cram your body into or push your body through with pain. The best form of exercise is always the one that works with your body, not against it.

Not sure how to work with your body? That’s fine, we’re going to teach you here – to help you achieve your goals with as much confidence (and fun) as possible.

3 benefits of training modifications for every body and every level

1. It can reduce your risk of injury

There’s a reason coaches emphasize form: it helps keep you safe and injury-free. And while maintaining the correct form is critical, performing exercises without attuning them to your body can result in injury down the line.

For example, imagine a very tall person trying to deadlift a barbell. To reach the barbell, that person has to bend down really hard on each rep, which can add extra strain to the body, especially the lower back. This can lead to pain or injury over time.

But that doesn’t mean tall people can’t enjoy the many benefits that the deadlift has to offer – a small modification can do the job. Moving a wider sumo stance or using a trap bar can help them deadlift with a more upright torso.

2. It builds a better relationship with movement

Nobody likes to do exercises that feel painful, uncomfortable, or discouraging. But adjusting an exercise to suit your body shape and size can make you feel more confident. In the long run, this can help improve your training consistency, according to certified strength and conditioning specialist Patrick Jennings, CSCS.

“We want to increase trust and competence, increase consistency,” he says. Find exercise modifications and variations that will make your workout a pleasure, or even play.

3. It keeps you constant and makes progress

Forcing yourself to do exercises (or variations) that are not suitable for your body can slow your progress. And it can be hard to stay motivated and encouraged when your hard work isn’t paying off.

If you force your body to do an exercise that you cannot do with good form, you are unlikely to get all of the strength building benefits that the movement has to offer. You may even feel aches and pains.

Simply put, we stick to things that are fun and consistency leads to progress.

3 factors to consider when choosing (and performing) exercise modifications

1. The proportions of your body

Also known as anthropometry, the shape, size, and proportions of your body affect how your body moves.

For example, people with long legs may feel more comfortable doing squat-based exercises when doing one-legged exercises like Bulgarian split squats.

People with heavy weights can find bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups, or planks particularly challenging. Modification is the key. Swap planks for a dead bug, opt for a lat pulldown instead of a chin-up, and try dumbbell presses instead of pushups.

If it hurts, don’t do it! Exercise should make your body feel better, not worse (aside from some post-exercise soreness that you may experience). Injuries do not necessarily take exercises off the table, but should be considered when choosing different training variants.

You need to tweak the exercises based on the nature of your past (or current) injury. For example, someone with an old shoulder injury may feel more comfortable doing their overhead press at an angle instead of straight overhead.

People with previous knee injuries may feel uncomfortable doing a deep squat. But squatting on a box or chair can help control depth and keep your knees happier.

Whatever is a good idea, consult your doctor or physical therapist before adding any new movements to your exercise routine.

If you can do squats well and it helps you achieve your goals, that’s great. But if you can’t do a squat variation, it just might not be one that needs to be on your daily leg schedule. Swap it out for a different type of squat.

Choose exercises that will help you achieve your goals, but that are still fun for you.

This is how you adapt each exercise to your body

The exercises are categorized based on the type of movement you are doing, as listed below. Your weekly strength training should include exercises within each of these categories to ensure that you are working all of the muscles in your body.

With this in mind, you can change or swap the exercises within these categories to better suit your body. While one train might not feel great in a certain category, there may be another that is more comfortable but still gets the job done.

To choose the best exercise variant or optimization for you, the first step is to try tons of exercise variants and listen to your body. Then you can play the “If … Then” game to narrow down the best exercise variations and modifications for you.

Hip joint exercises primarily use your glutes and hamstrings to flex and then straighten your hips. Deadlift variations make up many of the hip joint exercises. So if the traditional deadlift isn’t feeling comfortable, there is no shortage of alternatives.

  • If you have a big belly, consider doing a wide stance sumo deadlift to create more space for your body
  • If you are tall or have back pain, try a trap bar deadlift so you can keep a higher spine.
  • If you’re new to the deadlift or don’t have a barbell, try dumbbell deadlifts and stick to the range of motion that feels good to you.

Squats train your quadriceps and glutes, but also strengthen your core muscles. You’re all about bending over your hips and knees. And like with the deadlift, there are many variations of the squat that you can try.

  • If you have a big belly, take a wider stance or try a sumo squat.
  • If you have a history of knee pain, try a box squat.
  • If you have long legs or lower back pain, consider a split squat.

3. Vertical push exercises

These are your overhead presses (like the shoulder press) that primarily target your shoulder muscles.

  • If your lower back arches while doing the shoulder press, try the shoulder press and tilt the bench, or try the landmine press.
  • If you don’t have access to standing shoulder presses, or if you don’t want to do them, do them while sitting.

4. Horizontal push exercises

Horizontal push movements, like pushups and chest presses, involve pushing away from your body against resistance. These mainly target your chest muscles.

  • If you experience shoulder pain while bench pressing the barbell, try dumbbells instead so each arm can move more freely.
  • If you experience wrist pain during pushups, try holding onto dumbbells to keep your wrist neutral. Or swap for a dumbbell chest press.
  • If you’re struggling to support your body with push-ups, swap it out for a dumbbell chest press.

5. Vertical pull exercises

While the shoulder press is over the head, vertical pulling movements (such as pull-ups) pull against resistance from over the head towards the body. These are aimed at your back.

  • If you experience shoulder pain while doing a chin-up, try a tight (tight) grip with your palms facing your body. Or swap for a lat pulldown.
  • If your body weight is unable to do pull-ups, place your feet on a long, looped resistance band for support.

6. Horizontal pull exercises

Horizontal pulling movements, like rowing, involve pulling a weight onto your body. These mainly train your back muscles.

  • If putting weight on your arm during a one-arm dumbbell row hurts, try a one-arm cable row.
  • If you experience back pain while rowing with bent dumbbells, place your body against an incline bench for extra support as you pull the weight.

Carry exercises involve walking while carrying some type of weight. The most popular variation is the Farmer’s Walk and these exercises typically strengthen your entire body, including your core muscles.

  • If you have shoulder pain, avoid lifting weights overhead or at shoulder level.
  • If you have difficulty or pain holding onto dumbbells, try kettlebells for an easier grip.

Further exercise variations and modifications