How and When to Modify Exercises

Posted on by Ben Bruno

I received a question on Strengthcoach.com a few months back that I want to share because I’ve received several similar questions recently and I think my answer may be helpful.

Here’s the original question:

“I’m always very impressed to read Ben Bruno’s articles because of his skill to modify exercises based on specific needs, goals, or just variety. I understand that a lot of this stuff comes with experience, but what tips do you have to become more creative and see these modifications better? Hopefully, Ben Bruno tunes in also here.”

Here’s my answer:

1. A lot of the exercise tweaks I use myself are either to make something more joint friendly or to change an exercise to where I don’t need to use as much weight.

I like lifting hard and constantly try to improve and progress, but as time goes on and I get stronger, I can’t tolerate just doing heavy squatting, deadlifting, and benching all the time. Consequently, I’ve gravitated towards more single leg stuff and bodyweight stuff. It’s been working great for me, but sometimes progression can be a little tricky because a lot of the exercises can be tough to load after a certain point, so I do other stuff to manipulate it to make it harder.

I want to be very clear though I built my foundation doing an extremely simple routine and just focusing on hammering the basics.

2. I’ll also modify exercises to meet equipment needs. Maybe I’ll see an exercise that I like but don’t have the same stuff at my disposal, so I’ll think of a way to get a similar training effect using what I’ve got.

3. I would not recommend going into the gym with the intent to modify things just for the sake of modifying them. The basics work the vast majority of the time, especially for beginners, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

If you run into a problem (something hurts, you need to make it harder/easier, you don’t have the necessary equipment, etc.) then try to come up with a solution to the problem.

If there’s no problem, then you don’t need a solution.

4. I would look at Mike Boyle’s recent article called There’s a Reason There is a Box. He wrote it with regards to coaching, but I think applies to just about anything.

I highly suggest you read the whole article, but here’s one line that really rings true for me: “Out of the box thinking should be reserved for those who know the inside of the box like the literal back of their hand.” I really like that line.

To relate this to myself, I am relatively new to coaching, so rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, I try to learn from other great coaches (hence why I came to MBSC) and learn how they do things.

With my own lifting, however, I’ve toyed around for a long time and have developed a solid foundation of strength on the basics and a good knowledge of my body, so when something doesn’t feel right, I make small changes. Moreover, whenever I progress an exercise, it’s because I’ve mastered the previous step first. That’s very important. It’s never really a big jump, just more of a natural progression.

Still, the vast majority of my own lifting is actually VERY simple.

As for how to see exercise modifications better, I think that really just comes down to understanding how the exercises work and how the body works really well.

Hope that helps.

  • Mark

    Ben,

    I recently have discovered your website and articles on T-Nation. You have some great ideas; I enjoy your recommendations they have been helping as I look to stay active. That being said, I have recently been plagued with an achilles inflammation. Physical therapy has helped, but I find it difficult to get back to the same routines. What knee dominant exercises would you recommend? The advanced leg curls really work for the hamstrings.

    Thanks.

  • Matt_movemo

    Thanks for the psot Ben! I’ve sometimes felt pressured to modify my workouts but always felt hesitant to over-complicate it. I realized it’s just because I still don’t feel comfortable yet knowing all the basics. I love that line ““Out of the box thinking should be reserved for those who know the inside of the box like the literal back of their hand.” That just blew my mind – awesome!