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Modifying Exercise - Back to the Basics

Without a doubt one of the most common questions that we hear at SportsPlus is "Can I still train today?" Or, the slightly less expectant version "When can I get back to training?" I love hearing that question - it is a testament to the motivation of the people that we are fortunate enough to treat at our clinic. Sometimes giving an answer to that question is not always my favorite part of the day, however. There are times when I can say "yes, absolutely you can train today the way you normally train." But, there are also times when rest is required. Rest does not necessarily mean sitting on the couch eating potato chips mind you. Many times rest can mean simply modifying your activity so that you do not over-stress a weakened tissue.

So how can you modify your workout?

There are a number of ways that you can modify your workout: You can cut down on the number of miles you run. You can decrease the amount of time you spend at the gym. You can increase the length of your recovery period between sets or between training sessions. You can even substitute one mode of training for another (i.e. if you are dealing with a heel bruise, instead of going on a 10 mile street run you could choose to ride your bike or do a few laps in the pool instead. Even switching your running surface to a track or the beach could be beneficial.) All in all, it's pretty straight forward: do less, skip that, or substitute this. But what about if less isn't an option for you, what do you do then? What if you are not injured but you are simply struggling to keep up with your workout group or at boot camp? Well then perhaps you could benefit more from ways to modify specific exercises so that you can complete them safely and still keep up with your routine.

How do you modify an exercise?

Just like modifying your entire workout, there are a number of ways that you can modify an individual exercise: you can do it faster or slower, you can do less reps, you can shorten your range of motion, lessen the amount of weight you move, recruit additional muscles to help etc. But the topic of today's blog is how you can use stability to modify your exercises, to make them easier (or harder). Here is an example of a stability progression.

This does not list all of the possible progressions as there are many steps in between those stages. For instance, instead of going straight from standing on 2 legs to standing on 1 leg you can put 90% of your weight on 1 leg, or suspend one leg on a bench. Other modifiers to make things more difficult include looking up, closing your eyes or using an unstable surface like a foam pad or a bosu ball.

So what is the benefit of modifying the stability of an exercise?

By reducing the stability requirements of an exercise, you may be able to reduce negative compensations that your body is making, allowing you to properly train an efficient movement pattern. Have you ever seen that person at the gym who is standing on an upside down bosu ball doing "squats" with their arms and legs flailing around like a wounded duck? Well, that is an example of inadequate stability. Their body is unable to provide the requisite stability to properly move through the ankles, knees, hips and spine. So it adapts to allow them to do the exercises the best way it can, which in this case is the flailing duck maneuver. This is clearly ineffective movement, stabilizing muscles become over worked, prime movers are recruited to stabilize and over time an injury will likely develop. By reducing the stability requirement to an acceptable level you allow your body to move efficiently, allowing you to strengthen the appropriate muscles in the proper pattern so you can reduce the risk of future injury. The flailing duck is an extreme example but even small compensations can lead to injury. Examples include: shrugging your shoulders during over head lifts, arching your back during a bicep curl, letting your knee drop in during a lunge. We all have that inner drive to push ourselves and to constantly do more in the gym (and that is a wonderful thing), but, we also have to remember that sometimes less is more, and if we push too far beyond our limits, the only thing that we will end up with more of is the time required to come back from our injuries.

What are some examples of stability modifications?

To increase the stability of a plank you can use your forearm for support instead of coming all the way onto your hand. If you are doing a side plank you can spread your legs apart so one is in front of the other instead of stacking them on top of each other.

To increase the stability of a squat try holding on to something like a counter top or TRX straps.

Struggling with a push up? Try widening your feet a little for increased stability.

If you are not quite ready for that single leg squat exercise try using just the toes on your other foot for balance, until you are ready for that next step that is.

You can take these basic principles and apply them to any exercise to increase (or reduce) the overall stability of that exercise so you can perform the movement properly and effectively. Experiment with different exercises and different levels of stability. It can be a great way to mix up your workout, and when used properly, it will help you move better and train better.

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Diana Wan
Diana Wan
Apr 11

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