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Dear trainer: Are modified moves the easy way out?

Zoe Weiner

Zoe WeinerMarch 27, 2019

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There’s a moment in every fitness class where you have a decision to make (for me, it usually happens the moment someone says “push-ups”): Do you modify the move you’re doing so that you can keep up with the number of reps your trainer is asking for, or do you keep it up in full force, knowing you may only be able to eke out two or three of them?

Well, we’ve finally got the answer, and all signs point to “modify.” “Modifications allow for proper form to be understood, conceptualized and then integrated into the client’s workout regimen,” says Ian Richardson, a trainer at SLT in New York City. “A proper modification to an exercise, no matter how rudimentary or advanced the exercise, will allow for any client, non-biased of his or her fitness level, to become stronger and reap the maximum benefit of the exercise.”

And in case you’re nervous about going to your knees when a trainer tells you to drop and give ’em 20, there’s actual research to confirm that modified push-ups are just as effective as the real deal. A 2018 study conducted by the Les Mills research center found that doing push-ups on your knees does help with upper-body strength, and if you do enough of them to “reach the point of fatigue,” you will wind up getting stronger.

“It’s always better to modify, especially when correct form is in question,” says BodySpaceFitness trainer Ivana Bolf. “When someone is struggling to perform the full exercise, they are usually compensating with incorrect movement patterns, which could potentially lead to an injury.” She notes that a good trainer will always demo and encourages modifications of a move, and makes it clear that “quality is better than quantity.”

But with all of that said, it’s worth pointing out that it doesn’t mean that you should skip out on at least attempting the full version of a move before you decide to modify. “In a well-designed program, the focus will always be on the quality of movement before the amount of reps start to be of the essence, [but] we think that it is better to do fewer full reps rather than dozens of reps that are a modified version of the movement,” says Dariusz Stankiewicz, co-founder of Body Evolved and Certified Personal Trainer. He suggests doing a few moves in full form (for example, starting out with three push-ups if you’re capable), then dropping one knee to the floor for another few reps, then finishing it off with both knees on the floor. “This way we can accommodate for the volume of work needed to make progress, however always train with the full reps at first.” 

So “drop and give me 20” can just as easily mean “drop to your knees and give me 20″…as long as you listen to your body and what it needs.

While we’re on the subject of modifications, this common tweak you’re probably making to your planks is actually totally messing with the move. And try this genius hack to make pushups easier, but just as effective (and no, it’s not doing them from your knees). 

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