Fitness Articles

Easy Modifications for 8 Popular Bodyweight Exercises

Learn to Adjust Instead of Avoid

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You're excited to try the latest workout you found on Pinterest, but the circuit includes a series of lunges, which you know your knees are not going to be happy about. Should you scrap it and find something else that better fits your range of motion, or is there another option? Whether your core isn't yet strong enough for planks, you've had knee surgery and can't do full squats, or jumping jacks are just too intense, there are easy ways to modify most exercises to fit your needs.

In general, you can make almost every exercise easier or more difficult. Once you understand a few basic principles, you can adjust the exercise to work for you instead of having to avoid it completely.
  • Change the range of motion. Whenever possible, it's best to use a full range of motion (the full movement potential of a joint) when doing exercises, since this provides optimal gains in strength and muscle growth. However, full range of motion can prove to be difficult for some people depending on the exercise. For example, the proper way to do a squat is by bending the knee to 90 degrees, then returning to the starting position. If you experience knee pain and are unable to bend that far, though, try 45 degrees (or even less, if necessary) instead. With the decreased range of motion, you are still working the same muscles, while putting less pressure on the knee joint. In some cases, you can slowly work your way up to full range of motion as you get stronger.
  • Change the amount of weight or reps. In a typical strength routine, each exercise is performed for one to three sets, with eight to 12 repetitions per set. If you can't get to the end of the set without sacrificing good form, decrease the amount of weight you're using or decrease the number of repetitions. It's perfectly acceptable to do a set of five reps instead of 12 if that means you do them all correctly. In fact, it’s more important to have good form than to lift weight that is too heavy.  If the exercise isn't enough of a challenge, increase the weight until the last rep in the set is the last one you can do with proper form.
  • Change the speed. Performing an exercise too quickly increases the risk of injury and can allow momentum to take over, making the exercise less effective. Slowing down not only gives you time to focus on proper form, it can also decrease the intensity of the exercise—especially cardio-based moves. For example, mountain climbers can leave you breathless in less than a minute if you're going at top speed, but slowing down the pace allows you to keep going for a longer period of time. Over time, you can increase the speed of cardio exercises as you become more fit.
  • Change the amount of impact. Higher impact activities, such as running and jumping, are great if you're trying to increase the intensity of a workout, but they put more stress on your joints and make exercises more challenging. If you have joint issues such as back pain, knee pain or arthritis, high impact might not be an option for you. Rather than avoiding plyometric moves altogether, remove the impact to decrease the intensity. Try power walking instead of running. If your workout video calls for tuck jumps, replace them with high knee marches.
  • Change the surface. Although it's most appropriate for upper-body exercises, using a Bosu ball, balance board, stability ball or other equipment that challenges your  balance will significantly increase the difficulty. Placing your hands on a Bosu ball while doing pushups is more difficult than putting your hands on the floor. As your upper body becomes stronger and you need more of a challenge, these pieces of equipment can be a good addition to your routine. Even without them, you can still get a good workout on a stable surface. A word of caution: Go slowly when incorporating new surfaces into your routine, since it can take time to get used to the change in balance.
Master These Modifications

Think you will always have to avoid lunges? Maybe not. Do burpees seem like something only elite athletes should attempt? No way! There are ways to easily modify common exercises to fit your needs, as well as alternative exercises that will work the same muscles without causing you to strain or injure yourself. 
  1. Planks: Planks are one of the best exercises to work your entire core, but they require a great deal of upper-body and core strength. If full planks aren't comfortable, try modified planks instead. Both are equally difficult. Planks on the knees are easier, either on the hands or elbows. Wall planks are another option if you have difficulty getting down on the floor or have back pain. Alternative exercises: lying straight-leg lowers, seated knee lifts with chair
  2. Pushups: Full pushups are tough if you lack upper body strength. Instead, start with modified pushups and work up to the full pushup position as you get stronger. If getting down on the floor is difficult, you have wrist problems or modified pushups are too challenging, try wall pushups instead. Each version of the pushup will still work the chest, triceps and shoulders. Alternative exercises: dumbbell chest press, dumbbell flys
  3. Squats: When you perform a typical squat, the bend in your knees reaches about 90 degrees, never going past your toes, before you return to the standing starting position. If squatting down that far is too difficult or painful, there are alternatives. A shallow squat is done the same way, bending to less than 90 degrees until you feel the muscles working. Wall squats are another option if you need additional back support. Alternative exercises: genie sit, lying single-leg raises
  4. Lunges: Lunges can be challenging for those with balance issues, knee pain or lower-back pain. If balance is the problem, hold onto a chair or wall for additional support. As with squats, you can decrease the range of motion to decrease the intensity on your knees and the pressure on your lower back. Alternative exercises: single leg bridges, single leg hamstring curl with band
  5. Jumping jacks: Jumping jacks aren't just for kids on the playground! They are a great cardio activity, but can be difficult if you're new to exercise or have joint issues. Modified jumping jacks cut the movement in half and remove the "jump" to lessen the impact. If you're ready to increase the intensity but not quite ready for full jumping jacks, move quicker and/or step out farther for more of a challenge. Alternative exercises: alternating hamstring curls, pivot and reach
  6. Burpees: Burpees can be an intense workout, especially if you add a jump when returning to the standing position. If that's too much, try stepping back one foot at a time to come to the plank position on the floor instead of jumping out with both feet at once, then do the same thing to return to the starting position. Modified burpees are also a good lower intensity option if you're not keen on getting on the floor. Alternative exercises: front kicks, step touch with double punches
  7. Supermans: This exercise is great for targeting the lower back, but it can be difficult if you have back issues. To modify, try lifting just the upper body on the floor or on a stability ball, which puts less pressure on the back. Alternative exercises: slow swimming on ball, full-body bridges
  8. Triceps dips: Triceps dips are perfect for adding muscle definition to the back of the arm. Unfortunately, they aren't so perfect if you have shoulder or wrist issues, since they put pressure on both. Bending your arms is one option, as is doing them on the floor where your range of motion is smaller. Alternative exercises: lying triceps lift, boxer
If you have medical issues, it is important to discuss your exercise options with your health care provider before starting any kind of strength training program. Once they have given you guidelines to follow, you can start creating a program to fit your needs. If you need to avoid certain exercises completely, inquire about other exercises you can do to work the same muscle groups in a different way. It's important to add variety to your routine to continue seeing results, so don't be afraid to try new things just because of your limitations. Learning to modify, rather than avoid, will ensure that you're always making progress toward your fitness goals.

For even more information and examples of these modifications, check out the video below featuring Coach Jen and Alicia.


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Member Comments

  • It is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.
    - William Shakespeare
  • ETHELMERZ
    This is a god read, especially for people who are new, you don't have to do every exercise perfectly in a certain number, etc. Do what you can. If you can't, try a different one. You are not a machine. And as long as your eating is going well, you still lose weight anyway. Don't obsess about perfection of every rule.
  • some helpful information - but the video doesn't even appear for me
  • Video was a waste! Could not see anything when she was on the floor!
  • Video was a total waste of time! Nice article though.
  • Great article. Thanks so much!
  • MISSBAILEY10
    I read the article and it was very informative as I have issues with wrists and knees. Wanted to see the video but all I got was Alicia's head, would be helpful to redo and change the camera angle so I could see more than a white wall.
  • Great article, but the video only showed the top of Alicia's head!
  • The article was very informative, but the video at the end while it went over the tips in the article did not actually show the modified moves due to camera angle.
  • THANK YOU for a very helpful article regarding modifications- much appreciated!
    Saving to Pinterest!
  • Excellent article. Thank you for the links to see examples of the modified exercises. This is one of the best alternative-exerc
    ise articles I've seen.
  • Good article. I'm an expert on modifying exercise to work for me with multiple physical ailments that affect all my joints. The point is to try to do an exercise and if it doesn't work for you, adjust as necessary. Sometimes, there is really nothing you can do to make it work for you but for those rare occurrences, I just do another exercise entirely that targets the same part of the body.
  • This is a VERY good Article. Thanks so much. I love the modified exercises...
  • Due to bad knees, rotator cuff injury and back spasms I have to modify a lot of my workouts. It's great to see more modifications and know I'm still getting a good workout in! (I always feel like I'm "cheating" when I need to modify any exercise).)
  • VERY helpful article. Just today, I was modifying a really tough workout. Right on time! Thank you, Jen. - MsBootcamp

About The Author

Jen Mueller Jen Mueller
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid marathon runner, she is an ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, medical exercise specialist and behavior change specialist. See all of Jen's articles.