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Modifying Exercises to Create New Training Challenges

By: NCSF  on:  Feb 23 2016
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Knowledgeable personal trainers are able to modify almost any exercise to provide challenges for clients with differing aptitudes and training needs. There are many ways an exercise can be modified such as changing the position of the load, movement plane(s) involved, stability or coordination requirements, and total muscle groups/body segment involved. Often exercise modifications are applied within the exercise prescription just for the sake of novelty to reduce boredom - but in most instances a trainer will want to provide alterations to mastered movements that match the client’s intended goal(s). In the following we will examine two potential exercise modifications, and how these movement modifications create new challenges and potential improved adaptations.

RDL ? Single-leg RDL ? Single-leg RDL with Cross-over Reach and Hip Swing


The standard RDL should be mastered before attempting the single-leg variation or the complex modification addressed. At the sacrifice of load, the single-leg RDL increases the potential for range of motion (ROM) as well as stability/proprioception requirements when compared to the traditional RDL. When the single-leg RDL is taken one step further with a cross-over reach and alternating hip swing, many new neuromuscular challenges ensue. When compared to the standard RDL this advanced variation will:

  • Increase stability/balance requirements throughout the kinetic chain (ankle, hip, trunk)
  • Challenge central stability due to necessary regulation of the load as it travels in the transverse plane while a single-anchor functions in the sagittal plane
  • Further increase the potential for ROM in multiple movement segments
  • Increase hip/thigh abductor contribution to help minimize medial-lateral swaying while the posterior chain facilitates the movement
  • Increase trunk rotator and hip flexor activation due to the integrated reaching and swinging actions
  • Increase general coordination, kinesthetic awareness and mechano/proprioceptive demands

Common error: Incomplete ROM

Standing DB Frontal Raises ? Plate Raises off Bench


Here we have a variation to a traditional exercise that challenges the “core” musculature and central peripheral connectors, as opposed to the enhanced movement challenges seen in the RDL example. The standing dumbbell frontal raise serves to strengthen the anterior deltoids and relies heavily on tactile controls and leg muscle contribution to stability. The kneeling version reduces the leg assistance seen with the normal exercise and adds the potential for increased ROM. The kneeling plate raise variation provides a few key benefits and additional challenges:

  • It provides for use of a neutral grip to minimize stresses placed upon the shoulder joints, scapulae and rotator cuff
  • It can be performed through a greater ROM for improvements in latissimus dorsi flexibility (the plate can be swung up above the head)
  • It increases trunk activation and stability requirements due to a lack of tactile cueing that is usually provided by having the feet on the ground

Common error: Observable hip flexion

As seen with just these basic examples, traditional exercises can be modified in ways that completely change the intended goals and challenges associated with the baseline movement. In later discussions, new variations will be addressed for trainers to add new tools to their programming toolboxes.

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