This past summer, Experience Life marked its 20th year of publication. And next month, I’ll be celebrating my own eight-year tenure at the magazine. Being EL’s fitness editor has been a dream job in so many ways, and lately I’ve been feeling nostalgic. What is the mark I’ve made on the magazine? What is the mark that EL has made on me?
The overarching theme of the fitness coverage I’ve overseen — as well as my own ongoing fitness journey — has revolved around meeting oneself in the present moment. My training motto has evolved from “make it perfect” to “modify, modify, modify!”
There’s a persistent misconception that modifications are designed to make exercise easier. While they may sometimes do that, modifications can also make exercises harder. Or simply different enough to be smarter — better suited for the individual exerciser.
These are some of my current-favorite exercise modifications and variations.
Jumpless Burpees: I remember vividly when my favorite burpee variation was the burpee box-jump. I’d carefully position myself in front of a box, drop to the floor to perform a pushup, jump up to a squat, and from there jump up on the box — all while wearing a weight vest.
I laugh now thinking of it, because these days I prefer a much lower-key squat-thrust variation: I lower into a squat and place my hands on the floor, step my feet back into a great-form plank, step my feet back up into a squat, and stand up, giving my glutes a little extra squeeze at the top before repeating.
This pared-down variation still gets my heart rate up and trains my coordination and form — without the high impact. Losing the jump has resulted in an overall win.
Foot-Supported Pull-Ups: I believed for a long time that the only pull-up that counted was a body-weight (or weighted), unassisted pull-up. That mindset was frustrating and demotivating. It took me years to understand that the assisted, modified version that fit my body and fitness level best was actually making me stronger overall.
Now, I practice pull-ups using a neutral grip on a dip station racked at about shoulder height. I mostly keep my feet light on the floor for assistance as needed, and occasionally my program calls for raising my legs to perform an unsupported descent. In terms of mechanics and strength benefits, this variation “counts” as a real pull-up and is the best version for me right now.
Single-Arm Swings: More specifically, my preferred kettlebell swing is a hand-to-hand swing in which the weight changes hands at the apex of each rep. This is often regarded as a “make it harder” variation because of the dual challenges of grip and coordination. But for me, it’s smoother and more comfortable.
When both my hands aren’t fixed on the handle, my chest doesn’t get squished between my biceps, and my shoulders move more freely. With this freedom, I find that I can push harder on weight, pace, and rep count than I currently can with a two-handed swing.
Run–Walk Intervals: I like walking and I like running — and I’ve learned to love them both by putting them together. Whether this is an “easier” or “harder” modification depends on your perspective.
Adding running intervals to my almost-daily walks certainly makes them harder, but it also makes them more invigorating and mentally stimulating. Adding walking breaks to my runs could be viewed as making them easier, but mostly it gives me an opportunity to reset my breath, my form, and my focus (and to reapply sunblock as needed).
Interestingly, the average pace of my run–walk combos isn’t much slower than my long, easy runs. For right now, this blend works better for me than my old mindset of never walking on my runs, or swearing off running because it was too hard.
Get Personal: For more about how to modify your workouts in the ways that work best, see “How to Personalize Your Strength Routine“.
Tell us: What is your favorite exercise variation or modification? Share a photo on Instagram and tag us @experiencelife.
This article originally appeared as “Modify, Modify, Modify!” in the September 2021 issue of Experience Life.