How to Modify Your Workouts for Strength Gains

Get stronger in the long-run by modifying your workout when you're not feeling it.

Some days, you start your workout feeling absolutely indestructible. Anything you’ve got programmed for today, you’re going to crush — and then some. Other gym days feel awful. You won the fight just by getting into the gym at all. But you’ve got to stick to your program because it’s what is written, right? Well, maybe not.

You can modify your training session because you’re having a bad workout. But trusting your intuition during your workout can help you make smart choices about changes to make mid-workout that can ultimately help you get stronger.

A person sets up for a bench press.
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It’s true that programs exist for a reason. They give you structure and make sure you’re always on your way toward your goals. But that doesn’t mean that your program is an inflexible law you must follow no matter how your body is feeling. As a strength athlete, it’s important to listen to your body and respect your needs each day. That approach can help make you much stronger in the long run.

What Are Exercise Modifications?

Plenty of successful training regimens feature adjustable workouts and still deliver results. Even the most intense CrossFit workouts come with scalable options. WODs are often scalable in a way that can accommodate both Games-level athletes and populations with various experience levels and physical needs.

To safely change up your workouts, it’s important to know how to modify exercises according to how your body is reacting to your dynamic warm-up and warm-up sets. Exercise modifications too often get a bad rap in the strength sports world. Maybe it’s because people are taught that modifying the “real” exercise is somehow weaker. But exercise modifications are about meeting your body where it’s at in the moment and empowering yourself to exercise safely.

Sometimes, an exercise modification means changing how you perform an exercise. Maybe you’ll change the implement you use — a dumbbell clean & press instead of a barbell clean & press, for example. Other times, you’ll help make an advanced movement more accessible to you — like using incline push-ups instead of full floor push-ups.

A person performs a barbell squat.
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A lot of people talk about modifications as a means to an end. Can’t do a “real” pull-up? Modify it with banded assistance until you can do the “real” thing. Because of this phrasing, people might come to think about modifications as less legitimate versions of the original exercise. But really, modifications help you complete exercises safely and effectively.

This is especially true because sometimes, the end goal isn’t building up to the “real” exercise. Sometimes, the end goal is the movement in and of itself. Remember that every exercise is just a variation of an overall movement pattern. Maybe you’re living with chronic shoulder pain that won’t allow you to do “real” pull-ups. In that case, assisted pull-ups — a modification — may be the safest way for you to develop your overhead pulling strength.

Can You Get Stronger With Workout Modifications?

Knowing how to modify your exercises — and, by extension, your workout — isn’t about being wishy-washy with your program. It’s about listening to your body so that you don’t push too hard and potentially hurt yourself when your stress and exhaustion at work and home follows you into the gym. Modifications can also help you push yourself a bit harder when you’re caught up on sleep and ready to go.

Either way, you’re setting yourself up for more long-term strength gains. Workout modifications allow you to reign it back when you might injure yourself because you’re too tired to train heavy. You might also push yourself so hard that you could turn yourself off from your program — that certainly won’t make you stronger.

A person performs a floor press.
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Lifting more sustainably will help you get stronger in the long run by helping you avoid injury and finding ways to continue training even when you’re not feeling it. And if you’re feeling great and kick it up a notch, you’ll make strength gains from pushing harder, too.

How to Modify Exercises

Knowing how to properly modify exercises is a valuable stepping stone towards successfully adjusting your workouts when needed. Without a solid understanding of how to change exercises to suit your body’s needs, you’re less likely to be able to make effective workout modifications.

Change the Implement

One primary option for exercise modification is changing the implement you’re using. If you’d planned to do a barbell bench press, for example, but no benches are available, you might opt for a barbell or even a dumbbell floor press instead. 

Or, if you’re feeling particularly strong and want to up the challenge level, use off-balanced kettlebells instead of dumbbells for your programmed snatches.

Change the Angle

You might need to step up or down the intensity of your workout. Or maybe you just psychologically need a dose of extra variety. Perform your exercises from different angles. Want to make your push-up more accessible? Work it from an incline. If you want to develop a broader chest and potentially lift a bit heavier than you can with a flat bench? Grab a decline bench and press from that angle.

Add Accommodating Resistance

Adding accommodating resistance by using bands and chains allows you to change the point of resistance for specific exercises. As you stand up in your squat, more chains lift off the ground, increasing the resistance after you’ve come out of the bottom of the squat. That way, you’ll spend more time under tension across a broader range of motion. So if you want to add a challenge without actually adding weights, bands and chains are great options. They also might add some excitement and spark to an old routine.

You can also use bands to help make certain exercises more accessible. Bands can help assist you with pull-ups, chin-ups, and even dips when you need to scale it back. This way, you’ll be working hard through a full range of motion with big compound exercises — they’ll just be a bit more accessible to you.

Implement Pauses

Your movement patterns don’t have to change for your workout to get modified. You can add pauses into various parts of your exercise to make it more dynamic and challenging. Isometric holds in the most difficult parts of your lifts — the bottom of your squat, for instance — can up the ante of your exercise and make it feel more fluid. You’ll also be able to target your weak points and potentially bust through some plateaus — all without changing the movement much at all.

How to Modify Workouts

Once you know how to modify exercises according to your body’s needs, you’ll have an easier time modifying your workouts while still following your program.

Modify Your Exercise

There are plenty of ways to modify exercises when your workout needs a momentary revamp. Adjusting which exercises you’re doing is one of the first options a lot of people go to when they want to make a spontaneous change to their session. If the equipment you planned on using isn’t available or if you just need a change of pace for the day, try using a different implement or adding accommodating resistance to the move.

Go Unilateral

If your joints are creaking and your program mostly features barbell work, try switching to unilateral movements for a day or two. Modifying your workout to avoid discomfort is about improving your strength long-term. Sure, lifting unilaterally usually means hoisting a lot less weight than you can when performing bilateral moves with a barbell.

But modifying your workout to accommodate stiffness or joint pain with unilateral exercises can promote your long-term health as a strength athlete. If you need to modify your workout today to avoid exacerbating pain, you’ll be able to come back stronger and more sustainably next time.

Change Your Load or Rep Scheme

Maybe you went into a workout hoping to perform four sets of three reps of deadlifts at 82% your one-rep max. But when you finish your dynamic warm-up and start your ramp-up sets, you feel like you’re moving through molasses. Your usual warm-up lifts grind like heavy sets. It’s okay to perform your four sets of three with a lighter weight. Or, keep the weight the same, but perform slightly fewer reps or sets. You’ll be sticking to the spirit of your program, but respecting where your body is at.


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On the other hand, you might have moved through your ramp-up sets with ease. You feel powerful as you blast through your first heavy set and feel like you could load it up and up. While you want to move with restraint to avoid overreaching inappropriately, it can be okay to go a bit heavier on days you’re feeling great. A general rule of thumb is that if you’re feeling extra good, you can add about five pounds for big upper body lifts and 10 pounds for big lower body lifts. Make sure you’re leaving a couple of reps in the tank, even when you’re feeling good.

Choose the Fun Option

Maybe you’re feeling physically decent, but you’re not emotionally with it. If you’re not looking forward to anything in your workout and you’re already having a bad day, your workout might need an injection of fun. Maybe that means ditching the psychologically demanding set of five by five squats you had programmed because your stress level just isn’t having it today.

Instead, you might want to choose your favorite leg exercises and get after them in whatever way strikes your fancy for that day. The point is to move safely and effectively in a way that will have you leaving your workout feeling better than when you started it. So, you might reserve the five by fives for when you’re feeling a bit more emotionally resilient.

When Should You Modify Your Workout?

One great reason for having a program to begin with is the self-confidence that can come from being consistent. Following a training program allows you to do, rather than think, in the gym, which can be immensely comforting for folks who turn to lifting for their mental health

A person stares themself down in the gym mirror.
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That said, on the days that you’re really not feeling it, modifying your workout to make it more accessible might be just what you need. You might do this by letting yourself lift lighter weights or changing up the exercises. If it keeps you moving in your program, helps you avoid pain, or improves your day, it’s likely worth it.

Was your shoulder fine yesterday, but is acting up today? You might opt for dumbbell versions of the barbell overhead presses you had planned for your session. This can help prevent you from putting unnecessary strain on yourself. You can train for strength and still respect your body’s limits by performing similar exercises — just in ways that will suit your needs today.

Final Thoughts

There’s no shame in modifying your workouts. Sometimes you need to make adjustments to your programmed exercises to train around stiffness or pain. Other times, you want to amp up your training because you’re feeling good and want to take advantage of the moment. That doesn’t mean you should go for an unplanned one-rep max just because you feel good on a day your program called for heavy triples.

But adding an extra five or even 10 pounds to your last couple of working sets can be just the kind of modification your workout needs when you’re feeling good. And when you’re feeling less good, you can always scale it back. Your program is all about you, after all.

Featured Image: Hryshchyshen Serhi /Shutterstock