How to modify your workout to make it work for you

One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to exercise. Here’s how to tailor your workout to your needs without compromising its quality.

You might want to go low-impact without losing intensity, or adapt your exercises after an injury. Or maybe you just really, really hate burpees.

There are myriad reasons people adjust their workout programs, says fitness trainer Ben Lucas.

“In addition to injury, flexibility, pregnancy and the like, we need to keep in mind that everyone’s body and mobility and flexibility is different, therefore everyone is going to have exercises that they struggle with,” says Ben, owner and director of Flow Athletic.

Personal trainer Daniel Bartlett says it’s important to recognise when a particular movement or exercise is too much for your body.

“The body is much more intelligent than everyone gives credit for – it feels too tight, it gives you signals, your body will tell you if something’s wrong,” Daniel says.

What are the best ways to modify a workout?

Depending on the exercise, Ben and Daniel say alterations can include:

  • Dropping the weight
  • Slowing down moves
  • Decreasing repetitions
  • Reducing your range of motion
  • Reducing impact

Daniel says you can also just forgo the exercise altogether, in favour of something you like doing.

“Do you like throwing punches, do you like doing star jumps? Whatever it is, do that,” he says. “The most important part is you’re raising your heart rate, working your body, moving your body.”

Will modifying exercises impact workout quality?

The good news is that for most people, modifying your workout won’t harm your health and fitness goals – in fact, it could help them.

“If someone can’t do great push-ups on their toes, but they can on their knees, they will get a lot more out of the exercise if they do it on their knees,” Ben says.

Daniel says the old adage of “no pain, no gain” is not true.

“You can get perfectly good gains through enjoying the exercise you’re doing – yes, you need to be slightly out of breath, yes, your muscles should be aching just a little bit as you’re working, but it doesn’t have to be to an extent that you’re really uncomfortable,” he says.

“Results might come quicker if you work harder, but the evidence will tell us that actually a sustainable exercise program is going to keep you there.”

Simple modifications for common exercises


“Push up on to a bench top is a good one as it is much easier, but also keeps you in good form,” says Ben. “Or push up on the knees, with your butt above your knees.”


Burpees work multiple muscle groups at the same time, which makes them effective but challenging.

If you’re struggling, Daniel recommends trying a touch and raise: “Touch the floor, then as you raise your arms in the air, also raise one knee then the other, so you do a touch with a squat, then push both arms in a shoulder press while lifting a knee and then lifting the other knee – that works quite a lot of muscle groups.”

Alternatively, step into the burpee rather than jumping into it.

Mountain climbers

“Slow them down,” says Ben. “This is also very effective as it is great for working your core.”

Or try standing rope climbs.

“Lift one arm into the air as high as you can, then draw that hand down to the knee, so we’re replicating the movement of a mountain climber, except standing,” Daniel says.

Star jumps

Make them low impact by standing in the star jump position and tapping your opposite foot with your hand, standing, swapping sides, and repeating.


You can modify squats by speeding them up, slowing them down, adding or removing weight, or changing your range of motion, says Ben.

Daniel says those who can’t bend their knees could try seated alternatives.

“I’d sit in a chair and extend my leg out in front and back under, so like a leg extension,” he says.


Plank on your knees, rather than toes, to make this exercise easier, says Ben.

If you want to try a more advanced move, do them on your feet and alternate leg lifts to make it harder again.

Dead lifts

Dead lifts can be modified by adjusting the weight, but Daniel says it’s crucial to get the technique right.

“I would rather see people doing hip thrusts or the pelvic bridge, which is going to engage that same glute and hip area that the deadlift is intended to,” he says.

Written by Claire Burke.