The ability to modify exercises is a necessary component of any fitness business. Despite all our best efforts, at some point one of our clients is bound to get injured. When this happens, it is an opportunity for you to demonstrate your versatility as a coach.
I have found that one of the best tools to help out injured athletes is being creative with exercise variations–particularly working in different dimensions. The ability to work in different dimensions is the ability to change an exercise from a standing position to sitting, kneeling, or prone. Throughout my years of working with injured athletes as a strength coach and an athletic trainer, I have identified three steps to move an exercise into the next dimension.
For full disclosure, when you program for injured clients, be sure to always follow all of their doctor’s and physical therapist’s restrictions. Exercise variation is not finding a sneaky way to break the rules, it is finding creative ways to keep your client active with limitations. Whether the doctor’s orders include no weight bearing, limited upper body activation, or only closed-chain exercises, here are three steps that will help you take your original exercise into a different dimension.
Step 1: Find the Single Important Motion
Take a look at your original exercise, and identify the most important joint motion. For example, if you program a deadlift to work on hinging the hips, the single most important motion would be hip extension. That is a simple example, but it can get more complex. For exercises such as thrusters (squat to an overhead press) that are essentially multiple exercises combined, you have two options. The first option is to prioritize one movement. If you initially programmed thrusters for increased squat repetitions, the primary motion would be knee and hip extension. The second option is to break the exercise into components, so each individual motion would be a separate exercise after completing all three steps. For thrusters, you could separate the hip extension, knee extension, and shoulder flexion to form three different exercises in a different dimension.
Step 2: Identify the Primary Muscle(s)
Once you solidify an important motion, identify what the target muscle or muscle group is. To continue with the same example cited above, during hip extension, let’s say the primary muscle being targeted was the gluteus maximus. There are a great number of muscles that contribute to hip extension, but during this step the idea is to simplify the process by identifying the primary muscle that was being targeted from the initial exercise. In step two, I could just as easily identify the hamstring as the primary group of muscles, it is all determined by the initial intention of the exercise.
Step 3: Determine a New Suitable Dimension
The last and most important step brings everything together and it is to choose a new, but suitable dimension. There are almost an infinite amount to choose from, but here are a couple of examples of common exercises positions: prone, supine, quadruped, kneeling (half kneeling), seated, wall/bench assisted, and standing. Here is where the doctor’s orders will come into play. Identify an exercise position that meets the doctor’s orders and see what the previously identified important motion and primary muscle activation will look like in the new dimension. If your client has a foot injury and is not allowed to stand on the foot but is fine to weight bear through the femur, a kneeling position would be a new suitable dimension. Let’s put it all together with our example: the initial exercise was a standing deadlift, the important motion was hip extension, the primary muscle was the gluteus maximus, and the new suitable dimension is kneeling. A great, simple exercise that fits all of the categories is a kneeling hip hinge. Congratulations, you just molded a deadlift into a different dimension!
Optional Step 4: Establish a New Line of Resistance
Step 4 is an optional step and should also be based on the doctor’s restrictions. If your client has been given the thumbs up to add resistance to their strength and conditioning program, you can take these exercises to the next level by adding a new line of resistance. In the deadlift to kneeling hip hinge conversion the weight is initially held by the hands in front of the body and is lifted against gravity. If you want to keep a similar line of resistance, you could have your client hold a dumbbell in a goblet position at the chest. However, if you are looking to change the line of resistance for the exercise, it is also possible to provide resistance by looping a long band around your client’s waist. The long band can either be held by the coach or attached to a stationary object behind the athlete, so when the athlete straightens his hips to an upright position, the band provides a posterior, horizontal force to the pelvis.
The ability to provide exercise variation in different dimensions has become a necessary part of the fitness injury. Providing exercise programs that are modifiable to all will allow you to serve a greater and more diverse population. Take these tools, practice them, and add them to your list of available programs! Now the next time you get that dreaded phone call from your client stating that they are injured, you have the tool in your pocket to keep them up and going through their rehabilitation process.
Want a tool to help manage programming? Try TrueCoach for FREE.