There is a significant difference between compensation and modification when applied to
exercise performance. Compensation usually refers to “breaking form” during the execution of
an exercise (i.e. momentum use, not achieving a full range of motion/line of pull, rocking/leaning
the body, or not maintaining a neutral spine, etc.). Not only does this compensated movement
potentially lead to injury, it negatively affects the training stimulus of the muscles involved.
Compensation may occur for many reasons such as muscular/structural limitations/imbalances
(i.e. injury/congenital issues), lack of exercise knowledge and poor neuromuscular movement
patterns developed over the years. Generally the neuromuscular system activates according to the
information that the brain translates to the working muscles and if that information is flawed, then
the performance may be as well, leading to injury, bodily imbalances, and diminished positive
A modification refers to creating a partial/small change in how the exercise is executed in order to
enable the client to perform it safely/effectively within their limitations. For example a client
with a chronic knee issue, may still be able to perform a squat/lunge exercise, but needs to
perform it with a smaller hip/knee joint range of motion modification to prevent knee discomfort.
They may still receive significant benefits from performing a modified version of the exercise
and, over time, may be able to increase their range of motion as the muscles effectively
strengthen. Follow a few of the many possible exercise modification guidelines below to address
your needs and experience exercise success. As always, prior to performing any exercise
program, please consult your physician.
**Range of Motion/Line of Pull – Before beginning any exercise, consider your range of motion
about the joint and the line of pull (i.e. the optimal position of the body relative to anchor points
and ground forces such as gravity). For example, if you are performing a standing lateral raise
with dumbbells, for your medial deltoids (i.e. middle shoulder), and you are unable to directly lift
the arms abducting to shoulder height successfully, then your range of motion and line of pull are
affected impacting exercise safety/effectiveness.
-Lever length. In the previous example of a lateral raise, perhaps the range of motion/line of pull
is impacted by the length of the lever. So, the client may shorten the length of the lever to a 90
degree flexion at the elbow joint and may then be able to perform the exercise with a full range of
motion with the current level of resistance.
-Resistance Level. In this same example, perhaps the reason that the client cannot manage a full
range of motion is that they have chosen too much external resistance (i.e. dumbbells/resistive
tubing). This is an easy modification as they may simply decrease the amount of resistance until
they may safely/effectively perform the exercise with a full range of motion/line of pull.
-Tempo Level. Many clients move through the range of motion too quickly which encourages
momentum use (i.e. unsafe and ineffective in most muscular strength training exercises).
-Slowing down the movement, concentrating on the quality of the range of motion/line of pull,
rather than quantity, is an ideal modification for most exercises.
-Master It. Master each exercise, to a point of momentary muscle failure prior to
modifying/progressing to a greater intensity.