Here are 7 ways to modify your workout routine for optimal performance. Most people only really modify their workout by increasing weight or maybe changing tempo. But there are plenty of ways to add variety to your program.

As someone with a neurodegenerative condition, I am constantly looking for ways to improve my results in the gym – for both my body and my brain.

If you have Ataxia, Parkinson’s Disease, Huntington’s Disease, MS, MD or ALS, I’ve provided my findings below as to how modifying your workout can benefit you.

Why Modify?

The simple answer is that our brains and bodies need stimulation otherwise they atrophy. Let’s look at this question from a neurological standpoint and a physiological one.

Neuroplasticity

The human brain is the center of our universe. It controls how we interpret and interact with the world around us.

When we’re young, our brains are forming incalculable new neural connections. Once we fully mature (around 18-21), the process of laying down new wiring stops and in some cases reverses.
This is the situation faced by me and other neurodegenerative types. Of course, the speed of deterioration and degeneration is dependent on how we use it.

In his book Soft-Wired, Dr. Michael Merzenich shares these tips for planning physical exercise to maximize the benefit for our brains:

  • As you move, focus on the feeling of the flow of the movement.
  • Move with your whole body.
  • Rigorously avoid stereotypical movements.
  • Include postural variations and weights.
  • Monitor the quality and precision of your movement.
  • Set as a goal the mastery of all movements at a wide range of possible speeds.

Physiologically

Have you ever heard that line about practice making perfect? As it was once pointed out to me, it actually should be “perfect practice makes perfect”.

Semantics aside, let’s break down myelination and what it has to do with your workouts.

Our brains are the central processing units that control everything. The hands, arms, legs, feet, fingers, and toes are all connected to the brain using long wires called axons. When we move, little sensors in those limbs (proprioceptors) gather information about the limbs’ orientation in space. This information gets sent up to the brain via the axons. Likewise, information gets sent back down the axon to the proprioceptors.

Now, there’s a fatty substance which coats some of the axons. It’s called myelin. It’s all over our brains too. Myelin acts as insulation essentially allowing for greater conductivity. So, more myelin, better/faster electrical signals. (There are other factors, but that should serve our purposes for now!)

Anyways, myelination is the process whereby myelin is created.  Myelination occurs when we engage in physical activity. It only occurs to a point, however. As I understand it, there’s a limit to how much an axon/nerve can become myelinated. This is why it would be important to modify our workout routines on a regular basis.

When to Modify

Well, that depends.

As I recall, the Foundations of Personal Training recommended modifying a program every 2-4 weeks.

In Soft Wired, Dr. Michael Merzenich said something like you should aim for new skill acquisition every 4-6 weeks.

I would say that it depends on the individual. The above two ranges are theories and shouldn’t be considered hard and fast rules. In my experience, it is best to judge progress and modify as needed.

For example, having a neurodegenerative condition which affects my balance and coordination means that sometimes exercises that require those two skills take longer for me to master. You may find the same. No sweat. Just keep working on it.

I usually use the following criteria to judge if I need to modify my exercise:

  • If I don’t sweat a decent amount or it doesn’t feel like work.
  • If I don’t feel uncomfortable or a little fearful.

How to Modify

There are many different ways of modifying your exercises. I only talk about 7 here, but there are a few more I’ll address in a later post.

Important note: Some of these may be challenging for you depending on where you are at. If you are disabled and have extra challenges beyond the scope of this article, you could e-mail me or you can talk to any physiotherapist you work with to make things a little easier. Just know that you can advance through the different progressions. The key is to start – wherever you’re at. Keep at it. It may seem impossible, but the day will come when what you thought was impossible is just a memory!

In the infographic below, I break down Stance, Plane of Motion, Body  Angle, Equipment, Tempo, Surface and Range of Motion (ROM).

Stance

If you have challenges with your balance like I do, some of these are tricky. This is a great method to work on (and maybe even improve) your balance. If you’re restricted to doing exercises on the floor, make it a goal to maybe get to four-point quadruped or kneeling. I wrote an article on how I consciously try to improve my balance, read it here!

Plane of Motion

A good exercise to modify in this case is the lunge.

Body Angle

Changing the angle of your body in relation to the floor allows you to adjust the weight on the working muscles. An elevated chest means a push-up will be easier. Elevated legs mean that it will be harder. Typically, you would do these with a push-up or a bench/chest press, but I suppose it would work with dips too.

Equipment

This is how I see most people modify their exercise (along with changes in load/weight). If you are a member of a good gym, you should have access to most of this equipment. But, you certainly don’t have to be a member of a gym. You probably have all you need at home. A park is always a great option too.  There are plenty of great bodyweight exercises you can do.

Tempo

There are three phases to any exercise: eccentric, concentric, and isometric contractions. Eccentric contractions involve muscle lengthening. Concentric contractions are where the muscle shortens. And isometric contractions involve neither lengthening nor shortening like in a hold. Read my article on tempo if you need more info.

Surface

Like stance, this may also be a considerable challenge to your balance. Most gyms will have a stability ball or BOSU.

Range of Motion

A full ROM involves performing an exercise from the absolute bottom point to the top point and back again. Shortening or extending the range of motion can make an exercise easier or harder.

Click on the chart for to see a larger version you can print.

Conclusion

These were just some of the ways you can modify your exercise routine to maximize your gains and improvements. Just remember to keep pushing forward. The only person who can truly heal you is you!

 


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