I’ve spent most of my coaching career training athletes in one-on-one or small group settings.
Last year brought on a new challenge for me, though.
I was hired as the head strength and conditioning coach with the Indy Fuel, the ECHL affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks. I’m currently getting my first taste of being on staff in a professional team setting.
I’ve got to admit. I am loving it.
Of course, there have been some challenges along the way, but challenges are what force you to adapt and evolve.
This being my first experience in a team setting, I’ve had to make some changes to the way I program and implement my workouts. The single most impactful programming adjustment I’ve made involves the use of “Modifiers.”
Here’s what they are and why I’ve found them to be a great tool for ensuring quality training while working with a large group of athletes simultaneously.
What is a Modifier?
A modifier (or series of modifiers) is a term we use with the Indy Fuel to represent an adjusted version of our regularly programmed lift on a specific day.
For example, let’s say the programmed lift is a Barbell Front Squat. The program would be written as:
A. Barbell Front Squat: 4×6
Modifier 1: Goblet Squat: 4×8-10
Modifier 2: Counterbalance Squat: 4×12
Modifier 3: Wall Sit: 4x:60 seconds
This is not a progression/regression model. It’s not a completely individualized program, either.
Modifiers simply allow us to make adjustments to a program from a global level so we can get the best execution by the athlete at the local level.
A modifier, in general, will involve the same muscles being worked as the main lift. As you can see in the example above, all modifiers are bilateral squat-based movements. You can use unlimited modifiers, but we usually stick to three. They are ordered from most to least intense, based on volume and loading protocols.
In the example above, we have a Goblet Squat, which can be loaded up pretty heavily, a Counterbalance Squat, which has a lower ceiling on loading options, and then a bodyweight isometric option in the form of the Wall Sit.
Essentially, modifiers create a menu for your athletes.
I liken this to ordering at a restaurant. While out to eat, you review the menu and make your choice based on hunger levels (athlete’s recovery/readiness), budget (athlete’s movement quality), personal preferences (athlete’s injuries, aches and pains), how much time you can spend there, etc.
Who Needs Modifiers?
There are tons of reasons why an athlete might want or need to use a modifier in their training.
The three most common ones tend to fall into one of the three following categories:
Injury/Illness/Readiness. You may have an athlete who is banged up, sick, rehabbing an injury or poorly recovered. In many cases, modifiers may be needed for them to train safely and effectively.
Movement Quality: You may have an athlete who needs to clean up their movement patterns before continuing to add load. In many cases, modifiers may be needed for them to train safely and effectively.
Experience/Trust: You may have an athlete who lacks experience or self-sufficiency in the weight room. These athletes are usually more at-risk due to their lack of experience and training age. In many cases, modifiers may be needed for them to train safely and effectively.
Of course, there are plenty more variables that can warrant the use of a modifier, but in my experience with the Fuel, these three happen every single day without fail.
Grain of salt: I have 25 grown men near the top of their sport and about an hour to get the work in. You may have 60-plus teenage boys and girls and 35 minutes, which would certainly have its own unique model. I’m just trying to outline the principles so that you can apply them as you see fit.
Why Use Modifiers?
Again, there are a lot of variables in play here, so listing every possible benefit is impossible. However, I believe there are three main benefits of adding a modifier or two to your programming.
One of the most essential parts of being a great coach or a great athlete is learning auto-regulation.
On paper, your program may read like the greatest thing ever.
But if you want consistent progress, you’ll need to make some case-by-case adjustments based on what’s happening at a given point in time with the athlete and their current state.
One of the major benefits of adding modifier options to a lift is allowing the athlete and coach to open lines of communication that lead to better training options for that particular day.
Keeping with the example above, if we have a Front Squat programmed and the athlete is coming off an AC Joint injury, he may want to look at Modifier 1 (Goblet Squat) to avoid resting the barbell on his injury. One or two weeks later, he may be able to Front Squat again without pain. The modifier served its purpose, and you didn’t have to change an entire team program around one person.
Safety and Effectiveness
Piggybacking off the points made above, another great benefit of modifiers is the potential added comfort, safety and the effectiveness of your program.
The best program is the one that your athletes adhere to and execute safely.
Another example, still using our original Front Squat scenario: Let’s say I have a guy who just got sent down to us from the Blackhawks midweek.
He played in a game Wednesday in Chicago, got sent down, arrived at his hotel in Indianapolis on Thursday afternoon, didn’t sleep or eat well during that transition, most likely is down on himself at that moment, and has to play in our game Friday.
If he feels like crap, ordering him to do heavy front squats may not be the best long-term move. On that day, he may be a Modifier 2 or 3 type of guy.
Having built-in backup plans ensures that our athletes are still executing workouts to the best of their ability, and you’d be surprised at how much simply offering options can increase energy and intent in the weight room.
Adding simple modifiers can help keep the team atmosphere alive and well inside the weight room. Individualizing every single detail for every player on the roster may sound good in theory, but it can take away from team chemistry. And if you have multiple teams, it can be really tough for you as a coach to pull off.
For many programs, whether they’re high school, college or pro, a huge aspect of the culture within the team is built in the weight room. Making sure we respect that team environment is going to be a huge boost for the team camaraderie and hopefully carryover to other aspects of their performance.
Examples of Modifiers
Let’s say you’ve programmed a big squat pattern movement for the workout. The programmed lift may be a Back Squat, Front Squat, Hatfield Squat, Box Squat, or any other heavy bilateral squat variation.
For a bilateral squat pattern, what modifiers might make sense?
Modifier 1 might be a Goblet Squat or Landmine Squat. These are great for moderate loading and quality control in squat patterns.
Other modifier options might be a Counterbalance Squat or Assisted Squat. These are great for low or assisted loading when returning to squat patterns from injury or dealing with poor recovery. A Wall Sit or Squat Iso Hold are also great for achieving leg activation in a really safe manner.
Moving on, let’s say you have a single-leg squat pattern programmed for the day. This might include Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squats, Split Squats, Lunges, Pistol Squats or Single-Leg Jumps. What modifiers might make sense?
Modifier 1 could be Step-Ups or Step-Downs, which are great for single-leg strength and stability.
Additional modifier options could include a Banded TKE variation, which are always a great tool for getting quad isolation, or Split Squat Iso Holds, which are another low-impact bodyweight option.
For big hip hinge patterns, such as Deadlifts (sumo or conventional), Trap Bar Deadlifts, Barbell RDLs, Good Mornings or Barbell Hip Thrusts, one great modifier option is the Kickstand RDL.
This movement provides a great alternative loading option. The kickstand stance provides more support than an SL RDL, but doesn’t reduce the loading capacity to the same extent:
Additional modifier options include KB Lateral RDLs, which are a solid option for multi-planar posterior chain work at low loads, along with Single-Leg Bridges or Single-Leg RDL Holds, which provide posterior chain activation at low loads.
For big pressing patterns, such as Bench Press, Military Press, Incline Bench Press or any other main movements that require heavy pressing, some of my favorite modifier options include Floor Press variants (which decrease ROM for safer horizontal pressing), Landmine Press variants (safer for overhead pressing around potential injury or irritations), and Cable/Band Press variants (great for versatility and managing loads on pressing motions).
For big pulling patterns, such as heavy DB Rows, Lat Pulldowns, Meadows Rows, Inverted Rows, Chin-Ups, Pull-ups or other heavy upper-body pulls, Chest-Supported Rows are one of my favorite modifiers.
These offer more support and stability than most rows, and can be loaded moderately with two hands (or slightly less with a single arm):
Some of my other favorite options include Cable/Band Face Pulls, which decrease load and maximize ROM, and Bent-Over Lat Pulldowns, which isolate the lats with minimal load and reinforce core stabilization.
One last note: You can ALWAYS throw in simple rehab or mobility drills instead of actual loaded exercises, depending on the needs of your team. Another great option for modifiers are “concentric-only” exercises, such as Sled Rows, Sled Drags or any other exercises which include little to no eccentric stress.
Modifiers have been a game-changer in the way I program team workouts.
It’s important to remember that modifiers should not be presented as a progression or regression model.
Rather, they’re part of a daily menu of options based on your original program that’s meant to put your athletes in the best situation possible for them.
It’s the coach’s job to decide how expansive and inclusive they want that menu to be, but simply providing your athletes with the power of choice can be a powerful thing.
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