For some of us, there’s nothing like starting a new training plan. New workouts, new formats, maybe some variations in reps or sets that we haven’t seen recently (or at all?). True, not everyone gets overly riled up at the thought of a new program, but for those that do it can be like the first day of school – full of anticipation and focus.
But just like school and life – programs rarely proceed exactly as planned. Injuries of all types (some minor inconveniences that affect a single session, some a bit larger that require modifications of a greater scale), work schedules, parent-teacher-interviews, equipment availability… all of these can have an impact on your training and force you to make some adjustments. But when doing so, it’s important that you don’t just randomly pick a different type of exercise or workout – you want to be sure that what you choose as your substitution fulfills the same goal as the exercise or training session that is being replaced.
Apples for Apples
What’s key to begin with is understanding that when training for a specific goal (beyond “general fitness”) there needs to be a purpose behind the substitutions. As such, to start off it can be helpful to create categories of both training and exercises so that if something needs to be swapped out you can just pick something from the same “bucket”.
Part One: Training Sessions
Training sessions can be separated into four basic groups: Cardiovascular training, conditioning or work capacity, strength, and recovery.
Cardiovascular Training: Any aerobic training with a sustained effort for a total training time of at least 30mins. This means you are holding a pace long enough for the cardiovascular system to be the primary source of energy – and while the protocols can vary between things like tempo intervals, speed-endurance, or long slow distance (volume), in all cases you are maintaining a continuous effort for a longer duration. Examples might be going for a run that is 20-30mins, long (5+ minutes) intervals on the stationary bike bookended by 10-20mins of steady, low-intensity spinning, or hiking on rolling terrain for a couple of hours.
Conditioning or Work Capacity: Generally, this would be interval training that is too short to significantly impact the cardiovascular system (2-5 minutes or less) and often involves some form of resistance training such as weights or stairs/hills. Examples of this type of training include boot camps, MetCons, or stair repeats. It’s important to note that sometimes this type of training gets categorized as “strength” or “cardiovascular” – but while there will be some impact on both (particularly in people new to exercise), the load/recovery strategies with the weights and the duration of the intervals are not enough to generate meaningful changes in either of them over the long term.
Strength: Defined as working the muscular system against an opposing force – and if the goal is to improve your strength or muscular endurance, then this must be done in a progressive manner. In other words – if you are always using the same weight, for the same number of reps and/or the same overall volume, then you are maintaining your current strength levels, not increasing them. Furthermore – although the parameters vary depending on the school of thought and the approach – repetitions greater than 15 of the same muscle group/movement patterns are less about strength and more about conditioning (or work capacity). As mentioned above – while there will be an impact on strength levels, especially when newly involved, or recently returned, to exercise – this will quickly plateau without a progressive plan or approach.
Recovery: Recovery training can be done utilizing aerobic modes (cycling, hiking), modified strength training, yoga, Pilates, “movement flows”, soft tissue work with a foam roller, straightforward static stretching, or a combination of multiple modalities. Really, any number of training methods could be defined or classified as “recovery”, as it’s not so much about the movements themselves but rather the amount of energy or effort that’s being put out – with the most important thing being that the intensity is well below that of your regular training.
Part Two: Exercises
While you’re training, there will no doubt come a time when the exercise in your program is unavailable to you – it could be due to an injury, or because you’re training at a different location than usual that doesn’t have the same equipment. When it’s due to an injury, it may be as simple as cutting the intensity (amount of weight, number of reps or sets) if it’s minor, or the entire movement category may be unavailable for a period of time while you heal up. If the adjustment needed is driven by injury, this is a good time to defer to your physical therapist – however, if it’s simply a matter of equipment availability then it’s certainly something you can take into your own hands with a little bit of guidance.
To make smart substitutions, first break exercises down into categories based on the movements and primary muscle groups that drive them (similar to what we did with the types of training sessions above):
- Hinge – Deadlifts, kettlebell swings glute bridges, and hip thrusts (Glutes and Hips)
- Squat – Goblet squats, jumps, leg presses, step-ups, split squats (Quads)
- Lunge – Reverse, lateral, forward, walking, drop or curtsy versions (Quads and Hips used in locomotive fashion)
- Push – Dumbbell bench press, chest press machine, cable presses, shoulder presses, push-ups (Chest, Triceps, and Anterior Deltoids)
- Pull – Dumbbell rows, suspension rows, cable rows, lat pulldowns, pull-ups, and chin-ups (Back, Biceps, and Rear Deltoids)
- Core – Carries, sit-ups, front planks, side planks, mountain climbers, body saws, bear crawls, bird dogs… really, any sort of trunk stability, or stabilizing through the midline in a static position or through movement
This is FAR from an exhaustive list – in fact, it barely touches the surface, and is quite simplified. Almost every one of these broad movement categories can be broken down further – for example, “push” and “pull” can be looked at more specifically in “vertical” and “horizontal” categories, and there are some exercises like a cable fly or a bicep curl that don’t fit specifically into any of them. Furthermore, the muscle groups listed are simply the primary ones – there are very few exercises outside of the rehabilitative world that completely isolate a muscle group. Hopefully, though, it offers a broad enough description that, by using either the primary muscles or the movement description, you’re able to categorize the exercise you must substitute closely enough to determine an appropriate replacement.
Putting It Into Action
Missing a strength training session and doing a yoga class as make-up or doing push-ups because there isn’t an available kettlebell for swings are both examples of unproductive substitutions which, at best, move you no closer to your targets. As any quality program designer will tell you, there is a purpose behind each exercise or workout that is driven by the target outcome – so learning how to make the necessary changes while maintaining the connection to the larger objective is a valuable skill to develop. Success in your training goals comes not just from training hard – but training smart.