Fitness / Beginner Fitness

Easy, Effective Swaps for 5 Super Common Strength Exercises

Don’t give up on a difficult exercise. Instead, try a variation that produces similar results.

In the constant quest to stay active, there is an infinite number of exercises to keep you occupied. But, as with all things, you’ll find some that you like more than others. In certain cases, you may notice that a particular exercise is too difficult for you, whether it’s due to your current skill level, strength, flexibility, or an injury. But, that doesn’t mean that you have to skip the muscle group altogether. Instead, try swapping in one move for another.

“By making exercise swaps when needed, you’re able to target the muscle groups you want to target and enjoy a challenging workout—all while staying safe and working to your ability,” says Matthew Martin, CPT. He notes that he often subs out traditional moves, like the squat and bench press, for similar exercises for his clients, especially those who are new to working out or coming back from an injury.

Effective Strength Training Exercise Swaps

For specific examples of exercise swaps, we asked Martin to share some of his favorites. If one of the below moves is too difficult for you, or you just want to mix up your next workout, try the below substitutions to keep on moving.

Instead of Pull-ups, Try Lat Pulldowns and Bar Hangs

The pull-up is one of the most difficult moves to master. To do it right requires a potent combination of strength and technique. So, if you can’t yet pull yourself up to the bar unassisted, Martin suggests a twofold approach that involves lat pulldowns and bar hangs.

“The lat pull is a great exercise for your upper back and lats,” says Martin, “but it won’t do much for your grip.” This is something that’s vital for performing pull-ups. So, he suggests doing lat pulldowns to build up your strength, and straight-arm hangs from a bar to build your grip. After a while, you’ll have the necessary skill set for giving pull-ups another try.

Instead of Bench Press, Try Single-Arm Cable Press

The bench press is a popular exercise for a reason—it’s effective. But, Martin notes that many people are intimidated by this classic lift. Meanwhile, others can’t complete the full range of motion due to shoulder issues. That’s where the standing single-arm cable press comes into play.

To perform this simple move, place a cable at shoulder height and select a weight you can lift for eight to ten reps. Stagger your feet, so that your left leg is forward when you’re working your right side. As you press the cable straight ahead, you’ll work your chest while also enlisting your hips and core.

Instead of Deadlift, Try Single-Leg Kettlebell Deadlift

The deadlift, another favorite strength training exercise, works your back, glutes, and hamstrings. But, if you’ve got a bad back or haven’t yet perfected the form required for this lift, you’re better off playing it safe. The single-leg kettlebell deadlift can be your go-to, as it still provides a great workout while going easier on your body.

To make it happen, grab a medium-weight kettlebell—something you can lift eight to ten times without putting too much strain on your back. Hold it at your side. With the kettlebell in your right hand, keep your left leg planted on the floor with a slight bend in the knee. Hinge at the hip, slowly lowering your torso until it’s almost parallel with the floor while extending your right leg behind you for balance. From this position, squeeze your glutes and thrust your hips forward to return to the starting position.

Instead of Barbell Squat, Try Goblet Squat

“I love a good barbell squat. But even I do goblet squats on occasion to mix things up,” says Martin. “I often suggest this exercise for anyone who is new to squats, or people with shoulder mobility issues” (who can’t place the bar behind their neck). He mentions that goblet squats are also a great addition to HIIT workouts or anything involving intervals.

Start by grabbing a dumbbell or kettlebell, whichever you prefer. Hold it with your palms up, cupping the weight from below, and keep it tight to your chest just below your chin. Lower into a squat until your thighs are parallel with the ground. As you lower, let your elbows brush the insides of your knees to ensure that your knees aren’t bowing inward. Return to the starting position.

Instead of Sit-Ups, Try Planks

Sit-ups are probably the most common abdominal exercise you’ll see performed in gyms (and at home). Aaptiv even has a 100 Sit-Up Challenge, if you’d like to give it a whirl. But, sit-ups aren’t the only way to build toned abs. Plus, if done incorrectly, they can put undue stress on your back. For a great alternative, try planks.

Get into position on your hands and toes, maintaining a straight line from your shoulders to your heels. Hold this position for 30 seconds—or longer—without letting your hips drop toward the floor. This puts pressure on your lower back. As you improve, you can extend the length of the hold, or add in plank variations, like the side plank or forearm plank.

Don’t count out entire muscle groups because you can’t do a few exercises. Whether it’s mobility issues or strength challenges, there are always a few modifications or exercise swaps you can make to keep your progress moving forward.

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