When trainer and disability advocate Kelsey Lindell was growing up, the only thing she got in trouble for was forging notes to get out of gym class. “I really hated exercise,” she says. “I’m missing half of my left arm, and I felt like I stuck out…which was really discouraging.” Years later, she realized that it wasn’t exercise that she hated—it was the way exercise was portrayed. “It was taught to everyone as this sort of ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach,” she says. And as a person with a disability, that didn’t work for her.
Lindell’s experience in her high school gym class is a common storyline in the fitness industry, where one type of body (thin, white, cis, “strong”) is celebrated, and anyone who doesn’t fit into that particular mold tends to be left out. In any modality, you’ll find that most mainstream classes cater to students without disabilities, and movement modifications—when offered at all—are treated as an afterthought. Though it may sound like a cliché motivational poster, every body is different, and it’s time the industry shifts to account for that.
“I don’t walk, and my body is really different than most, but there are minute little differences in everyone’s bodies that I think we should all take inventory of and be proud of,” Alana Nichols, a Paralympic athlete who is paralyzed below her mid-thighs, said in a recent Well+Good panel discussion. “It’s important to modify [workouts] to honor those experiences.”
Because of this, there’s a growing push amongst fitness pros to make modifications that challenge different bodies as an integral part of their fitness classes. “In our classes, modifications aren’t ‘allowed’—they’re encouraged,” says Lindell. Her platform, Shape Society Collective, was designed with the purpose of celebrating bodies of different abilities. The idea behind it is that everyone should be able to participate, regardless of their ability. In most classes, trainers throw in a modification as an afterthought and tend to demonstrate the amplified version of the move themselves. At Shape Society, offering an option for everyone is a priority. “It doesn’t have to be about disability or ability. Because you could literally be the strongest, fittest person ever, but if a move doesn’t feel right or you’re operating on limited sleep and you don’t modify, you’re going to get hurt.”
Nichols, for example, likes to do push-ups and planks on her knees, which are plenty effective in building core strength. “Planking on my knees every time doesn’t mean I can’t focus on working on my core,” says Nichols. And this principle applies to everyone. “I view celebrating modifications as a way to make things easier for people, whether they have a disability, are pregnant, just aren’t feeling great, or are getting back to working out for the first time in five years and are feeling intimidated,” says Lindell. “If we can make those things normal and celebrated, they’re not going to feel defeated, and they’re going to feel comfortable asking questions about how to modify things for their bodies.”
And of course, modifying a move doesn’t mean you won’t still be able to reap its full-fledged strengthening benefits, which is all the more reason that these variations should become the norm instead of the exception. “One of the biggest things that made me fall in love with fitness was finding an instructor who believed in me, and who would modify the class for me so that I was able to do [moves] with my arms, while actually making them harder,” says Lindell. “It helped to have someone who believed in and pushed me, but also made it accessible and taught me how to build up to those things.” She’s a strong proponent of “choose your own adventure”-style fitness, in which people are given options to scale a move up or down in order to make sure they’re giving their body exactly what it needs on a given day.
“A key phrase we like to use is, ‘it’s not about what it looks like, it’s about what it feels like,’ which helps people think about the actual function of a given move,” says Lindell. “Instead of thinking about trying to do a push-up, think about how you’re trying to work X, Y, and Z muscles. If you focus on working specific parts of your body, you’ll get so much stronger so much faster, because you’ll be comfortable modifying the moves and doing them correctly. And the more trainers educate their clients on what a movement is actually for, the more it’s going to help people feel accomplished.” Regardless of whether you’re doing the amplified version of a move or a modified one, as long as you’re in tune with your form and which muscles you’re working, you’ll be able to reap the benefits of the move.
Whether you’re dealing with a difference of ability, are recovering from an injury, or simply not operating at 100 percent on a given day, the most important thing is to listen to your body. Giving yourself grace with modifications is one of the best ways to do it. “Fitness is a journey, and it looked so different for me as an able-bodied person, but I discovered how to start moving again after my injury, and it totally transformed my life,” says Nichols. “Wherever you’re at right now, you can start there. Because that’s a great place to start.”
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