I had a conversation with one of my athletes recently, and the topic was regarding the modification of exercise movements. More specifically, she asked if she was cheating herself when we modified exercise movements for her. It is my opinion that there are three distinct circumstances we must consider when answering this particular question.
The first concerns athletes that are learning how to perform specific movements. Most coaches realize that teaching an exercise movement isn't as easy as just showing the athlete what to do, but rather, there is a process of guiding the athlete through the fundamentals of the movement and then cueing the athlete to advance to the movement standard or more advanced progressions. Additionally, depending on the degree of coordination, flexibility, mobility, and stability required for the exercise, it may be necessary that the athlete begin working or continue working on areas of weakness to ensure they can adequately complete the activity in a safe, yet fruitful manner. We are often able to attack those areas of weakness with the modified movement itself, which further validates the need for the modified movement.
The second circumstance pertains to athletes with functional mobility, adequate strength, and learned movement patterns. There are a couple of reasons that an athlete in this category would regress a movement when they, under normal circumstances, can attain the standards of the movement. First off, athletes may modify movements because it's easier to do so. It requires less effort than the full movement, and the athlete can complete more repetitions in a shorter amount of time. Another reason an athlete will modify an exercise movement may be the refusal to perform it to standard because they are doing it "the way they've always have done it." These are the athletes who refuse to take constructive criticism of their exercise technique to make their movements more effective, often due to ego and pride.
The final condition we will consider concerns the athletes who know how to perform the movement but are lacking functional mobility or are hindered by injury. This is the category my athlete currently finds herself in, and it takes the form of chronic pain from a preceding injury. We've had to regress her movement for two reasons that include: 1) pain management and 2) development of more structurally stable movement positions. This approach does limit the overall growth of her as an athlete due to regressed movement modifications. However, we can ensure that she is still training and strengthening the fundamental components of the exercises through the regressions without causing further pain or discomfort.
In conclusion, there truly is no black and white answer to our question. I would argue that if an athlete is fully capable of completing an exercise movement to standard, that they should. But if there is a specific weakness that needs to be addressed, it is still acceptable to perform the regressed version of the movement until that weakness as been eliminated.
Josiah Prunty has been a USA Weightlifting Sports Performance Coach since 2014 and has worked with a variety of clients to improve their health and performance. Additionally, Josiah has BS in Health and Wellness from Purdue University Global and is a NASM-CPT, and CES