It’s 1995. I’m a slightly chunky high school sophomore. I’m growing out a really bad perm. (That’s not really germane to the story, but I’m setting a scene here, so bear with me.) Anyway, a doctor calls me “fat” that year and I decide I need to develop at least a passing acquaintance with exercise. But I have no idea how to do that.

So, I go to the store (back when Amazon wasn’t delivering things to our doors) and look at the dozen or so fitness tapes on the shelf. It was also a time when, for whatever reason, supermodels were making their own workout videos. Remember that, fellow children of the nineties? I don’t think that happens anymore, does it?

Anyway, I don’t know why I picked Kathy Ireland’s, although I do remember hearing her interviewed on television and she said something about being super un-coordinated and getting kicked out of a group exercise class once. So, I probably saw her as a kindred, clumsy spirit.

Regardless of why I chose it, the Kathy Ireland Total Fitness tape, in all its 1990s glory, was my first introduction to exercise and it retains a special place in my heart twenty-plus years later. Not kidding.

I know that thing backward and forward.  When VHS became obsolete, I bought it on DVD. It’s like my workout comfort food.

Familiar.

Safe.

Beautiful in its straightforward choreography—perfect for someone with my general lack of grace and coordination.

I was working out this morning to one of my current favorites, modifying it to compensate for pain from a knee injury. And it occurred to me that I always, always modify a workout when following along to a DVD.

No matter how good a workout is, no matter how much I might love it, I never complete it exactly as directed. I do this because no DVD is perfect and it is impossible to make one that works for everybody.

So, I change it to make it safer. To make it more effective. To increase or decrease the intensity. To compensate for current injuries, pain or limitations.

And I encourage you to do the same. So, below are some tips for getting the most out of your DVD workouts.

Tip #1: Watch it Once & Make a Plan. Seriously. Please do this.  Just sit down and watch it. Remember how I said earlier that no workout is a perfect fit for everyone? Well, this is where you assess the parts of the workout that aren’t a good match for you and make a plan to modify it.

Come up with a couple of exercises you can use to replace the ones that seem intimidating, or too difficult, or that might be painful. Because of my knee injury, certain exercises are out.  If I see lunges or plie squats in a workout, I know I have to come up with alternatives.

There are lots of ways to work a muscle, so there is no reason to do an exercise you hate or that is painful. Research alternatives. Or, meet with a personal trainer once a month. Ask them to help you learn some new exercises to incorporate into your workouts, or tell them about the exercises on your favorite DVD and have them go through those exercises with you. They can coach you on proper form and give you some ideas for modifications.

You can also just repeat other exercises from the DVD that you like better. Try to pick something that works the same muscle group, but you can really replace it with anything you want.

And if all else fails, march in place. It will keep you moving until the DVD moves on to something else.

Tip #2: Slow It Down. Almost without exception I think the pace of strength training DVDs is too fast. I generally take 4-6 seconds to complete one repetition of any exercise. One tip to help you slow down is to pause for a second at the most challenging part of the exercise before returning to your starting position. For a squat or lunge that would be at the bottom of the movement; for a biceps curl or lateral raise it would be at the top of the movement. Pay attention to the return phase of the exercise and move slowly and with control. Work is happening in the muscle during that return phase too!

Tip #3: Take Breaks. Rarely, if ever, do I come across DVDs that include breaks in the workout. But the great thing is that you have a built-in break system—the pause button on your remote. Take breaks when you want to. Have some water. Walk around a bit. You don’t want to take a break that’s so long that your muscles get cold, but taking a minute or two as needed is important.

Tip #4: Leave Out the Weights. If the DVD includes exercises with hand weights or resistance bands, do not use them the first several times you do the workout. Focus on mastering the form for the exercise before adding weights into the equation.

Tip #5: Skip the Plyometrics (For Now). Plyometrics, also known as jump training, is an example of advanced exercise. You should be very careful with incorporating it into your workouts. I would have to have a very good sense of a client’s fitness level before I even considered including plyometrics in a workout, and then I would be keeping an eagle eye on their form as they did them. A simple way to modify a plyometric exercise is to do the exercise they are asking you to do, but without the jumping part. So basic squats as opposed to jump squats, for example.

Tip #6: They Are Not the Boss of You. Just because someone made an exercise DVD does not mean that you must do everything they tell you to do. You know your body better than anyone. If something doesn’t feel right for your body, don’t do it. If something is painful, stop. There is a difference between the discomfort that goes along with exercise, and pain that indicates something is wrong. Trust yourself and listen to your body.

 Tip #7: Do Not Skip the Warm-Up or the Cool-Down. Often these are separate chapters on the DVD, so it’s easy to skip them. However, they are both important elements of a safe workout. The warm-up will typically include movements that work the same muscles you are about to train, but with a smaller range of motion. The cool-down will be designed to bring your heart rate back down to a resting pace and to stretch the muscles that you just trained. Muscles shorten and tighten during exercise. Stretching helps to elongate the muscles and restore them to their normal length. Stretching should feel good! You should never force a stretch. You should allow your muscles to relax into a stretch, but not to the point of pain.