To Scale or not to Scale…

Whether it’s that first double under, pull up, bodyweight clean or hallowed muscle up, when we become newbie CrossFitters, we have various different goals that we are chasing.

One thing that seems to be a common theme amongst us is the goal to do whatever comes up on the white board as written (or as prescribed/ “RX’d”).

Be it lifting the RX’d weight, jumping to the height of the box or the prescribed skill – writing RX’d next to a score is quite a big deal for many newcomers to CrossFit.

Until we get to that point we have a habit of responding to compliments about our score with a caveat of “ya but I scaled my double unders/deadlifts/cleans/pull ups etc. etc.” instead of recognising that the person saw you working your butt off and thought that you did a good job (well done by the way!).

As a coach I often wonder whether it’s the goal of doing things RX’d or the fear of ‘having to scale’ that drives people…

But is scaling actually a bad thing?

No, in fact scaling, if done well is a very good thing that will help you achieve your goals.

There seems to be a lot of confusion as to what scaling actually is so let’s start by understanding it. Scaling, in CrossFit terms at least, is adjusting the workout to the athletes individual level of fitness and/or their individual goals. So I have two things I can focus on, the athletes level of fitness (i.e. strength/flexibility/skill development/conditioning) or their goals (or a mixture of both).

Now let’s look at these individually.

Scaling to your individual level of fitness

One of the key mantras in CrossFit is the term Universal Scalability which means being able to adjust any workout to your own individual level. (Remember – CrossFit says that “the needs of Olympic athletes and grandparents differ in degree, not kind”.) Universal Scalability is not only a cool sounding phrase but it’s what allows you and I to stand right beside Rich Froning, Jason Khalipa, Sam Briggs, Camille Leblanc-Bazinet et al, puff out our chests (while holding in our stomachs!), give them a nod and do the same workout with them side by side, (and finishing in the same day).

Universal Scalability is what makes CrossFit all inclusive and is the driving factor in attracting a huge amount of people to this fantastic method of training.

In my opinion this is where the confusion lies. Whilst most think that scaling means using less weight or a progression for an exercise (e.g. jumping pull ups instead of pull ups) scaling actually means adjusting to your actual individual level (and goal) which could result in you using more weight or a higher skill level (e.g. chest to bar pull ups instead of pull ups).

To give a working example of this, todays WOD (workout of the day) contained American kettlebell swings at a RX’d weight of 24kg for men and 16kg for women. Athletes used various weights (some at the RX’d weight, some below and some above) which Balazs, who was coaching the class, helped them choose. Balazs then adjusted the weight as needed throughout the WOD to continue to scale appropriately (based on safety, ability level and quality of movement). When I looked at the scores afterwards I was able to see that he had done a really good job of scaling by the simple fact that the scores were in a relatively similar range (if the kettlebell was too light or heavy, some athletes’ scores would have stuck out like a sore thumb by being much higher or lower than most).

Now that we understand the scaling means adjusting a WOD to your individual level of fitness, let’s look at how we can scale to focus on our goals.

Scaling to focus on your goals

At various times we are focused on different goals (sometimes more than one) and it can seem hard to find ways to focus on them particularly when the workout seems to be designed for the group and not individualised to our specific goals. (If you have one that is – but let’s save that for another article.)

However each WOD can be adjusted to focus on individuals’ goals.

For example if an athlete is focused on strength then I will have them do a WOD at a heavier weight than is RX’d or use strict pull ups instead of kipping. Will this reduce their score? Of course, but more importantly having them scale to a heavier weight will help them achieve their goal of getting stronger.

In a similar vein if an athlete is focused on increasing their conditioning I’ll adjust the skill level or reduce the weights used to allow them to move faster therefore keeping their intensity at a higher level.

Another example is if someone is working on developing a skill (e.g. pull ups or double unders) when the WOD requires them to do these movements they can simply spend the next minute or so working on progressions for that skill and then move on with the WOD.

Personally when I was trying to learn to do pistols (one legged squats) I would put a time cap on WODs and when I would get to the pistol section I would keep working on them until I either got them done (and would move on with the WOD) or the time cap ran out. The way I looked at it was that whilst I wouldn’t get to do the other items in the WOD I’d be able to spend time working on that skill. Was it frustrating? It definitely was. I lost count of the number of times I thought I had one only to fall back onto my derriere whilst watching others continue on and complete the WOD. This experience was sometimes demoralising but I kept reminding myself that my goal was getting pistols and not the WOD. Also, I kept reminding myself that CrossFit is about leaving my ego at the door.

Speaking of time caps, I’m a massive fan of using them to allow those who are working on strength or a skill to do so in the knowledge that no matter how long they spend on that particular part there is a definite end to the WOD so they can take their time safe in the knowledge that they won’t be here all day. Time caps are also useful for those working on conditioning as a WOD can be adjusted to make it an AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) thus using the full cap to work on conditioning (again another example of scaling a WOD to work on an athlete’s individual needs).

Therefore in any given WOD you can have numerous athletes with various focuses all doing the same workout but SCALING to their individual levels – and working on their (sometimes different) goals.

As a sign off, I would encourage everyone to embrace the beauty of the “Universal Scalability of CrossFit” so come forward with your concerns, queries, questions and aspirations and speak to your coaches! Working together on scaling will help YOU achieve YOUR goals.

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