Scaling workouts – Sun 7.16.17

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Many people think scaling workouts is a black mark on their CrossFit career.  Lifting heavier, or doing a higher level skill, or longer workouts do not necessarily make you healthier and more fit.  Scaling is super important to maintain your ability to workout safely over a lifetime.  Here’s an article from the CrossFit Journal:


“Ahead of efficacy is safety.” —Greg Glassman, CrossFit Inc. Founder and CEO

Safely scaling workouts for a wide range of athletes without sacrificing attention to non-scaled athletes—it’s an essential CrossFit coaching skill. Effective scaling at an affiliate demands an understanding of CrossFit programming theory, awareness of your athletes’ capabilities and limitations, and quick application of many possible scaling methods.

It’s also important to understand why we scale CrossFit workouts: CrossFit workouts are scaled to preserve the intended stimuli despite athlete limitations such as experience, injury, illness or range of motion.

A properly scaled workout safely maximizes relative intensity (load, speed, range of motion) to continue developing increased work capacity despite limitations. A long-term goal of scaling is creating the ability to perform workouts “as prescribed.”

Preserving Stimuli A programmer may have many intended stimuli at the macro and micro level. To simplify for everyday affiliate application (training for general health and fitness), we’ll narrow it to three primary stimuli.

1. Time Domain (Desired Metabolic Pathway)

The duration of the workout (combined with athlete training level) determines the primary metabolic pathways trained. In general, longer workouts demand more time in the aerobic pathway. Shorter challenges require more time in the ATP/CP and glycolytic pathways. (For a review of the primary metabolic pathways, see the October 2002 CrossFit Journal article “What Is Fitness?”). This is, however, a nuanced consideration. For example, heavy loads in volume tend to slow output, creating a mix of aerobic and ATP/CP training and reducing time spent in the glycolytic pathway.

Consider this workout:

21-15-9 reps of:
Deadlifts 355/235 lb.
Rowing for calories

While the shorter-duration row may push athletes into the glycolytic pathway, emphasis will likely shift to the ATP/CP and aerobic pathways as the heavy deadlifts significantly slow the output.

When considering how to scale this workout, strive to preserve the original intent: ATP/CP and aerobic training via heavier loading. Therefore, don’t scale load to the point that an athlete works so quickly she remains primarily in the glycolytic pathway. One method for accomplishing this goal is to post the load as “355/235 lb. or 80-85 percent of 1-rep max.”

Noting the duration of effort for a task is a simple way to assess the effectiveness of scaling for metabolic pathway. For an experienced affiliate-level female athlete, 21 reps at 235 lb. is approximately a 75-100-second effort. If a scaled athlete finishes the set of 21 deadlifts in 35 seconds, she is likely lifting too light. We’ll expand on this concept later in the article.

Let’s look at another example:

21-15-9 reps of:
Handstand push-ups
Rowing for calories

For this workout, we’d expect experienced athletes (defined later in this article) to work fast, spending the majority of time in the glycolytic pathway. If an athlete requires 1 minute of rest between every handstand push-up due to ability, then doing the workout as prescribed will not meet the intended metabolic stimulus. There is something to be said for a less-experienced athlete’s accumulating 45 handstand push-ups from a training standpoint, but doing so defeats the intended metabolic stimulus of this particular workout, so we assign a handstand-push-up scale that allows athletes to move quickly—at a pace that keeps them mostly in the glycolytic pathway. This doesn’t mean they’ll finish at the same time as an experienced athlete, but they won’t be doing repeated handstand-push-up 1-rep-max efforts over the course of an hour. Save that for skill-development sessions.

Once in a while, and with safety as a caveat, it is appropriate to allow an athlete to work through a difficult movement or challenging loading during a workout, but generally the original intention of the workout should be matched.

Errors in scaling time domain are quickly evident. In the deadlift workout listed above, if the majority of your class spends 6 minutes on the set of 21 but your scaled athletes finish in 90 seconds, then you’ve likely made a scaling error. Besides causing athletes to miss the desired training stimulus, this scaling error can affect class cohesion and an athlete’s sense of belonging. Ideally, we’d like to keep an entire class working together without creating significant outliers (i.e., someone who finishes in 3 minutes when everyone else works for 20 minutes, or vice versa).

On weightlifting days, time domain and metabolic pathway are expressed in rep scheme and relative loading. If the programmed workout is a 20-rep-max back squat and you scale an injured athlete to strict press, you still want a higher-volume lift, such as a 10-rep max instead of a 1-rep max.

A caveat: For less experienced athletes, scaling to an increased rep scheme (on weightlifting days, not in general) can reduce risk by forcing lower loads. This also provides more coaching opportunities. For example, when a 1-rep-max overhead squat is programmed, it’s appropriate to have a CrossFit athlete with one month of experience do sets of 5 reps at submaximal loading.

A helpful scaling tool for managing time domain and metabolic pathways is forecasting a workout-completion window based on the programmed movements, reps and loads. This window is a time (for task-priority workouts) or a total round/rep count (for time-priority workouts). Armed with a completion window, the coach has a better idea of the target metabolic pathway and can scale appropriately. See Appendix 1 (Page 7) for an example of calculating a completion window.

Time domain also impacts volume; that factor is addressed in the Elements of Scaling section below.

2. General Movement Patterns

When scaling a workout, strive to preserve the programmed movement patterns. CrossFit programming theory broadly categorizes movements into three modalities: weightlifting, gymnastics and monostructural metabolic conditioning (i.e., “monostructural”). To help coaches preserve the intended stimuli when scaling, let’s divide these movement modalities into six general movement patterns in Table 1.


We preserve movement patterns based on the “compound yet irreducible” property of functional movements. For example, if we want to improve our squatting position and mechanics, then we must squat. Targeted mobility can improve our positions, but if we never squat (even at a reduced range of motion), then we can’t fully develop our squat.

This extends beyond CrossFit’s nine foundational functional movements. If we avoid upper-body pressing motions involving shoulder extension (dips, push-ups, etc.), then we can’t fully develop those movements, nor can we develop the joint stability and motor control required of those movements at heavy loads or volume. In daily application, this means completely avoiding a movement or its scaled variants. If a newer athlete skips ring dips (to include progressions such as push-ups) every time they are programmed, it’s unlikely that athlete will ever fully develop safe dips.

Try to preserve the programmed plane of motion, too (usually sagittal or frontal/coronal), but this is a secondary consideration.

Table 2 shows some examples of movements and corresponding scaled movements that preserve similar patterns (not necessarily planes of motion).


Skill progressions go hand in hand with scaling to preserve movement patterns. Having a list of “go-to” progressions gives you immediate scaling options. The CrossFit Hampton Roads website contains a sample pull-up progression that outlines scaling options for workouts with pull-ups.

Having a list like this also expedites scaling for injured athletes. At our affiliate, we begin every class by asking athletes if there are any injuries or illnesses. With that information, the coach uses pre-built progressions to develop scaling plans for the workout. There are times, however, when preserving every movement pattern in a workout is not always possible. This often occurs when working with injuries or permanent disabilities. Remember that movement patterns are one of many possible stimuli. We can still provide quality training without preserving every pattern in every session.

 3. Complexity……


The article is quite in depth.  Click the link HERE to read the rest

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