The Art of Scaling

Dena Boucher

If you’re anything like me, few things feel better than logging a workout and being able to click “Rx”. We’re CrossFitters, after all. Being part of this community means that we likely possess a good measure of competitiveness and athletic drive. We want to lift heavy and move quickly.

CrossFit workouts are designed to challenge even the highest level of athletes. It’s unlikely that any one person can tackle the Rx weights and movements across the board for every workout. Moreover, I would argue that it’s not necessarily even safe or effective to do so. This is where scaling comes in.

I know, I know…scaling doesn’t sound sexy. It feels to some of us like a dumbing down of the workout. When done right, this could not be further from the truth. Scaling is an excellent tool through which we can hone our technique and dial in mechanics.

One of the biggest takeaways of my recent Crossfit Level 1 Training Course was to see the degree of care and skill that goes into CrossFit programming. CrossFit is by definition constantly varied, functional movements performed at high intensity. One day we may do the short, intense “Fran” workout (a couplet of 21-15-9 repetitions of thrusters and pull-ups). The next day we may tackle a thirty minute chipper. Though the programming may seem random to those of us just showing up to class, there is compelling science behind the types and orders of workouts that we do.

The “constantly varied” aspect of CrossFit is, to me, what sets it apart from other workout routines. The point being that it’s not routine. The programming is designed to achieve a particular stimulus for that daily workout. This is important when we think about scaling. The key to effective scaling is to preserve the intended stimulus as closely as possible.

What does this mean in practical application? It means that there’s a sort of algorithm we can run through as we scale a workout. First, we can look at load (or weight). Can’t snatch 105 pounds for 15 reps? Phew…me either. Let’s scale that sucker back to 85 pounds. We’re still performing the movement and working on the skill, but we’re not sacrificing mechanics and consistency in the process.

Next, we can scale volume. Can a person complete “Fran” as prescribed but do it in twenty minutes? Sure. Should they? Probably not. The reason is that the stimulus is lost. In this case, it might be better to reduce the repetitions in order to keep the athlete circulating through the movements. Perhaps even both load and volume need to be reduced in order to keep the intended level of intensity.

In the case of injury or physical limitation, a movement may need to be completely substituted. When doing so, it’s best to try to preserve the intended function and range of motion if possible.

For instance, are we trying to push or pull? Is the movement driven by the upper or lower part of the body? Are we simply trying to raise heart rate with a particular movement?

Scaling is incredibly valuable to both new athletes and those who have been in the sport for a while. I have found myself scaling weight more often lately in an effort to dial in mechanics. As my technique improves, I can perform more work with less effort. In the long run, this will undoubtedly help me to become a better athlete.

For a newer CrossFitter, scaling is critical at least until the fundamentals are mastered. I implore you not to skip over this important learning period. It’s tempting to load up the bar and go for broke, but balancing safety and efficiency will lead to better results over time. Try not to compare yourself to the person working out next to you. Patience is key.

It can take some time and practice to learn the right scaling approach for you, but it’s well worth the effort. It’s also something that should evolve as you develop as an athlete. Do you always substitute ring rows for pull ups? Maybe it’s time to try banded pull ups. Talk to the coaches about your limitations and goals. They are trained to help you make the appropriate modifications. A well scaled workout truly is a thing of beauty.