By Chelsey Brooks L1 Coach, CrossFit East Bay

Now that we’ve started thinking abstractly about what scaling is, why we do it, and when we do it, let’s talk about the how — and let’s get specific. First of all, it is imperative that you work with your coach to figure out this puzzle together. You certainly know your body better than we do, but we’ve also been doing this for a long time and have the opportunity to see things about your individual mechanics and ability that you might not. So talk to us! That’s what we are here for.

There are a number of ways to scale or modify a workout to fit your ability level (or work around an injury) to mimic the intended training effect by maintaining the appropriate intensity level. If you haven’t guessed by now, high intensity is where the magic happens, not just exorbitant weight or repetitions. This is a brief outline of 4 methods of how to scale.

Scale the Weight: Leave Your Ego at the Door

This should be the most clear cut method to be utilized when the weights prescribed in a workout are too heavy for you. This means generally too heavy or just on that day because you’ve been running on three hours of sleep, worked out 17 times today already, etc. Are you doing Diane, but a deadlift at 225/155# would literally fold you in half after 4 repetitions? Scale the weight to keep that bar speed quick with better form and higher intensity overall. Just because you CAN do the weight, does not mean that you SHOULD. “Ahead of efficacy is safety.” —Greg Glassman

Scale the Repetitions: Filthy Fifty or Terrible Twenties?

Arguably, the “easiest” way to scale a workout would be to assess the rep scheme and make appropriate changes. By appropriate, i mean scaling the repetitions in a way that facilitates sustained, elevated intensity. This is generally indicated by the measurable amount of work performed in a given range of time. Scaling the number of repetitions is an appropriate solution for many situations including, but not limited to:

  1. The number of repetitions is just generally really frickin’ high, relative to your ability or fitness level.

One word. Murph. Run  one mile, 100 pull up, 200 push-ups, 300 air squats, run one mile. Will this workout take you 90 minutes? Cut the reps in half to turn up the intensity dial! Sure, you’re not running two miles and performing 600 repetitions, but you’re ALSO not spending 45 minutes wildly and wishfully shaking your arms (aka resting).

  1. The prescribed movement is something you are capable of performing, but not quickly and/or easily.

So, the work out calls for 5 rounds of running, a ton of burpees, and 10 handstand push-ups. Running and burpees, awesome, no problem! (Said no one ever) But those pesky handstand push-ups are a new addition to your constantly expanding repertoire of movements. 5 rounds of 10 would take you all day or, worse still, you might hit a wall and get the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish) beside your name. An option you have here is to lower the reps to a more manageable number that would raise the intensity and send you out the door to your next run. You get to practice the movement in a WOD without spending the majority of your workout huffing and puffing, staring angrily at the wall.

Range of Motion (ROM): A Possible Warning Sign

Scaling ROM is sometimes used when there is pathology apparent in an individual’s movement which inhibits them from completing the skill in full. A simple example would be the squat. Without proper flexibility and strength, one may be unable to descend to the “below parallel” bottom position of a squat without a break down in form. I.e. heels come off the ground, severely compromised midline stability, etc. In cases like these, we would reduce the range of motion in the squat by squatting to a box so the athlete is able to simulate the same movement without compromised form. The same is true for deadlifts. Excessively tight hamstrings might mean you’re pulling from blocks circumvent an unavoidable rounding in the lower back. This same idea can be applied to nearly every movement. Of course, long term goals would be to address what is keeping your from healthy, fully functional ROM and devise a treatment plan for improvement.

“If you cannot deadlift, you are injured but asymptomatic” – Greg Glassman

Complexity: No One Learns Muscle Ups on Day One.

“If you don’t get the ABCs we don’t jump into English Lit” – Greg Glassman

The same logic can be applied to complex movements, especially the olympic lifts. There is a reason most novice CrossFitters learn these movements with a PVC pipe first.

Visit the Exercise and Demos page on the CrossFit website for videos and other helpful tools concerning complex progressions, as well as the foundational movements.

Time/Rest Intervals

This is a complicated method, but still very effective. An example would be only working every other minute in a twenty minute AMRAP (As Many Reps As Possible).

Too much rest turns what would be intended as a high powered metcon into a slow, low intensity WOD with little benefit. Every third minute in the above example would probably be excessive.

In conclusion, we suggest working with your coach to scale a workout down OR up. We do this to preserve the integrity of the workout, maximize power output, and develop competence and virtuosity in movements (Especially the basic ones). Scaling is not intended to make things “easier.” On the contrary, it is intended to challenge you without coddling your strengths or crushing you with your own weaknesses.

“No, it doesn’t ever get any easier. You wouldn’t want it to either” – Greg Glassman

Useful link:

Check out the Work & Power Output Calculator from Catalyst Athletics.

This useful tool can help you determine and maximize power output for a given workout.