Scaling with a Purpose

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Whether you are a CrossFit athlete or a CrossFit coach, you think about this question regularly: How am I going to scale this workout  today? Meeting the needs of every individual — regardless of ability — is part of what CrossFit is designed to do, and it is a careful art to figure out the line between “too hard” and “too easy.”

Scaling: The idea is to challenge yourself with all the exercises, neither holding back on a strength nor pushing too hard on a weakness.” -Clea Weiss

Scalability and Applicability

One of the most important tenets of CrossFit is that it is universally scalable for anyone, as described by Coach Greg Glassman:

The needs of an Olympic athlete and our grandparents differ by degree not kind. One is looking for functional dominance, the other for functional competence. Competence and dominance manifest through identical physiological mechanisms. We’ve used our same routines for elderly individuals with heart disease and cage fighters one month out from televised bouts. We scale load and intensity; we don’t change programs.

So how does one scale a workout for someone trying to achieve “functional competence” so that s/he achieves the same training stimulus as someone trying to achieve “functional dominance”? How does one scale a workout for someone trying to achieve “functional dominance” when the current training stimulus no longer produces a favorable adaptation?  Before we answer these questions, let us look at the role technique plays in scaling a workout.

Technique Is the First Priority

Emphasizing technique is essential to making athletic gains. In fact, at CrossFit Level 1 certifications, the primary focus is on teaching and reviewing solid technique in the nine foundational movements.

Technique – like its cousins mechanics, form, and style— is not at odds with intensity but is in fact essential to maximizing power and thus fitness. Proper technique is the mechanism by which potential human energy and strength are translated into real work capacity.

In the CrossFit Journal article “Scaling: How Less Can Be More,” Clea Weiss discusses how scaling down the prescribed weight of a workout can produce higher power output – that is, increase intensity:

The work and power output calculator on the Catalyst Athletics website shows that a 5-foot-10, 180-pound athlete who completes Fran with 95 pounds in nine minutes has a power output of 98.2 watts. If the same athlete scales the weight down to 75 pounds and completes the workout two minutes faster, his power output actually rises to 115.7 watts. So using less weight can sometimes be better.

“Beginner athletes should aim for a number of reps that will be as challenging for them as the prescribed workout would be for an intermediate athlete.” – Clea Weiss
Technique, as it turns out, is not the enemy of intensity; rather, it is a very close friend. For the beginning athlete, or whenever an athlete is learning a new or unfamiliar movement, this is an important thing to consider in scaling. By scaling down the workout in order to focus on learning proper technique, the athlete actually increases work capacity by maximizing his/her power output.

A Few Simple Guidelines

Here are examples of scaling using CrossFit benchmark WODs (taken from “the Girls for Grandmas “ section of the CrossFit Level 1 training manual):




For time:

For time:

Clean 135 lbs

Clean 25 lbs

Ring Dips

Bench Dips

21-15-9 reps

21-15-9 reps

So how was this workout scaled for a beginner?

  • Prescribed weight was decreased
  • Gymnastic movements were modified to decrease resistance

Here are some examples of other basic, bodyweight movements that can be modified for a given athlete’s skill level:

Original Modified Purpose
Push-ups Pushups off the knee For an athlete who doesn’t yet have the upper-body strength to perform a strict pushup
Air squats Box Squats For an athlete who doesn’t yet possess the flexibility to reach below parallel at the bottom of a squat.

The common theme with these movement modifications is that they are modified so that the lower body can assist the upper-body.

So how much should you scale down the rep scheme, prescribed weight, or movement itself without making the workout too easy? CrossFit Southie warns athletes about the potential to “overscale” a workout, or making the workout so easy that the athlete is no longer challenged.  They provide a simple measuring stick for scaling to consider:

If you aren’t doing a WOD Rx then you shouldn’t be able to do all the reps in a given set or round unbroken. If this is the case then you scaled yourself too much.
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