Why Scaling is More than Just "Going Light"

Why “Scaling” Is More than Just "Going Light"

Most of the time, when someone refers to “scaling”, they are referring to doing less weight or a lower skill requirement for the workout of the day.  The majority of our members are scaling workouts in these ways on a daily basis.  I generally program for the best/strongest in the group, and have people scale down from there, knowing that if everything is done right, everyone will get the appropriate response for the workout.  

However, it must be noted that this is scaling on its most basic level, and that there is a lot more going on that just “going lighter”.  A lot of the time, going lighter isn’t going to address the situation.  If you have an injury, crappy mobility, or just plain can’t do the movement safely, “going lighter” is the same as saying, “yeah, I know it’s not safe for me to drive home after drinking 10 beers, but I’ll do it really slow, and I’ll be fine”.  When in a pressure/timed situation, you are going to do the right thing for about 4-5 reps, and then revert back to bad/unsafe habits.  

Yesterday, we had 50 adults workout through the day in our CrossFit classes.  15 of them had the workout modified in some way that isn’t including normal scaling.  In other words, 30% of the people that worked out here yesterday had something changed to the overall structure of the workout that didn’t include weight reduction or skill.  Read that again to make sure you understand what I’m saying.  I’m not talking about doing RX’d vs. not RX’d.  I’m saying that an average of 3 people per class had to get an exercise, movement pattern or time domain changed for one reason or another.  A lot of these modifications have to do with old injuries, some have to do with current afflictions, some of them have to do with mobility restrictions, others have to do with the volume of work that should be done, still more fall into a miscellaneous category.

What am I bringing this up?  

Well, for one, you should know that you should never, ever, ever be shy about asking for a modification.  It’s a huge part what we do as coaches.  It is literally our job to make sure you are able to come get the best workout possible for you for the day.  If you have a crappy shoulder from years of volleyball, it’s completely inappropriate for you to do a shit ton of push presses paired with kipping pull-ups.  It just is, and pushing through it because you are either shy, or don’t want to be a “burden” is ridiculous.  If you are allergic to shell-fish, and someone serves you crab, do you just push through your anaphylactic shock because you are embarrassed?  Assuming you answered “no”, then why does that make it any different in here?  It’s not like you’re making a choice to be physiologically “you”, it’s just the way “you” are.

Secondly, you need to be patient and not get frustrated when we make modifications for you.  I know it’s annoying when I take the barbell out of your hands and swap it for a kettlebell (or less).  Or how it sucks to be doing something different than everyone else because your coach makes you.  But it’s not because I don’t like you, I promise.  In fact, it’s the exact opposite.  If I didn’t like you, I’d load you up with a shit ton of weight and just watch you break (not really, of course).  Instead, you should know that every workout, every movement, and everything we do has a purpose in mind, and the modifications we make are intended to stimulate those purposes for you.  Take for example, Monday’s workout.  It was designed to be a bit longer (16 minutes), with a series of movements (monostructural/coordination work, vertical pushing, vertical pulling, and single leg squatting) that were meant to be high enough in reps and weight per set to be fatiguing/frustrating and to make you pace the sets in a mostly aerobic workout with muscular endurance challenges along the way.  These endurance challenges were designed with a weight in mind that would have most people breaking them into 2 sets (15 for the Push Presses and 10 for the Pull-ups).  That way, if you did 2-3 rounds (like most people did), you’d do 4-6 sets of strength work while getting in your conditioning.

Though it has very specific goals and intentions, the description of the workout above has a lot of room for interpretation and modification.  Every one of those movement patterns has a wide variety of exercises that can be plugged in, and if the whole movement pattern causes a problem, then we change that to a similar, but different pattern, without overlapping or over-stressing a certain pattern (monostructural, pushing, pulling, and squatting don’t overlap). Vertical pushing (which causes problems in a lot of people due to poor shoulder and thoracic mobility) can be substituted easily for a horizontal push, which aggravates significantly fewer people.  Same with the vertical pull.  Changing that to a horizontal pull is easy, and appropriate for many.  If you’ve got a bad ankle, and jumping for double-unders is a problem, we’ll change it to rowing (mono for mono).  But even with these changes, you’re working within the definitions of the workout.

Thirdly, and this is related to the second point, is that the workouts we are doing have a certain energy system response in mind.  Yesterday, for example, had heavy squats programmed with burpees and kettlebell swings in a 90 second interval with 4:30 minutes of rest for what was intended to be a anaerobically demanding piece.  Some of you are literally not capable of, nor is it appropriate, to lift heavy under duress and then do a shit ton of burpees and kettlebell swings as fast as you can. You just literally cannot produce enough power safely with those movements to make 1:30/4:30 an effective work/rest ratio for such an adaptation.  But that’s ok!  Remember, I wanted an anaerobic workout where you were smoked after 1:30 of work and you could recover enough in 4:30 to do it again.  The absolutely most simple way to achieve that is to run or row your ass off for that amount of time, rest and repeat.  If you’ve ever done a 500m sprint as hard and fast as you can, you’ll know what I mean.    While that is well on one end of the scaling spectrum and it isn’t exactly the same as doing squats, swings and burpees, it’s getting as close to the intended purpose in a safe and effective manner.  Most of you fell somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, and were left lying on the ground, heart racing, burning in your lungs, and ready to do it again in 4:30.  

In sum, it should be emphasized that very single one of you is an individual, with individual needs, individual goals, individual adaptations, individual training ages, individual aptitudes, individual pre-existing conditions/injuries, etc.  The 45 year old, previously sedentary female who wants to look better and feel better is a completely different animal than the 23 year old, life-time competitive athlete who wants to beat everyone in the gym at the CrossFit Open.  The majority of you are in our group classes, which is an effort to improve everyone’s fitness via 3 written programs.  This is wonderful and beneficial for a lot of reasons; everyone gets to work out with friends, it helps people to get out of their comfort zones, it provides for accountability, it provides semi-private instruction with high quality coaches for a fraction of the price of 1 on 1 while still giving everyone the attention they need, It gives everyone something to strive for, and gets us all to work on self-improvement with a group of like minded individuals.  

However, all of these positives must be balanced with the needs of the individual, which requires diligence on all of our parts to make sure that you are getting what you need.  Your part of that equation is to let your coach know if you need a modification and to be patient when and if we modify things for you.  Yeah, sometimes that means that you won’t be doing the same thing as everyone else.  Who cares?  Are you here to fit in, or are you here to get fit?