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Why and How we Scale workouts at CFIS

April 12 2015 Philosphy

Scaling: Why, How, and When?

Scaling, is defined by David Osorio of CrossFit South Brooklyn as “a modification of components of an individual workout in order to preserve the intended stimulus of the Rx’d version. This might include decreasing the load or overall volume of the workout and substituting or assisting particular exercises.”

The word scale is sometimes seen as a dirty word in CrossFit. People don’t like the idea of changing the prescribed framework of the workout because they think it somehow means they’ve accomplished less or haven’t pushed themselves hard enough. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Often times an athlete will get much, much more out of a workout if they scale appropriately rather than trying to fight through the RX’d version when they aren’t currently at the level of fitness to do so. When this happens it is often a classic case of letting ego interfere with progress.


Scaling might happen for any number of reasons: The athlete isn’t currently strong enough to perform the workout as prescribed with good technique or if they were able to do so they would have to rest for a considerable amount of time between repetitions in order to do so; the weight represents such a high percentage of the athletes 1 rep max that doing the workout as prescribed would be such an intense loading of volume that the athlete’s performance will be hindered for several days or even weeks afterwards; the athlete cannot perform the movement as prescribed due to injury, technical, or mobility restrictions; doing as many consecutive repetitions as prescribed could cause injury to the athlete; or the athlete is not feeling their best that day. In any of these cases, scaling is likely to lead to a more appropriate volume, a more intense workout, and a safer environment for the athlete. All of those things are likely to increase performance and progress over the long term while the opposite is true if the athlete stubbornly refuses to scale even though they should.


When it comes to scaling, we use the following scaling hierarchy at CrossFit Ironstone:

  1. Weight
  2. Reps
  3. Movements
  4. Range of motion   *Only as a last resort

Whenever the opportunity to scale presents itself we always work down the list whenever possible starting with weight. This allows us to do a few things: 1) Preserve the intended workout stimulus (time domain, modal domain, heavy/light for the athlete, volume etc.) 2) Preserve the targeted movement (e.g. rapid explosive hip extension, pressing, pulling) and 3) Preserve the CrossFit framework (constantly varied, functional movements performed at high intensity).


Let’s work through an example of each to clear up when each might apply:

  1. When strength or total loaded volume is the concern, we scale down the weight. For instance, in a chipper that contains 30 reps of shoulder to overhead at 135 lbs, an athlete with a 1 rep max of 125 lbs would have to scale down the weight to something manageable. This is rather obvious. What is less obvious, is the athlete with a 1 rep max of 145 lbs who attempts the workout RX. They will likely only be able to manage doubles and singles throughout the workout, resting for a considerable amount of time between efforts and taking a long time to clear that portion, which is not at all the intent of the workout. Further working at 93% of their 1 rep max, for a total of 30 reps, they would be more than quadrupling the ideal volume for their current level of strength at that weight. The latter athlete is likely to suffer a great deal of fatigue and reduced strength in the period following this decision, which limits or reverses progress.
  2. An athlete who can perform a high skill movement as prescribed but may not be able to perform a high number of repetitions consecutively should scale the reps. For example, the benchmark Amanda includes 9-7-5 muscle ups, which could be changed to 5-3-1 muscle ups if 9 would take an exceptional amount of time. In another example, a workout with 100 push ups may be too many for a new athlete. A more appropriate version may only include 50 push ups or less depending on fitness level. When we scale reps we do so to protect the athlete from fatigue related injuries (e.g. Rhabdo) or to drastically reduce rest time in order to keep the workout in the appropriate time domain. An athlete doing pullups could potentially scale weight (bands), reps, or both, depending on the rep scheme.
  3. When an athlete has restrictions due to injury, mobility, or technique that prevent them from performing a movement, we change the movement. A newcomer may be asked to perform heavy kettlebell swings to eye level rather than hang power snatches if they have not yet learned the required technique. It would serve no one to have them try and learn and then reinforce the required technique for snatches in a workout environment. In another example, if an athlete cannot perform a handstand pushup as prescribed, appropriate scales might be to do V-pushups with the toes on a box or to do a double kettlebell push press. In the context of a workout, the wrong scale is to do negative handstand pushups or handstand pushups to blocks under the head. Both exercises are extremely useful in learning how to do handstand pushups and assessing whether an athlete can perform them safely, but they should not be used as scales in a workout. The first exercise (negative) drastically increases in risk as the athlete becomes fatigued in a workout (and they have already demonstrated via the need to scale they lack the shoulder strength to control this movement well for any amount of time). The second option (to a block) violates one of our basic principles of crossfit – which is expressing full range of motion for functional fitness. A kettlebell push press allows us to build strength and endurance through the full range of motion, while a 2-inch handstand pushup does not. We save those drills for skill work and practice time, and scale movements as required in workouts. Don’t confuse skill work with scaling in a workout.
  4. The final option for scaling is range of motion, and should normally only be used when range of motion in itself is the problem. A good example of this is excessive pelvic tilt in the bottom of a squat. We may need to temporarily limit depth by having the athlete squat to a medicine ball or box, because reducing load, reps, or changing to another movement will not solve the problem, as this would entirely prevent any form of squatting. A poor example of scaling ROM would be to limit depth in overhead squats if it is actually a motor control problem Instead, we should default to option 3, change the movement, and make it a front squat for that athlete which still requires an upright torso and allows a full ROM squat.

Scaling should be a daily occurrence in the gym, and will happen for the majority of the people, most of the time, in one way or another. It’s all about the intended stimulus of the workout. In order for the same framework to work for the entire group, we have to write workouts at a high level and then scale down as each athlete requires. On rare occasion a time may come when an athlete may be encouraged to scale up – if their abilities as an athlete drastically exceed the norm of the group and the intended stimulus would therefore be too small. The goal of workouts is not to do them as prescribed, it is to do the best version of the workout for you, on that day. The magic of crossfit is in the intensity, and a failure to scale often results in lackluster intensity.

A Note on Time Caps

The second piece of this puzzle is strictly enforced time caps. Time caps can sometimes appear to be aggressive, but I promise they are not designed as unachievable goals. Time caps exist to:

  1. Indicate what time domain the workout should be taking place in so the stimulus is known and you have a measure of what intensity the work should be performed at;
  2. Limit total volume for the athlete by not having them do more than they are ready for; and
  3. Encourage appropriate scaling so that the athlete finishes the work in the allotted time.

If we program a 10 minute workout today and there is no time cap, someone attempting it RX may take 20 minutes. This is outside of the intended time domain, so the athlete has lost variance in time and intensity. There may already be a 20 minute workout programmed for the following day. Time caps also signal how much rest you can take and help you gauge what load to put on the bar or if you should reduce the number of reps in a skill movement. They have to be strictly enforced in order to a) serve as an actual signal regarding scaling requirements (if it isn’t enforced you won’t use it as a signal); and b) control your total volume and time domain if you do not scale appropriately. For many workouts with rounds for time or chipper style repetitions, an abrupt time cap will stop you from doing more work than is appropriate for your level of strength or fitness. If a workout has 15 front squats in each of 4 rounds and you only make it through 3 of those rounds, the time cap has successfully saved you from performing the last 15 reps at what was likely too heavy of a weight for you. If the other movement was a gymnastic movement, and the squats were easy but you had to rest a great deal on the gymnastics, then it means the gymnastic reps should have been scaled.

Final thoughts: Avoid the trap of thinking that because you are bad at one movement and it will take a long time that you need to RX everything else to somehow make up for it. This is the opposite of true; if one section will slow you down we want you to preserve intensity through the remainder wherever possible. You will get stronger and more fit quicker if you use your skill and strength sessions for exactly that and attack your WODs with intensity, scaling as appropriate.