Professional Training: Scaling, Part 1

ByCrossFitJanuary 9, 2020

Trainers and athletes alike need to be well versed in the art of scaling. For most of us, scaling a workout is a routine part of the CrossFit experience. However, even the fittest among us will come up against limits that will be better addressed when we set aside the ego and develop a plan of attack.

Thankfully, the question throughout most of the CrossFit community is not whether scaling is an appropriate tactic but how it is best employed. There are some general recommendations that can help guide both trainer and athlete, but first, it is important to have a clear sense of what scaling is and is not.

Scaling is not the avoidance of a difficult skill, load, or movement. The lazy or uneducated trainer can nullify the power of scaling into little more than a blanket recommendation: “Don’t do that. It’s too hard.” This is a terrible message to send to your athletes, consciously or not. It is also a surefire way to limit one’s own development as a trainer. Rote habit and lack of forethought or understanding can rob scaling of its true power and purpose, which is to create a bridge between where you are today and where you could be in the future. For this reason, it is important that fundamental scaling principles are thoroughly understood and then approached with a creative spirit.

Often, the well-intentioned trainer begins to fall into the habit of offering the same scaling options every time a difficult movement is encountered. Initially, this may be seen as a time-saving tactic and the mark of a trainer imparting wisdom as efficiently as possible. Athletes begin to preemptively scale themselves when they see familiar trouble spots, and trainers pat themselves on the back for developing self-sufficient athletes. While positive in moderation, if this is always the way a trainer approaches scaling, the resulting  “green-band syndrome” can be nearly impossible to progress beyond. Picture how often you’ve seen this scenario unfold: The word “pull-up” is written on the whiteboard. Without warning, a herd of athletes rushes to the equipment corner to clutch their favorite band, already confident in the act. But wait, the trainer suggests ring rows or timed lock-offs at the top of the bar. No band needed today! The general reaction is one akin to, “You can pry my green band out of my cold, dead hands.”

Jest aside, the above scenario and the athletes’ instinctive reactions are entirely created by the trainer. Either through lack of understanding or lack of consideration for the overarching intent behind scaling, the trainer can inadvertently lead athletes into stagnation. Scaling, in this instance, has become a crutch instead of a step forward.

A better approach would be to communicate to your athletes that you will not always prescribe the same scaling options. Instead, you will recommend options that will help them continue to make progress toward the full movement. Make them co-conspirators in this strategy and help them understand the benefits of it. This does not necessarily mean every athlete is destined to reach the prescribed version of every movement, but that is fine –– striving for this outcome is what pushes both athletes and trainers toward “better.” For trainers, it forces creativity and thoughtfulness regarding each athlete’s progress. And athletes lucky enough to be in the care of such a trainer will find their path to improvement much more efficient and effective than will someone prescribed the same scaling all the time.

For more in-depth scaling education, visit CrossFit Training’s online Scaling Course.

Comments on Professional Training: Scaling, Part 1


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Eric Fouts
January 10th, 2020 at 5:46 pm
Commented on: Professional Training: Scaling, Part 1

Question I havent been able to find an answer for.....why is the WoD on here different than all the others I see posted by various athletes and gyms?

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Chris Sinagoga
January 10th, 2020 at 7:43 pm

Eric, each gym (or athlete for that matter) can do any workout they want. CrossFit HQ gives their interpretation of Constantly Varied Functional Movement at High Intensity, and other places give theirs.

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Chris Sinagoga
January 10th, 2020 at 4:13 am
Commented on: Professional Training: Scaling, Part 1

"And athletes lucky enough to be in the care of such a trainer will find their path to improvement much more efficient and effective than will someone prescribed the same scaling all the time."

I agree with this and since the main site's transition the past year I've been more open to not scaling the same way every time. This also makes retesting really difficult to measure. Our use of Ricky Reps on pull-ups, for instance, almost ensures no two sets will be the same. But it has led to better pull-ups overall. So no complaints.

It still seems to me that an athlete on the fringe of a pull-up or muscle-up (meaning they can do some but not many or consistently) gets a lot of strength benefit from doing kipping variations in a workout. Their arms die out just as much as a an advanced athlete doing strict variations. If there is a "strict" variation in a workout that seems designed to give a good intensity dose, then I like to defer to the kipping movements for fringe athletes. If a workout's purpose is more "for quality" then we stick with strict.

I am definitely a believer in both. From what I have experienced, kipping comes first as a natural progression, then is formalized through the strict, formal expression of a pull-up. So I tend to teach kipping first because the coordination can take longer to get the hang of.

There is nothing cool or exciting about scaling but it might be the most important thing I have in my toolkit as a coach - on par with developing a personal relationship.

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Juan Acevedo
January 10th, 2020 at 1:21 am
Commented on: Professional Training: Scaling, Part 1

This is great!


The objective of scaling is to progress not to regress.


I would add that stagnation is not only only solved by variety. A dedicated coach and a dedicated athlete should be paying attention to be adjusting the scaling options with time. Observation and having a process mindset are key. What I mean is that both athlete and coach have to always be putting the athlete close to their reach area. That it is not solved only with the modifications or variety of movement patterns. It is solved having a long term view on scaling, consistently taking notes on where each athlete is, understanding very well the stimulus of each given workout, understanding the psychological and physiological state of an athlete on a given day. Combining all this information well will determine the best scaling option for an athlete. As this article points out: a default scaling option is always a bad one. Scaling is really the heart of coaching in CrossFit. And Coaching is a learning relationship within two people.

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Rafael Guaraldo
January 10th, 2020 at 1:36 am

"Scaling is really the heart of coaching in CrossFit. And Coaching is a learning relationship within two people."

Well said Juan, thanks for that!

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