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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.

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