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Professional Training: Scaling, Part 2

ByCrossFitJanuary 19, 2020

In part 1 of this series, we discussed the central ideas related to scaling workouts for athletes. In this segment, we will discuss a few suggestions regarding the successful implementation of scaling. Recall that:

  1. Scaling should be used to meet the athlete at their current level, preserving the originally intended stimulus of the workout.
  2. Scaling should be viewed as a progressive tool to move athletes beyond their current level, not a crutch used to avoid difficulty.

While there are many ways to scale successfully, generally the first considerations revolve around the factors that directly affect the intensity of the workout: loads, distances (reps), and time (duration of the effort).

It is fairly obvious that these elements can be easily manipulated to make a daunting workout approachable. Simply lowering the load, total reps, or duration of the workout may be enough. What’s important but less obvious is carefully considering the movements and intended stimulus of the original workout. Remember that athletes of all skill levels need to perform functional movements with a full range of motion. If your first step is to eliminate or heavily modify a movement, you may end up inadvertently limiting the exposure to that range of motion, hindering further development.

If, after considering the intensity of the workout and modifying appropriately, the movements are still beyond the capability of the athletes you are working with, consider creating a movement progression. Look to break down the more complex movement into steps that can be successfully achieved. As before, wholesale elimination of a movement is rarely a useful early consideration. For example:

Workout of the Day as written:

5 rounds for time of:
400-m run
15 squat snatches, 65/95 lb.

Scaled Workout of the Day:

5 rounds for time of:
400-m run
5 snatch-grip deadlifts, PVC pipe or empty bar
5 hang power snatches, PVC pipe or empty bar
5 overhead squats, PVC pipe or empty bar

In the scaled example, the athlete is given the opportunity to practice the range of motion and basic positions for the full snatch. The complex demand of performing the snatch is broken into manageable pieces. With enough exposure, the athlete builds familiarity in these positions. Soon enough, the prospect of connecting each movement fluidly into a single effort becomes much more natural. This option can also be performed with light loading if the athlete has the capacity.

After careful consideration is given to intensity and range of motion, further modification may be needed before the scaling can be successful. If both of these elements have been considered, and other factors, such as injury status or significant deconditioning, still make a movement inaccessible, the trainer may choose to omit or change movements within the workout. This choice must be made carefully. The original intent of the workout, particularly the loading, level of challenge, and function of each movement, should be preserved. Continuing with the example above, let’s plan for an athlete with an ankle injury that prevents them from running but not from bearing light loads:

Workout of the Day as written:

5 rounds for time of
400-m run
15 squat snatches, 65/95 lb.

Scaled Workout of the Day:

5 rounds for time of:
400-m row or 1,000-m Assault Bike
5 snatch-grip deadlifts, PVC pipe or empty bar
5 hang power snatches, PVC pipe or empty bar
5 overhead squats, PVC pipe or empty bar

A very deconditioned athlete with limited range of motion may need even further modification. Let’s consider an older athlete who is new to CrossFit and not yet able to squat to full depth:

5 rounds for time of:
200-m walk
5 snatch-grip deadlifts starting just below the knee, PVC pipe
5 hang muscle snatches, PVC pipe
Overhead sit-to-stand from a high box, PVC pipe

In the scenarios above, presenting the scaling options at the beginning of the session does not excuse the trainer from keeping a watchful eye on the athlete. It is likely that an “on-the-fly” modification may be needed. Perhaps at the end of the third round, you notice the athlete fatiguing visibly and movement quality declining. Stepping in to end the workout at this point might be the best option; some quality reps were performed, and the athlete clearly experienced a full workout. Alternatively, if the scaling option allows the athlete to move through the workout more easily than expected, the repetitions, loading, or distance may be increased slightly in the later rounds.

Although necessary at times, the practice of swapping one movement for another or omitting a movement entirely should be reserved as a final step in the scaling process. Trainers can develop the skill of preserving the originally intended stimulus by practicing with workouts from crossfit.com or their own gym’s programming. Take a workout and brainstorm several scaling variations during some downtime away from the training floor. Ask yourself which scaling option would be most beneficial for those who struggle with loading or a particular skill (or both). Many options are available that will result in a great workout and meet the athlete at their level. A few minutes of regular scaling practice will create familiarity with a process that allows trainers to easily navigate a diverse population in a single session.

Once you have considered the scaling options for the day, it is important to strategically and regularly vary the scaling options used from workout to workout. Approaching the development of a new skill from different angles can help keep athletes moving forward instead of falling into the unproductive habit of avoiding elements that challenge them most.

As with many things in the realm of fitness, there are often multiple paths to success. Scaling is no different. The goal of the trainer should be to develop the skill of recognizing the training goal of the day and then offering multiple options to achieve this training goal. By constantly reviewing previous scaling options and their outcomes, the astute trainer can continue to refine their ability to help athletes develop, regardless of current level of skill or fitness.


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

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