The Art & Science of Scaling

By Colin Farrell

The Co-Director of Training at CrossFit Headquarters, Dave Castro, offers an excellent analogy for the idea behind scaling. To paraphrase:

Imagine a competitive shooter steps up to the range to fire at three different targets, each further away than the last. At five yards, every round is in a tight grouping at the center of the target paper. At ten yards, most of the rounds are on target, but there is not as tight of a grouping, and one round is even off the target. At fifteen yards, the rounds are scattered all over the target paper, with only one occasionally landing on target, and even then it seems as though it was blind luck.

At five yards, as evidenced by the tight grouping on target, the shooter is not being challenged. Without a struggle, every round lands right where the shooter has intended. At fifteen yards, the challenge is so great the shooter cannot possibly gain much from the exercise and things are bordering on dangerous. At ten yards, the shooter is putting most rounds on target, is accomplishing the task at hand well enough, but is at a range that still clearly challenges him or her, as demonstrated by the occasional round not hitting its mark.

Ten yards is, in this case, the appropriate distance for the shooter to continue working.

At District CrossFit, athletes will find a prescribed iteration of the Workout of the Day on the whiteboard and on Wodify. The goal is to scale that version of the workout to accommodate strength levels, various capacities with complex movements, injuries, levels of fatigue, etc. We want to continually push intensity up (move to shooting targets that are further away) while maintaining sound, though not necessarily always perfect, mechanics (keeping most rounds on target).

If we don’t scale workouts, we run the risk of crossing the Vantasner Danger Meridian. We will have crossed a proverbial line in which mechanics are so sloppy there is now too significant of a risk of injury. This meridian is often traversed in the interest of maintaining or pushing the boundaries of intensity.

Yes, you may have the ability to front squat 185-lbs for reps, but after the first four your knees are valgus, there is a significant navicular collapse, you’re in your toes, and your thoracic spine is caving over… you have crossed the Vantasner Danger Meridian.

What is scaling?

Scaling CrossFit workouts is the process by which athletes, and often times in conjunction with their coaches, decide to alter a workout so as to make it safe, appropriate, and effective given an individual athlete’s capabilities, limitations, and goals.

Why should an athlete scale a workout?

There is a veritable litany of reasons an athlete might need or want to scale a workout. The most common and the most obvious reason for scaling is the athlete lacks the strength to complete weighted movements at the prescribed (“Rx”) weight, and/or he or she lacks the capacity to complete higher-skill gymnastics movements as prescribed.

Newer athletes may scale difficult and complex barbell movements to simpler ones.

Athletes returning from injury may avoid certain movements entirely.

An athlete whose goal to get stronger may even increase the weight of a kettlebell, dumbbell, or barbell.

An athlete training for an endurance event may decrease the difficulty of gymnastics movements and loading of weighted movements to maintain a higher pace during workouts; this is better to prepare for a longer distance, lower intensity running, cycling, or swimming event.

Workouts should be scaled in a such a way that all athletes completing the workout have a similar experience. If John completes the workout in 22:32, and Jane completes the same workout in 8:14, those two athletes had very dissimilar experiences. Someone did not scale appropriately. Ultimately, athletes scale workouts to ensure they are able to consistently display sound mechanics while still being appropriately challenged, are remaining safe in the process, and the intended stimulus of the workout remains intact.

How to Scale Workouts

While there is always a prescribed workout at DCF, there could potentially be dozens of ways to scale the movements, the load, the reps, the distance. The list of reasons why a person might scale a workout are nearly innumerable, thus, the ways in which an athlete will scale a workout may also be innumerable.

Below are two scenarios in which athletes needed to scale a workout. In each, athletes work with their coaches to find a safe and effective version of the day’s programming that still preserves the intended stimulus of the workout and will help them meet their goals. Both had to find an alternate iteration of the programming to fit their needs, limitations, and goals.

Scenario One

Athlete: Jeremy is a 155-lb male athlete who has been CrossFitting for a few years. He has a 1-repetition max snatch of 157.5-lbs, and a 1-repetition max clean-and-jerk of 195-lbs. He is extremely proficient at gymnastics movements and has a strong engine, able to run a mile in under 6 minutes, and has a sub-8 minute 2,000m row, which is decent for an athlete of his size. He does not lack for mobility; he has no problem getting to the bottom of pistols and overhead squats, and is stable overhead.

Workout of the Day: “Amanda”

For Time:
Squat Snatch (135/95)

How to Scale: “Amanda”, like many of CrossFit’s benchmark girls, is meant to be very fast. There should not be a whole lot of rest or down time. Athletes should have this done in under 5 minutes. When approaching this workout, Jeremy and his coaches must keep in mind that however they choose to scale it, to preserve the programming’s intention: it is meant to be a fast workout with a middle-weight barbell and a complex gymnastics movement.

Jeremy will have no problem completing all the muscle-ups, and may even go unbroken on each set. The load on the barbell, at RX, is rather close to his 1-rep max. He may be able to complete this workout as prescribed, but it would likely take him closer to 12 or even 15 minutes to complete all 21 snatch repetitions and all 21 muscle-ups. A likely option would be for Jeremy to complete RX muscle-ups, and scale the weight on the barbell to 115- or 95-lbs. Doing so would provide the athlete with an excellent workout and keep him moving for an appropriate amount of time, while still challenging him. However, another--and probably better--option would be for the athlete to complete the snatch reps at 135-lbs, but reduce the number of repetitions from sets of 9, 7, and 5 down to sets of 4, 3, and 2. Jeremy’s workout, when scaled appropriately, looks like this:

For Time:
9 Muscle-up
4 Squat Snatch (135)
7 Muscle-up
3 Squat Snatch (135)
5 Muscle-up
2 Squat Snatch (135)

This will expose Jeremy to the heavier barbell, but in smaller sets, a recipe for increasing strength; additionally, fewer repetitions will keep this workout inside the intended time domain (~5 minutes), and increase the likelihood of sound mechanics throughout, thus preserving the intended stimulus for the workout.

Scenario Two

Athlete: Carolina is a former collegiate volleyball player, and new to CrossFit. She has a great deal of natural athleticism, and has picked up the basics of functional fitness rather quickly. She has a lingering shoulder injury from college and struggles to reach a safe, stable lock-out position overhead. Having spent the better part of a year and a half protecting her shoulder and not using it much, the soft tissues throughout the shoulder have shortened and weakened. Carolina has a strong back squat, but struggles to keep her elbows up in front squat. She has picked up the rudiments of the Olympic lifts but is still building proficiency and capacity in major gymnastics movements, having to scale pull-ups, toes-to-bar, ring dips, and push-ups.

Workout of the Day:

In 12 Minutes
Buy-in: Run 400m, then
6 Dumbbell Front Squat (55/40)
6 Dumbbell Push Jerk
10 Box Jump (24/20)
10 Pull-up

How to Scale: The intention of this workout is to expose athletes to a heavy dumbbell along with two lower skill gymnastics movements, all in small sets (allowing athletes to complete all repetitions unbroken for most of the workout.) The buy-in run should take athletes around 2 minutes, allowing them roughly 10 minutes of time to work with the dumbbells, box jumps, and pull-ups. Carolina, with her athletic background and strong squat, may certainly be able to complete aspects of this workout as prescribed. However, her lack of shoulder strength and mobility will be something she and her coaches will have to consider when scaling some of the movements.

Though few in reps, the front squats are moderately heavy. Additionally, the dumbbells (as opposed to the barbell) will add an additional layer of difficulty as they are harder to stabilize. Carolina will scale the front squats to a front rack lunge, making it easier for maintain an upright torso and, therefore, the dumbbells in a more solid position. The push jerks present similar difficulties for an athlete with immobile and asymmetrically weak shoulders. Carolina’s coach suggests switching to a light barbell, which she will be able to more easily stabilize overhead as compared to dumbbells.

Carolina will have no trouble completing box jumps, even at the RX height of 20-inches. Carolina is still working to build her overall fitness in the realm of gymnastics, so will have to scale the pull-up. Working with her coach, Carolina establishes that the last few times pull-ups have come up in the programming, she scaled them to ring rows and band-assisted pull-ups. This time, her coaches advise her to scale them to jumping pull-ups. Carolina’s workout, when scaled, looks like this:

In 12 Minutes:
Buy In: Run 400m, then
6 Dumbbell Front Rack Lunge (25-lbs)
6 Barbell Push Jerk (45-lbs)
10 Box Jump (20”)
10 Jumping Pull-up

This scaled version of the workout will give Carolina almost the exact same stimulus as someone completing the full RX version. Lunges will keep Carolina in a more upright position, saving her thoracic spine and decreasing the risk of rounding out her back and, therefore, injury. Switching to a barbell for the push jerks will allow her to work on her shoulder strength and mobility while still protecting it from the difficulties associated with dumbbell push jerks (a movement she will progress towards with time and effort). Carolina’s athletic background and experience in sport give her full access to RX box jumps. She has chosen to perform jumping pull-ups as it is a scaling option she has not done recently. By constantly switching up how she scaled pull-ups, she will develop a more well-rounded capacity throughout her shoulder and thus increase her pulling strength.

Scaling, Both an Art and a Science

There are a few hard and fast rules, universal truths, to scaling. Beyond those truths, there is a great deal of room for some informed free-styling, experimentation, and fun. The following are non-negotiable elements of scaling:

  1. Scale movements to ensure they can be completed with safe mechanics given the intensity (the weight and complexity of a movement), and volume (the total number of repetitions.)

  2. Scale workouts and movements in such a way that the intention and stimulus of the workout and the movements are preserved.

  3. When in doubt, ask your coach.

As long as athletes stay within the aforementioned parameters, it is hard to go wrong when scaling. Scaling is one of the few universal constants, and one of the many beautiful things, about the CrossFit training methodology. The training and programming should present athletes of all abilities with challenges. These challenges serve to keep us humble, hungry, and coming back for more in the quest to constantly increase our work capacity across broad, time, modal, and age domains.

Challenge yourself. Have fun. And do not cross the Vantasner Danger Meridian.

Andrew Killion