How to Scale Your CrossFit Workouts

It is not hard to find advice about anything these days. We are inundated with lists, articles, instagrams, etc. telling us what to do and how to do it. This free, open-source information can be a great tool as we develop our lifestyles, training, and nutrition. So much so, that it was the basis of the idea for CrossFit from the beginning; an open source community for solving the problem of how people should train and eat to reach their genetic potential (see the CrossFit Journal as an example). The problem, however, with any open source information system, is that you have to filter the nonsense from the useful.

As coaches we are here to do that for you. I love it when someone sends me something and asks my opinion. Sometimes it is just wrong, and sometimes I learn something myself. So keep asking your questions and we will keep learning together!

Today we are talking about scaling. This is something I have written a few articles about. I tried to go back and find one of those articles and quickly realized it is hard to find stuff from two years ago since we have made over 1,000 posts to our website! So, I am going to work on finding all of our good articles from the past and compile a list on a new “Articles” page categorized by training, nutrition, etc. I will let you know when that gets done. On to today’s topic…

The Most Comprehensive Guide to Scaling CrossFit Workouts, Ever.

Internet experts will say everything from, “If you aren’t moving as fast as the fastest person, you haven’t scaled enough.” To “never scale weight if you want to get stronger.” Obviously it is more complicated, and there is a middle ground.

The Beauty of CrossFit Metcons

One of the great things about CrossFit is that to an extent, the workouts auto-scale, auto-adjust, auto-modify, based on the athletes abilities. For a simple example, lets look at Fran. 45 Thrusters & 45 Pullups For Time at 95/65, a weight that’s light for some and heavy for some.

A strong athlete that is proficient at pullups and has good endurance may complete the entire workout in 2-3 minutes and will view the workout as a sprint, pushing for maximum intensity, testing grit and the ability to keep going when the burn tells them to rest. This will test and improve endurance and conditioning much more than strength.

A weaker athlete that has a more difficult time with pullups, or struggles with multiple reps at the prescribed weight, will obviously have to rest more and have a slower time. So, is this a bad thing or a problem? Should they scale and modify until they can do the workout in 3 minutes or less? Anyone that’s ever done Fran, knows that it doesn’t matter if it takes 2 minutes or 10 minutes, it’s a beat down and a lung burner. The challenge and stimulation however, may vary based on the athlete’s strengths and weaknesses. For some, the challenge may be that the weight is heavy and for others it may be purely aerobic. If the weight is difficult, that stimulus will make you stronger. If you are breathing hard, that stimulus will make your lungs better.

Let’s simplify it. Our workouts will attack your weaknesses. Your job is to simply do the best you can, and work on those weaknesses in your training via strength work, skill work, and aerobic conditioning. The point is, heavy is not a bad thing. If you are moving correctly, it doesn’t matter how heavy it is, the odds of injury are very low. However, if you are moving incorrectly, it doesn’t matter how light it is, the odds of injury are increased.

Making Good Decisions

So heavy is not necessarily bad, but there will always be such a thing as too heavy, or too difficult. So let’s talk about how you know when to pull the plug on your Rx dreams.

The Point of the Workout
Every workout is designed to create a certain stimulus and the first thing you need to do is try to figure out what is. Some workouts are low in reps and designed to push intensity with heavy loads, others are designed to push intensity with fairly easy movements at high volume. This should be a good starting point for deciding if Rx is a good idea or not.

‘For Time’ Vs ‘AMRAP’
Another guideline when deciding how/if to scale is to look at the style of workout. Workouts that are ‘For Time’ require a specific number of reps to be completed, typically within a time cap. You should be more cautious in these situations because the fact that the clock will continue to tick until you struggle through every last rep or hit the time cap makes it more likely that you will push past usefull intensity and into the danger zone. Your goal should be to finish under the cap, moving quickly and continuously with proper form. Nothing more.

AMRAP workouts are the opposite. It simply requires you to complete as many reps as possible in the time available. These workouts, specifically if they are designed to be short and heavy (see above), are a better opportunity to test the waters of heavier loads or more advanced gymnastics. By challenging yourself with difficult movements, you will still be working hard, but the clock will be more likely to save you from doing too many reps.

How to Scale
So now we’ve covered when to scale, but how should you scale? Let’s talk about weighted movements first… Most workouts are written to be in a percentage range for the strongest athletes and maybe a slightly higher percentage for athletes needing to get stronger. Refer to your coaches regarding what a decent percentage for a given workout may be.

I’d love to share a simple spreadsheet listing rep ranges and percentages with you, but it varies greatly depending on the what the movement is, what other movements are involved, how long the workout is, AMRAP vs Time, your technical proficiency, etc. Let’s simplify it more than that. Break it down, and try to decide whether it should be light, medium, heavy. From there you can find a weight range, try a few reps and pick a starting weight.

For the gymnastic or bodyweight movements, you need variety in modifications. Banded pullups are a great tool, but don’t get stuck doing the same thing every time. Change the amount of bands based on the workout. High reps: use more assistance and work on doing big sets. Low reps: go with less assistance and do a couple at a time. Occasionally try ring-rows, or jumping pullups, or even negatives. A good rule of thumb for gymnastic movements is to see what it looks like for the better athletes. If the fastest Rx athlete is doing 2 or 3 pullups at a time, the person scaling with a superband and doing sets of 15 probably isn’t receiving the right stimulus or adaptation. As I mentioned in the Fran example, if a movement is difficult for you, it’s suppose to be. The struggle is what makes you better.

If your assisted movement is easier for you than the prescribed movement is for the better athletes, it may be too easy. And it goes the other way as well, if you are doing one at a time with assistance or scaled weight, and the Rx athletes are doing sets of 20, it may be time for change.

New to CrossFit?
So you’re new and feel like you just read something in a foreign language? Take a breath, I’m going to keep it real simple for you… Make every movement easy. If you are new, every movement you do in a metcon should be easy by itself. That light barbell movement or easy ring row is plenty challenging as they are combined with other movements and high reps. As you and your body adapts to the challenge you will be able to increase the challenge of the workouts, but it let it come to you, don’t force it. Have fun and challenge yourself to learn proper technique and full range of motion before increasing the weight or difficulty.

Learning from Mistakes
We all bite off more than we chew at times, it happens. When this happens, you typically notice that the wheels are falling off pretty quickly. Don’t hesitate to make a change. Then make a mental note for the future.

Try to make small steps forward, always progressing. And as always, engage your coaches if you are not sure about scaling options.

Coach Chris Coker


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