Saturday, 22 August 2009

Why Scale?

Universal scalability is a hallmark of the CrossFit protocol.  It's one of the reasons CrossFit has spread so quickly: implemented correctly, anyone can do it, and see amazing results.  Scaling is an important part of athletic development, but many CrossFitters are hesitant to do so.  Today, we're going to try to convince you that scaling is not only okay, but advantageous.  Then we'll discuss how to know when you need to scale a workout, and how best to go about it.

Why scale?

It is important to remember that the prescribed loads and rep schemes in a workout are arbitrary.  What I mean is this: the workouts on are designed to elicit a specific effect, and the loads and reps are chosen to elicit that effect in high level CrossFit athletes.  Without scaling, many people will not achieve the desired effect of the workout.

For an example, let's look at "Diane"
21-15-9 reps for time:
Deadlift 225#
Handstand Pushups

The above video showcases one of the fastest times seen on "Diane."  It also displays the desired effect: an athlete should be able to move through "Diane" at a fast pace for a potent metabolic hit.  The deadlifts are not meant to be heavy, and the handstand pushups should not break down to the point of seriously reducing the metabolic impact of the workout.

How about "Angie"
For time:
100 pullups
100 pushups
100 situps
100 squats

If you've got a pullup max of 3, 100 is going to take a long time.  Too long.  In fact, it will result in diminished returns.  The desired effect of "Angie" is (for most athletes) in large part muscular endurance, and in smaller part metabolic conditioning.  Both goals can be achieved for any athlete by properly scaling the reps and/or movements.

How do I know when I need to scale my workouts?

Simple: When doing the workout as prescribed will result in a failure to achieve the desired effect, scale it!  If your max deadlift is 275# and you can't do more than 3 handstand pushups in a set, doing "Diane" as prescribed will not elicit the desired effect.  If you've got 3 pullups, 10 pushups, and can't do more than 20 squats without stopping, the reps in "Angie" need to be brought down.  Proper scaling will result in higher power output, and as we know, intensity is paramount.

Next post will give a few examples of scaling workouts to certain deficiencies.

Post thoughts to comments.


Bigschu said...

Fantastic topic of discussion and something that is, IMO, very important for new athletes to understand! Since the average CF practitioner seems to fall into the type A, overachieving, leaning forward category, a solid understanding of the need for and use of scaling can help put them in the right frame of mind to be successful.

RDCP said...

I agree, very important topic. I have a few questions which might be addressed in the next post.

First of all, you focus here on scaling down, but what about scaling up? I know that the main page is designed for elite athletes, and that dropping 30 seconds off a 3 minute fran is a worthy goal, but it seems to me that there might be a case for sometimes scaling up weight or reps. In a sense, you are doing this with Auvest. When is this appropriate?

Also, is there a case for intentionally not scaling? For example, if an athlete is not strong enough to complete fran in 5 minutes, but still can complete fran, should he or she ever just slog through it? Would this depend on if the fran in question was 9 minutes or 20?

Andrew said...

This is a great topic, and I am glad that CrossFit Monterey is an advocate of scaling. Even more, the coaches know where each athlete is at and are great at recommending weights. If I looked at Angie 3 months ago when I started CrossFit, it would seriously take me 90 minutes or so. Luckily it did not show up until I could do it as RX'd, and I am very stoked with my time of 24:20. For many beginners and intermediate CrossFit folks (like me), scaling is something tangible and quantifiable that will challenge me to go increase the next time, up to the RX weight. From there, I can work on going down in time or going for more rounds in an AMRAP. For many WOD's, the weights and gymnastic skills are just something to work up to--and it may take a year to get a muscle-up, but if one keeps working at it (my goal for 2009), then there is progress!

Edwin said...

I really appreciate the article and it's provided some great food for thought. I've been able to complete all workouts as Rx'd since starting Crossfit so my assumption has always been that I am to continue to do them as Rx'd. Linda tends to take me between 45 minutes, I wonder if a quicker path to a 30 minute Linda would be to scale it somehow? Also, I wonder how periodization of scaling could work. It may be interesting to scale down the weights or rounds by 20% for a few weeks to increase pacing, or the opposite to build more strength. I'd be interested in hearing what other "always-as-Rx'd but never the best time" crossfitters think about scaling workouts you can complete in decent times in order to get more fit.

Dale Saran said...

See my comments from a few days ago on this. While I agree with Jake and Russ, in principle (there are times and circumstances where you need to scale), I disagree that "framer's intent" is really why one should scale. The idea that the workout is "intended" to give a particular benefit based upon the times of very good CF'ers is a mistake, IMO.

Distinctions based upon the artificial constructs of "metcon", "cardio", "strength", etc. are just that - Constructs. They are terms to help us understand how the body works, but they're not the whole picture and they are artificial. They also ignore the limitations and strengths of the particular athlete.

I could go on and on, but read my post from 8/28 before attacking me. It's why scaling up is also a reasonable option. My Fran is probably around 3 and a little bit. The training time I would spend trying to get under 3 by simply doing Fran as rx'd would be better spent, IMO, by scaling up to a Fat Fran and doing the whole thing with a vest on (for example).

The goal of CF is not some arbitrary time on a particular WoD. It's the ability to do all of the challenges that can come at you. So, is scaling necessary - absolutely. Should you scale in order to take your workout into some arbitrary time domain? I disagree. Let me provide one example that may help illustrate the point.

Let's suppose hypothetical athlete A can do Helen in 10:30. An elite time is sub 8 mins. Suppose I can complete all of the pullups and kb swings without stopping - it's just that I'm a slow runner. Would anyone advocate "scaling" the run to a 200m run instead of a 400m? If so, why? If not, think about why not.

Tsypkin said...

Dale: I think your argument is valid when used for athletes a certain level. For example, you said:

"Let's suppose hypothetical athlete A can do Helen in 10:30. An elite time is sub 8 mins. Suppose I can complete all of the pullups and kb swings without stopping - it's just that I'm a slow runner. Would anyone advocate "scaling" the run to a 200m run instead of a 400m? If so, why? If not, think about why not."

A 10:30 "Helen" is still fast enough that the intended effects are being achieved. Now, let's say athlete A can't run more than 100m without stopping and resting, and thus rather than a 10:30 "Helen," they get a 20 minute "Helen." That being the case, yes, I would advocate scaling the run to a shorter distance.

John Frazer said...

I see something to say for either approach.

I vividly remember my first "Helen." Took 29 minutes and change with an 18-lb. KB and I thought I'd die. Now I fight to break 11:30 with a 44# KB and feel much the same.

On the other hand, the difference between a 5-minute "Grace" and a 7-minute "Grace" feels as if it's not even the same workout.

Dale Saran said...


I'll disagree and say that your "intended benefit" approach misses the point. It's not the "intended benefit" that's important - it's the "actual benefit" to the individual.

If Helen takes me 20 mins, then it takes me 20 mins. I'm not "missing out" on some theoretical construct "intended benefit" if the workout challenges me in whatever way I'm weak and takes me 20 mins. Eventually, I'll get down to 15 mins, and then 12 mins, and then 10 mins, as I adapt across those broad time and modal domains.

I just have to be patient. People going for the "intended benefit" are simply unwilling to take the time and labor through their weaknesses and instead want to shorten the workout to some artificial time domain that the great athletes can do it in.

My only caveat is if you simply cannot do the called for exercise/weight scheme - e.g. if it makes such a significant portion of your 1RM or you just can't do it that you'd be unable to complete it or complete it in say 20-30 mins. Otherwise, just do it and suffer where you're weak, recover where you're not weak, and watch the unbelievable gains you make when it comes up next time.

As a for example, you saw me at the Games. I'm not weak by most measure (over 1000 CFT), but when I started, it took me over a year to be able to do Linda with the as rx'd weights. I simply couldn't clean .75 BW for that many reps in less than an hour (found that out the hard way), so I had to use .5, then .6, and eventually, after about 18 months I think, I got to .75, and it still took me a while. No I'm somewhere in the mid to low 20 min range (maybe lower, it's been a while since I've done it).

But I didn't start by scaling the weights to some number that would allow me to do it in 14 mins and I doubt I would have made the strength gains that I have had I done it that way. IT's not intended benefit that's important - it's actual benefit to the individual.