By Coach Cameron Hudson
“Coach are you joking with that time cap?!”
“The weight for those thrusters is going to be impossible!”
“I can barely do a pull up, let alone a muscle up!”
Do these phrases sound familiar? As coaches, we hear these conversations all the time and love it. Having a fitness protocol that revolves around constant variation means that certain workouts will bolster different stimuli. This gives coaches and athletes an opportunity to find the appropriate scaling option. So, what is scaling? Today I am going to be discussing scaling and why it is one of our favorite elements as coaches.
Not to be confused with modifying, scaling is when a workout is adjusted in order to match the intended stimulus of the WOD. It does not mean that you are a terrible athlete. So, why is coach always scaling me then? A variety of factors come into play when scaling an athlete, but we tend to operate off of three main categories; volume, load and movement complexity.
Each workout is designed to have most athletes performing work for a specific amount of time. This is more than coaches just wanting to see you suffer in a variety of ways, we are targeting specific metabolic pathways (oxidative, phosphagen, glycolytic). I will not be going into details on the metabolic pathways, but if you are interested, here is an article from CrossFit that better explains them. Suppose the Workout of the Day is the CrossFit benchmark, “Diane”. Diane is 21-15-9 reps of handstand push ups and deadlifts 225/155lbs. We want athletes to approach this workout as something they can sprint through between 3-7 minutes. Having established a max time (time cap) that we would like an athlete to work for, we can ask a few questions to see if the athlete should be scaling this workout. Suppose we have a male athlete who has been coming for several months and can perform both movements as prescribed. Now this athlete can do both movements as prescribed, but will he be able to complete all/most of the reps within the time domain? His max set of handstand push ups is 3 reps, thus making an initial set of 21 seem like an enormous task that will take up much of the clock. Why not reduce the number of reps (volume) for handstand push ups? By switching to a slightly different rep scheme (possibly 9-6-3 for handstand push ups), we can help keep the athlete continue moving at a faster pace through the workout. The athlete is able to accomplish a couple of different things by altering the workout; he is able to gain some practice with handstand push ups, but more importantly he was able to match the intended metabolic pathway.
For loading, the prescribed weights are attached to a workout so that they allow an athlete to work within a specific metabolic pathway. So let’s revisit the workout, Diane, but with a different athlete. The deadlifts are prescribed at 225lbs. for males and 155lbs. for females. Let’s take a female athlete who has a 1 rep max deadlift of 160lbs. Asking her to perform 45 deadlifts at a weight just below her 1 rep max would prohibit her from staying within the time domain we laid out earlier, thus altering what type of stimulus we are looking to achieve. As I mentioned, we want athletes to have a fast pace and be able to cycle through reps without prolonged amounts of rest. If we were to scale her weight to 85#, approximately 50% of her 1 rep max, she can now hang on to the bar for larger sets and better match the intensity we are looking for.
This category straddles the line of scaling and modifying, so for today I will be focusing on the scaling side of the equation. There are often workouts that have prescribed movements that exceed our current capabilities. The more common ones are usually associated with higher level gymnastic movements, but know that movement complexity is highly individual and can be applied to all movements. To better explain, let’s take a workout that is 5 rounds of 5 bar muscle ups and 20 calories on the devil’s unicycle. As much as you are praying for me to scale the assault bike, we are going to shift our attention to the bar muscle ups. We have an athlete who is a cardio-junkie, but is relatively new and is still working on pull ups and dips. This athlete does not yet have a muscle up, but it is on their list of goals within CrossFit. For this athlete, we are going to scale the muscle ups. Being a newer athlete, we need them to get stronger and more proficient with upper body pulling and pressing. Instead of bar muscle ups, this athlete can perform jumping bar muscle ups. By doing so, the athlete is able to focus on improving both upper body strength and learning a progression for the bar muscle up so one day they will be able to ‘RX’ the workout.
One of the best parts of coaching is getting to know an athlete and their abilities so that we can properly scale workouts to help an athlete achieve their goals. I discussed scaling, mostly with regards to reducing various parts of the workout. The same logic can be applied to making movements heavier or more complex to either match the intended stimuli or to help the athlete get out of their comfort zone. As a coach, this is where we get to be creative and foster a better relationship with an athlete. So, if you are not sure why we are scaling you, ask us! We will be more than happy to help explain what is going on in our minds.