CrossFit prides itself on universal scalability – the ability to adapt any exercise to any person regardless of age, weight, disability, etc. As a general physical preparedness (GPP) program, this is beneficial because it can assist anyone from an elite athlete looking to tweak their performance to an 80 year old looking to just get out of bed in the morning. Usually though, the very nature of timing workouts and recording scores will draw competitive people to CrossFit. While this can be beneficial for us to push each other in a positive way, I believe it’s very easy to fall into the trap of focusing solely on doing a workout as prescribed (Rx’d). While it is a great accomplishment to get “Rx” next to your name, we need to look at how you got there and if it is appropriate. If you’re wondering why you’ve hit a plateau, or why you aren’t progressing as fast as you want, this post is for you.
For most folks, CrossFit is the first time in their life they have really worked HARD (if not, it’s usually the first time since high school or college sports) This can lead to big results in the first few months of training: fat loss, strength gains, and overall better health. However, you should not fall into the trap that most people do and be content with that initial progress. Mark Rippetoe, a premier strength and conditioning coach, writes about the Novice Effect in the link below.
He basically says that simply by doing hard work, your body adapts and becomes stronger, but if you do not continue to train your body to become stronger, it will hit a sticking point. If you’re wondering why you don’t have a pull-up yet, or why your deadlift suddenly stays the same, you may have hit the Novice Effect. So how do you become stronger and therefore better? Linear progression. Keep moving the weights up in small increments and do not be content with your current performance. However, we need to first know HOW to move these weights before even thinking about adding on those plates.
WHY YOU SHOULD SCALE
How many of you have power cleaned before CrossFit? Or even deadlifted? Chances are, not many. Elite athletes take YEARS to learn these movements and in large part, this is all they do. Olympic lifters will do cleans and snatches every other day. We may have cleans once a week, usually once every 2 weeks. We need to focus on the MECHANICS of movements first, using light weight. Fundamentals classes cover the nine foundational movements (squat, front squat, overhead squat, press, push press, push jerk, deadlift, sumo deadlift, medball clean) but this is not enough. You should be practicing at a light weight in wods and if you have the time/money, get some private sessions in. As you learn more, you realize just how much MORE there is to learn!
Once you have the mechanics down, be CONSISTENT. You should be able to walk in any day and be able to get the basic movement down, especially for Olympic lifts. Repetition is key. Only then can you move up in INTENSITY.
INTENSITY = THE GOOD STUFF
In CrossFit world, the name of the game is intensity. You become better, faster, stronger because of INTENSITY. Your body will adapt quicker and get stronger if you go at workouts with intensity. And in CrossFit, intensity = power. If POWER = [(FORCE x DISTANCE)/TIME], then you can raise your intensity by increasing your weight, increasing your distance, or lowering your time. But there needs to be a careful balance so that if you increase your weight or distance a little bit, you don’t take forever to complete the wod. This is the careful balance of scaling.
CrossFit.com workouts are intended for elite athletes. We don’t expect you to come in and do wods Rx’d right away. Or even in a few months. Or maybe even in your first year. Depending on your athletic background, it might be years before you do something Rx’d. That’s ok! I would rather you scale and be INTENSE on a workout that is supposed to take 10 minutes than do Rx’d and take 50 minutes. Remember, Intensity = The Good Stuff. But you can only be Intense by Preserving the Stimulus.
Let’s take Fran for example: 21-15-9 of thrusters (65#/95#) and pullups. The firebreathers of CrossFit can do this in under 3 minutes. Their arms and lungs are on fire and they can’t move for 10 minutes after the workout. If a guy walks in the gym and wants to do this as Rx’d but takes 25 minutes to do Fran, he’s lost the stimulus. He’s lost the point of the workout. We don’t expect you to do Fran in 3 minutes, but you should scale it to get the work done quickly, maybe around 5-10 minutes. You can scale the weight of thrusters, you can use a band for pullups, you can do a rep scheme of 12-9-6. By preserving the stimulus, you get all of that Good Stuff and will become stronger and faster QUICKER over time than you would by doing a 25 minute Fran.
Using a power calculator from Catalyst Athletics, we can make up a character who is 6ft. 190lbs and does a 95# Fran in 15 minutes. Their power output is 63 watts. If you drop that weight to 65# and he gets the work done in 9 minutes, his power just jumped to 92 watts. He upped his intensity. The physical and neurological benefits he receives from a higher power output will do better for him than struggling through a Rx’d Fran. In other words, by dropping the weight, his body will ADAPT more quickly and therefore become stronger and faster.
WHEN SHOULD I SCALE?
If you are unfamiliar with clean and jerks, you should scale the weight to get the mechanics and consistency down. Same goes for things like double unders. Scale the reps down to half so you can get the double under practice or scale them up and do double the amount of single unders. If you are injured and have a broken arm, do one-armed jumping pullups or dumbbell thrusters with one arm. Make it work for the intent of the WOD.
Sometimes you are familiar with a movement, but heavy weight sacrifices form. For instance, “Diane” calls for 225# deadlifts. You might know how to deadlift, but if it means rounding your back, scale the weight. With that said, if the intent of the WOD is to do heavy deads, then DO heavy deads, but relative to you.
Sometimes you can handle the movement, and even the weight, but you are gassed after one round. A workout like “Kelly” is 5 rounds of running 400m, 30 box jumps, and 30 wallballs. You probably can do all of these movements, but if it takes you 2 hours, you’ve lost the point. Scale the reps to 15 each, or do 3 rounds, or a combo of those. Keep the intensity, I don’t want to see “Rx – 85 minutes” on the board.
Not as much of a problem for those who belong to a box, but for those at a Globo gym or home gym, you can scale equipment. For instance, if you don’t have rings, scale a muscle up to 3 pullups, 3 dips. You still preserve that stimulus of pulling your bodyweight up and pushing your bodyweight up.
WHEN SHOULD I NOT SCALE?
If you can maintain form, go for the heavier weight. It will make you stronger. Just make sure your time domain doesn’t go out the window.
TO BE FIRST
If you are simply trying to get the fastest time in the box, don’t. Challenge yourself and be honest if you can do the work. Maybe you won’t be the fastest, but you need to do what is best for you and your adaptation to get stronger and faster.
Don’t ask to do 2 rounds of a 5 rounder just because you don’t feel like doing the rest. (Wo)man up and do it.
CASE STUDY – FRAN
When I first started CrossFit, I would scale EVERYTHING: Weight, reps, rounds, movements. I had to teach myself what a “clean” was, I didn’t have the strength to move anything remotely heavy, and I didn’t have the cardiorespiratory endurance to do most WODs fully. As an example, check out my Fran times and the weights used for thrusters:
3/31/08 – 5:20 @ 45# – two months after starting CrossFit
7/24/08 – 5:15 @ 65# – bump up in weight but maintaining low time (more power output)
August – took about a month off, so only sporadic wod’s
9/15/08 – 6:16 @ 65# – the time off shows in a slower time (less power output)
2/13/09 – 5:06 @ 65# – still somewhat sporadic with training, joined CF KoP over the summer and trained consistently
10/10/09 – 4:24 @ 95# (Rx’d) – consistent with training, esp. strength training
Two points I want you to take away from this. One is that unless you already come from a strength/high intensity background, EVERYONE will scale something. For me, while I could do pullups, the thruster weight was too much. Second, you don’t need to do the actual workout to get better at it. It was 8 months between Frans and I not only bumped up to Rx’d, but I dropped time by 30 seconds. Pushing the intensity is how I progressed and how a lot of people (especially firebreathers) progress. I also focused more on strength training and doing heavy, slow lifts. It’s amazing what deadlifting, squatting, and pressing can do.
HOW DO I SCALE?
You can scale a lot of different elements in a workout. Weight. Reps. Rounds. Type of movement. Range of motion. How do you know what to scale? If you belong to a box, ask your coaches. You can have a discussion and based on different criteria (past performance, 1 rep max, how you’re feeling that day, injuries, etc) you can decide what is best to scale. If you don’t, I recommend going to BrandX. Each day they post several levels of scaling for the mainpage WOD. I followed this for 1.5 years before I joined KoP and it helped immensely.
FEW ODDS AND ENDS
While I recommend scaling to keep the intensity, you should also not use it as a crutch. Figure out what your weaknesses are and work on them. For most walking through these doors, it’s absolute strength and skills. So what should you do? Supplement the WODs with strength training and skill sessions! By getting stronger (doing deadlifts, power cleans, heavy squats, etc.) and cognitively learning skills (double unders, olympic lifts, etc.) you will have that Rx next to your name even quicker. This is especially true for those of you who can’t do kipping pullups yet. While the band is great during workouts, you should be supplementing with static holds, a few negative pullups (only a few since high reps may lead to unpleasant things like rhabdo), and other strength work to build up that arm strength. Challenge yourself by using thinner bands. It may take awhile but it will be worth the effort!!
This article is not intended for all of you to suddenly go out and ask to drop weight/reps/rounds for no reason. Instead, it’s my hope that you’ll realize the benefits of scaling and be ok when a coach asks you to drop weight from a heavy barbell. You should look at the bigger picture and see value in INTENSITY. Even if you do not scale, remember that you can still strength train, do skill sessions, and reduce your rests during WODs, all to increase that intensity. So while the Rx is nice to get and a great goal to have, don’t sacrifice long term progress for short term success. The fact that you finished a workout does not matter as much as HOW you got there.
To give you some perspective, Jason Khalipa, winner of the 2008 CrossFit Games, had to scale his very first CrossFit workout: Fran. He did jumping pullups x2 and completed it in 12 minutes.
What are your thoughts on scaling? Do you chase that Rx? What are some things you need to work on to get that Rx?