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Scaling: How Less Can Be More by Clea Weiss - CrossFit Journal

In CrossFit

June 06, 2009

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Clea Weiss explores a few good ways to scale CrossFit effectively.

Scaling is an important aspect of Crossfit, but one that’s often misunderstood. Correctly altering and customizing workouts can increase your work capacity, make training more gratifying and keep your Fran times well under 20 minutes—all good things.

The simple fact is that the WODs posted on are designed for elite athletes with CrossFit experience, and almost all new CrossFitters will have to scale their workouts. But scaling properly isn’t easy.

So how do you scale to achieve the best results?

There are various ways to scale. How to elicit the most effective response is both subtle and complex. You don’t always scale by reducing the duration of workouts, for instance. Scaling correctly will increase work capacity more efficiently than attempting to complete workouts as prescribed before you’re ready for them. Properly lowering the weight and achieving a faster time will actually yield a higher level of power.

It’s also critical to scale weight on workouts. You need to evaluate the point of the WOD. In CrossFit, one-rep max days exist for a reason: to build strength while struggling with a heavy load. If the WOD calls for 30 clean and jerks at 155 pounds, it’s clearly a met-con WOD. If you turn the workout into 30 single reps with a minute rest between them, you’ve missed the point. Lowering the rep count, altering the movements themselves, and tinkering with round and rep prescriptions are other options.

Careful scaling works—but it takes planning and experience. Track your progress, evaluate the results of your scaling and correct your mistakes. Talk to other coaches and athletes and ask for advice. Think, plan and educate yourself. Most importantly, keep at it.

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26 Comments on “Scaling: How Less Can Be More ”


Patrick Mcelhone wrote …

It is nice to see more and more information about the importance of scaling WODs to ensure the intent of the WOD is realized. This month's Performance Menu has excellent article by Pierre Auge on how to actually scale WODs to ensure the right dose is given to get the desired effect.


wrote …

Way to go Clea!! Looking forward to reading the article. We'll talk soon! Hope all is moving along smoothly as far as getting your box off the ground.


wrote …

One question, in regards to a box. Would you say its a good rule of thumb that you are scaling correctly amongst your clients if everyone finishes the workout in a 2 to 4ish min difference?? Im sure i heard this somewhere...


wrote …

Awsome article just what i needed

thx Clea


Bethany Wadsworth wrote …

Great article Clea!! You rock! See you Tuesday!


Amy Tompkins wrote …

Excellent article, thanks Clea. Sometimes it's hard to scale. As someone really slow and only moderately strong, I frequently opt for heavier weight and sacrifice time. If I can't be as fast as everyone else I at least want to be as strong as them. I really need to check my ego at the door and keep the spirit/intention of the WOD in mind.


replied to comment from Ted Spore

Absolutely not. If that were the case, then anyone with a Fran time over 6min would have to scale if they happen to workout with Speal, Rhabdo, Bionic or any of the other beasts.

Scaling is very simple on the one hand (reduce weights, reps, and/or rounds), but extremely complex and subtle on the other. Scaling is about effectively improving the work capacity of your clients across broad time and modal domains. Sometimes you need to keep it light and fast. Sometimes it's immensely beneficial to go as Rx'd and slog through it even though you're the last one done by a long time.

Be wary, be very wary, of simple rules, mathematical formulas, and catchy phrases. Human performance is immensely complex. There is no substitute for common sense, careful experimentation, and constant refinement.

Anything can be a good idea for a starting point, but beyond that, any single approach is limited. CrossFit's prescription for achieving fitness is constantly varied, functional movement executed at (relatively) high intensity. For optimizing a broad, inclusive fitness, we need to vary everything, including our approaches to scaling.


wrote …

Outstanding article, well written and very helpful


wrote …

Great article - and great addendum, thanks Tony. Been having the 'less is more' epiphany in my training of late and glad to see it addressed in the Journal. Paul


wrote …

The article, which was really encouraging, since scaling is a way of life for me at this time and am glad to know I am not alone. I am new to this and am engulfing all the information I can for training my mind in addition to training my body.
I have tried to find the Mark Rippetoe Article "Starting Strength" but am unable to find it. any ideas?


replied to comment from Georgianne Sandberg

Never mind... I found "Starting Strength" I thought it was an article at first.


wrote …

Tony, as usual, great to see your comments whenever they enter the CrossFit Ether. This was a good article, especially for the lone crossfitter. For those of us that are training athletes in our boxes, I think Pierre Auge's article starts to explore a more systematic method of scaling, especially "relative intensity" as relates to our varied populations that make up any given group class. This dovetails well with Dutch Lowy's prescription for effective programming, which is to have the desired outcome in hand before programming, and to strive to have a tight grouping of times relative to the top tier rx'd performers in your group. In short, effectively tailoring the scaling relative to the athlete to ensure maximal power output relative to the athlete.

Tony, it's easy for the legions of "geek" trainers that lurk in all of us to start to really focus on this, in an effort to maximize the performance of all of our athletes. It would be invaluable for me if you could tease out the point you made about it sometimes being better for an athlete to slug it out, even if their performance comes in dead last, by a long shot, at minimal power output beyond the desired effect of the WOD.

Much appreciated,

CrossFit San Elijo


wrote …

I really enjoyed this workout and is something that has lurked in the back of my mind through many a WOD, especially since I took a sabbatical and had to start myself almost from scratch. Scaling is a humbling experience, but trying to do Angie as Rx'd after a long layoff had me struggling for over a week with crippling soreness. I think it was a mild form of rhabdo and don't recommend it one bit. I am still searching for that scaling science and I hope I find others to assist with it. I'm sure there are many who are smarter at programming and scaling out there that may beat me at this. I welcome it as long as I can help spread the word.


replied to comment from Erik Preston

My position comes from an immense respect for the complexity of human performance. I don't think we can know nearly enough to get really specific. Now, if you're training a single athlete for a specific sport (say an Oly meet), maybe you can get really refined. But if you're looking for an adaptation in GPP, it's way too complex.

For example, look at the Deadlift/Doubleunder workout from the MidAtlantic Regional Qualifier that was also used for the Last Chance Online Qualifer (talking 2009 CrossFit Games qualifiers here). The workout is 3 rounds for time of 10 deadlifts (275/185) and 50 Doubleunders. I think this is an excellent workout and wouldn't hesitate to use it in my affiliate if I had one. Obviously, many if not most affiliate clients would have to scale this workout.

Addressing your question, though, what is the specific purpose of this workout? I don't think you can say. For someone like Eric O'Connor (whose video of this workout made the main site, this is a metcon-concentration (mental focus) workout because he's strong and super competent in the DUs. If someone is super strong in the deadlift but struggles with the DUs, this workout becomes a skill-development session. For an athlete great at DUs but relatively weak in the DL, this becomes a strength workout. And, for someone good (not great) at both DLs and DUs, this becomes a grinder incorporating strength, stamina, endurance, skills, focus, etc.

Honestly, I think this is all damn-near ideal. It's brilliant programming that allows nature to determine much of the impact and outcome. In fact, if you had predetermined that this workout was to be "X" and scaled everyone such that their weaknesses were accommodated, you'd have done a major disservice to them.

So much of GPP is being prepared for anything. The reality is that anyone who is capable of performing all the main site WODs as Rx'd, even with "mediocre" times, is very well prepared for the general demands of life (barring the extremes of course).

Most of the typical clients who come to affiliates would benefit from improvements in all ten physiological adaptations (endurance, strength, stamina, etc.). Most of the main site WODs work most (if not all) of the ten. There are obvious exceptions of course, such as the 1RM strength workouts and the 5K runs. But they are and should be a minority of GPP training.

Another piece, which perhaps more specifically addresses the question of when to slog through, is to look at your clients individually and see what they need. When I was one of the regular trainers at CrossFit Santa Cruz back in the day, I would often force our regular women to scale heavier than they wanted. Why? Because they were comfortable going lighter and faster (and they were already getting plenty of that). Their movements were sufficiently stable that they could handle going a bit heavier. And, their aversion to going heavier was an impediment to their overall fitness.

Amy Tompkins above is an example of the other direction. She likes going heavy and needs to experiment with lighter and faster.

Bottom line is life just isn't that simple. Formulas and overly specific rules, in my experience, miss out on this robustness. Again, anything can be a good starting point, but there's no substitute for the watchful eye of a caring and discriminating trainer.


wrote …

Sources say there is going to be more about all this in an upcoming article called: "You Be The Trainer."


wrote …

Tony, thanks for a cogent response. I leave your comment with a greater appreciation of the black box, and how it relates to GPP.

In service, Erik


replied to comment from Tony Budding

"Absolutely not. If that were the case, then anyone with a Fran time over 6min would have to scale if they happen to workout with Speal, Rhabdo, Bionic or any of the other beasts."

Agreed. Tony, do you think it would be appropriate for coaches to determine a sort of upper and lower bound for times in WODs? Given a wide enough cohort and lots of data, such as the WOD comments, Logsitall or your own coaching data, you should be able to determine an appropriate upper and lower bound and take it from there.

IIRC, Jeff Martin describes Fran as something that should be done in 3-5 minutes. So scaling down you want something that you can complete in five minutes. Once you've increased your work capacity that the scaling can be done in three, you scale up to a five minute performance at heavier weights/reps, and repeat.

It seems to me that the mainsite WOD assumes specific levels of ability for their hypothetical "175lb male" with regards to max reps of bodyweight exercises, relative strength etc. As such the metabolic demand intended is very specific - to greatly deviate from this would change the effect of the WOD programming over time, and may stunt your results.

You also mention using the WOD as a skill development, using deadlifts an an example. Again, if this is killing your power output then it's being detrimental - I am under the impression that skills training precedes the WOD, and seeing as the deadlift is a fundamental movement I don't see why sacrificing the efficacy of the WOD on that day is preferable to doing the skill work in advance before even hitting a WOD with some intensity. The period of time where Coach Glassman et al suggest going through the motions to learn the movements is not a period of intensity, and doesn't need to be considering its short time scale.

I don't presume to have all the answers, nor am I an affiliate coach, but I hope I've made some valid points you can respond to.


wrote …

At face value, I don't think I would agree with the 3-5 minute Fran statement.

If I had an athlete take a very long time (very long) to finish a WOD that others would "normally" be complete faster, I might think I missed an opportunity to scale. This is something you might only know after the fact, or through experience with the particular athlete. Then, I may look at a WOD in the future and adjust based on what I now know about them to keep the WOD focused on what they specifically lacked. I really feel the need to scale for newer clients who lack stability. If someone has proven the ability to move, then I let them work the WOD. It exposes and (scary as it sounds) improves the skill that is specifically causing the out of norm time.


wrote …

Great article. This information is very timely.


wrote …

Stu, my kneejerk thoughts followed the same line of reasoning as yours, but after marinating on Tony's comments, I think that there's validity in letting a client 'slog it through'. Call it greasing the groove, or synaptic facilitation, or what have you.

Now, this doesn't necessarily mean load up a client with Rx'd weight on Fran if ROM and POP are going to fail, but arguably there's value over time with a client not jackrabbitting through with PVC and Green bands over and over again, so that their time is in a cluster with the top rx'd performers, but hey, let them roll in at 9-11 minutes. I betcha plotted over time, with Fran time as the y axis and # of repititions as the x axis, that one would see a logarithmic plot in the athletes favor.


CrossFit San Elijo


wrote …

Thoughts on scaling during the regional qualifiers?

Many of the workouts at the qualifiers had time limits (e.g complete in 15 minutes). Still, most athletes did not scale but rather received a DNF for that exercise. If a time limit is established, should athletes be encouraged to scale in order to complete the exercise within the prescribed time or should they just DNF? By encouraged, I mean with respect to the final time or points they receive which determine their final standing at the qualifier. This issue would not apply to athletes in contention for the Games but rather just for bragging rights for those of us well back in the pack.


wrote …

I think scaling is as individual as each of us and our coaches. For example, I can do 225 lb dead lifts but I am not moving it that fast so Diane will take awhile RXd. If I scale then I will meet the purpose of the WOD. The question for me has been how to make the move to RXd? My answer is this, if I have done quite a bit of met-con recently I go RXd and work the strength and if I have been working strength then scale enough to meet the metabolic demands of the WOD. I think for any intermediate crossfitter there are times to scale and a time to suck it up and push the RXd weight. Just my opinion.


replied to comment from Stu Hughes

Again, I don't see programming as that simple. I don't think there's a presumed ability built into the main site WODs nor do I think they're programmed for a 175lb athlete. They are workouts designed to challenge the world's fittest athletes, and should be scaled by everyone who needs to.

Don't oversimplify this. Power is very important, but it's not the only thing that matters, especially for athletes not conditioned enough to handle the workouts as Rx'd. I am not disagreeing with almost any approach suggested here. I am disagreeing with the narrowness implied in several places here.

Do you remember the video were several elite athletes experimented with virtual Frans? Here are folks that CAN do regular Fran in sub 3min experimenting with light Frans. Beautiful! If you've never done a broomstick Fran, you should. See what it's like.

Joe (#22), how do you move to Rx'd? Do all the above. Train your mechanics. Hit the workouts as hard as you reasonably can. Scale down. Don't scale. Do heavy days. Go for long runs. Hit your goats (things you suck at). Hit your strengths. Eat a balanced diet. Get sufficient rest. Go again.

Constantly varied functional movements performed at (relatively) high intensity result in an increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. If you continue doing so as hard as you sustainably can with boatloads of common sense and a good diet, you will find yourself capable of a tremendous amount, most likely including doing all the WODs as Rx'd.


wrote …

Tony, thanks for all your comments and time.


wrote …

As I am just starting out with crossfit, I was starting to get beat down with the intensity of the WODS. This article has bean very helpful and has probably helped me avoid an ingury down the road.


wrote …

i completed Adam Brown today and i am wondering what the appropriate scaling should be relative to 1 rm for DL, bench, and Cleans. i scaled the DL to 225 but completed the rest rx'd.

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