The Importance of Scaling and Understanding Intended Stimulus

Sam Corbo, CF-L2

One of the most important but misunderstood aspects of CrossFit will always be scaling. Most CrossFit journeys will reach a point where the athlete has become fluent in standard movements and noticeably stronger. The athlete may have started flirting with the idea of performing workouts as prescribed, or RX. During this time it is especially important to understand what scaling is, when, and how to scale workouts. Our daily workouts, especially the metcon, are programmed for the elite athlete and should be scaled to meet specific athletes’ abilities. Each workout has an intended stimulus – the level of intensity athletes should reach in order to reap the most benefit from any workout.

It is easy to reach the intended stimulus on heavy days. If the white board says 80% or 3 Rep Max, the weight, or intensity, for each athlete will be different so the intended stimulus is met by matching that percent or reaching a heavy load. Discerning the intended stimulus of a metcon is a bit more complicated. What should you look for? Well, here are a few things to ask yourself before loading up the barbell with the RX weight:

  1. Will I be safe performing this movement?

What’s that? You just PR’d your deadlift 1RM at 315# last week? Awesome job! Well today’s workout calls for 30 reps at 275#. Can you do this? Probably. Should you do this? Probably not. Most CrossFit athletes, at any fitness level, know how to push past their limits but at some point form will break down and athletes can become seriously injured. This is not necessarily limited to weighted movements; if an athlete just got their first few handstand pushups during open gym it is most likely not safe to do them for high reps during a metcon as neck safety can be compromised.

  1. How long SHOULD this workout take?

A lot of CrossFit articles on the interwebs tell you not to look at the whiteboard. I disagree. While obsessively comparing yourself to your secret rival in the AM class may be unhealthy, looking at how long the workout took other athletes can be helpful figuring out how to scale. Let’s say a workout calls for 30 clean and jerks at 135# for time and the majority of folks who performed the workout completed the workout in under 6 minutes. If you can perform 135# clean and jerks but will have to rest 1 minute in between reps, you should scale. The additional rest may allow you to perform the movement safely, but your body will receive a different stimulus than the athletes who scaled properly and finished with the rest of the group, and therefore will adapt differently. Injured, adaptive, and newer athletes can scale in creative ways, not only by reducing weight, but by changing movements or reducing volume (reps and rounds).

  1. How will I look during the workout? (Can I reach proper Range of Motion?)

I’m not talking about your hair or your mid workout pump, instead I’m talking about another important aspect of CrossFit, virtuosity. Standards are set for CrossFit movements for many reasons, not just so we can yell “NO REP!” If a workout includes wall ball shots, I will often warmup with air squats, not only to prep the body but to also see everyone’s range of motion. More times than not, during the warmup everyone looks up to standard with depth, but at the count of “3, 2, 1, Go!” those standards are nowhere to be found. Shallow. Squats. Everywhere. If an athlete used the prescribed weight but did not perform the movements to standard, the athlete did not perform the workout as prescribed. Not only that, but by not meeting movement standards changed the stimulus the body received. Remember that CrossFit is not only about doing kick ass workouts and lifting heavy ass weights but also improving quality of life. If you train with partial range of motion you’ll live at partial range of motion. Don’t make me bring up clichéd visuals of bodybuilders at the big box gym who can’t touch their toes. Use prescribed weights only if you can move through the whole movement – otherwise you are just cheating yourself out of half the workout.

Scaling is nothing to be ashamed of – it is simply where we are in our fitness journey. It is the sound way to stay safe and perform movements correctly. It is the only way to ensure that you are getting the most out of your workout. It is the best way to lift heavier and move faster. Remember that first workout where your limbs felt like jelly and your lungs were burning? You rolled around on the floor gasping for air, leaving trails of sweat on the floor as you stumbled to your feet. You knew you destroyed that workout and that workout destroyed you. Scaling correctly is the way to guarantee this feeling after a workout.

Use proper form, proper weights, and proper standards at all times. If you have questions on how to properly scale or what proper form looks like, ask a coach. Keep working hard! Don’t stop improving! You got this!CrossFit-Ryan-Gossling