“Infinitely scalable” is something we stand by in CrossFit as the reason that it is for everybody, and the reason that the notion of needing to be in shape before starting is ridiculous to most coaches. The actual process of scaling a workout is often miss understood as just making something lighter or adding bands to a pull up, but when done correctly the actual reason is much more purposeful. To best explain this I think the three parts of why, when, and how work very well.
Put simply the reason why is to maintain the intended stimulus of a workout. This means being with in a specified time domain or member of reps (depending on whether it is a task or time priority workout), holding proper movement patterns (both with and without loading), and moving in the intended planes of the body. It is when any of these guidelines are not met that we need to scale. Is this always gonna be perfect and every adjustment will work out exactly right? No, because there will always be outliers, but for the large majority of the population following these three check points will often lead down the proper path.
What about putting these into actual practice though and knowing how to do it? That comes down to experience and actually doing it. To use as an example I like to use Fran because most of us have a done it in the past or at least know of what the workout entails. As a refresher Fran consists of 21-15-9 of Thrusters at 95# for men and 65# for women and chin over bar pull ups. Like most of the “Girl WODs” the general stimulus is intended to be fast, I like to say 7min or less. The proper movement patterns are maintaining a lumbar curve in the squat, proper overhead lockout, and good body position in the pull up whether kipping or not. Lastly the planes of movement are a lower push (ideally a squat), a vertical press, and an upper vertical pull.
Now there are an absurd number of ways to scale even this workout that has just two movements, so let’s keep it simple by using one athlete who is moderately proficient at gymnastics but isn’t very strong, and another athlete who does most workouts as prescribed but has a minor right pec strain. Starting with athlete one, they could have the ability to complete all the Thrusters at 95# but likely they’d have to be done in several small sets therefore taking to longer than the 7min clock. For this dropping the weight to 75# or 65# would be more appropriate for big sets, and with the pull ups the story is pretty similar. Changing to an “easier” movement isn’t so much necessary though since they have the ability to complete several pull ups, but that volume may be excessive making a rep scheme of 15-12-9 or 15-10-5 more appropriate. These adjustments to load and volume of pull ups brining the time domain back to the appropriate 5-7min. With the second athlete we actually have an example of another time for when to scale, injury! We know this athlete has the capability to perform all prescribed aspects of Fran, but the priority with an injury becomes preventing further trauma or agitation. With it localized to one side we can simply do single arm dumbbell thrusters, but for the pull ups I would suggest ring rows. This is a different plane of movement, being horizontal and not vertical, but I would think that hanging, and especially kipping, would over stretch the pec.
The important thing to keep in mind about scaling is that there’s a reason behind it, and that it’s not just “doing an easier workout”. There’s a real intention and purpose behind things when your coach suggests making an adjustment. This can be tough to accept for some people though, but that’s something I’ll get into next week.