Rambling Thoughts on Scaling

Ah scaling, the great debate of CrossFit. (Hey look, CrossFit has a capital C, and a capital F! Learn to spell it right people!)

Firstly, scaling is intrinsically linked to individualising programmes and is as the ability to make one programme fit. There’s a massive trend towards individualised programming amongst CrossFitters. We’re all unique and special snowflakes and we need our own highly specific approach, right?

Well, maaaaybe you do, maybe you don’t.

As I’ve said before, the environment is more important than programming, and a good program applied well is far better than the perfect program applied poorly (either through bad coaching, half-assing it, or applying it incorrectly.)

If my hand was forced, we don’t really really need SUPER individualised programming. What we may need is individualised focus, and individualised homework. That way we can keep the team environment up without turning it into a bunch of people in the room together training.

Also, truly individualised programming is largely a myth. Athletes will be put on similar templates, and similar workouts can be used across different athletes. Not 100% of your workouts and their components 100% of the time are going to suit you. But I mean if you hit a workout that addresses your particular needs 90% of the way, that’s pretty good, right? We all need to squat, snatch, hit pull ups etc., and we all need to do metcons.

I’m in favour for individualisation when it’s warranted, not just when it’s demanded because you don’t feel the program is unique enough to your sophomore abilities. Individualisation is more to do with changing the periphery, rather than the core. The focus on your snatch work can be elbow speed, or the first pull. But everyone can snatch. The focus on your homework can be more cardio, and less strength. Whereas for someone else is more gymnastic work, and less mobility. At the end of the day, we’ve all got to come back and hit Thrusters and Pull Ups in The Open.

This evil bastard will surprise is all once again.  (If Castro is reading, "bastard" is a term of endearment in Ireland.)

This evil bastard will surprise is all once again.
(If Castro is reading, “bastard” is a term of endearment in Ireland.)

But let’s take a little step back from that for the time being. What’s the point of scaling? This seems like an easier question to answer than it is. Is scaling there to further the needs of the athlete, make people feel part of the workout, or just a cop out from coaches/programmers so we don’t have to address the needs of everyone in our class?

Whether you scale or not can often be looked at as where the victory is going to come: today or tomorrow? This is a constant battle in programming and training. How much sacrifices today should we make for tomorrow? Because I’m a future orientated person I’ll tend to err on the side of sacrificing a win today for a much bigger win tomorrow. The drawback to this kind of thinking is that you can keep pushing off tomorrow forever. There has to be a day when it’s laid on the line and you go for it.

A great example of today versus tomorrow thinking would be a workout that starts with pull ups, before moving on to say Overhead Squats. Jane (she’s Linda’s sister btw) loves her overhead squats, and is relatively quite good at them. However, she’s quite poor at pull ups. Now, she could get out a band, and knock out three sets of 5 with 10 seconds rest to get her first fifteen pull ups out of the way and enjoy the sweet, sweet feel of knurling in her hand as she snatches her first OHS into position. This way, she’ll get through the workout.

But, Jane has also put down on the board that her goal is to get from 1 to 3 strict pull ups. She can do 1 pull up every 60 second for 15 pull ups, so she decides that she’ll sacrifice the OHS today in order to develop her pull ups. If her strategy of 1 every 60 seconds works, the next pull up workout she can attempt 1 every 50-55 seconds, and start bringing that rest down.

"I could go strict, but a green band lets me go FAST! And I'm totes gonna bitch about not getting my pull ups in a few months too"

“I could go strict, but a green band lets me go FAST! And I’m totes gonna bitch about not getting my pull ups in a few months too”

In the end, it all comes down to purposely and consciously choosing what you want to achieve out of a workout piece. Just because the word “conditioning” or “metcon” is placed before a piece does not mean that the only benefit will occur if you get out of breath, break a sweat, or lie on the floor afterwards. (Don’t go hypoxic bro).

So, if we make a choice before a workout what we’re going to concentrate, this allows us to have “individualised” training in the same workout. The guy who needs to work on his deadlifts can take the time and pull heavy singles or triples in Diane. The girl who needs to build up her HSPU can decide that each minute on the minute she’s going to hit a strict HSPU.

Not to get too far off topic but generally I disagree that you need a strict version of the movement before you need a kipping version.

Firstly, kipping is a controlled reversal of the body shape from an arch to a hollow. It is NOT curling your feet back, throwing your knees forward, and then humping the air, kicking twice and giraffe-necking to get your chin over the bar, before slamming back down to a violent and uncontrolled pull on the shoulders.

If you’re controlling the hollow and arch ‘swing’ from your shoulders, your connective tissue is only being exposed to a force/load it itself has generated, and it can control. A strict movement is asking the muscles to contract to bring you over the bar and then control the descent. Solid proper gymnastic kipping good. Air humping pull ups bad.

NOT Connected!

NOT Connected!

HSPU are a little different than bar and ring kips. With Kipping HSPU, we can get to the place where we no longer control the descent and our head crashes into the ground. This means our poor vertebrae have to take the brunt of the impact. We all know, it’s science after all, that once our muscles can’t contract eccentrically we’re fucked, so for this reason I’d advice strict HSPU for the win. The eccentric contraction (lowering from a handstand into a headstand) is stronger than the concentric, so you can kip out of a HSPU if, and only if, you can control yourself completely to the ground. And stop once you can’t control this descent no more.

And then, we have the speed merchant who has got his deadlifts and HSPU down, can work on cycle time and getting a new Diane PR. They might go anaerobic, brah. Same workout, wildly different approach depending on goals and the athlete.

Each workout should have an aim, and there’s plenty of workouts where there is no need or desire to scale. Wall balls and burpees are going to be gassy no matter what, so this is most likely a workout to build your engine. By that same token a Heavy Power Clean and Weighted Chins is clearly building strength/strength endurance, so it makes sense to go heavier. Not every “metcon” should have the same effect, and there’s no need for them all to leave you feeling wiped.

It doesn't have to always be like this!

It doesn’t have to always be like this!

Provided the class know what the point is, and they should – that’s why they’re paying coaches after all – you can then adapt your strategy and scale accordingly. If they make the aim of the workout primarily about development, then we can ignore the finish time on the clock and use the clock as a way of controlling work:rest.

Every once in a while, and no more than once a week if even, we should throw caution to the wind and just go for it. The workout itself should be a game day event, and while we shouldn’t throw strategy clean out the window, breakdown and “failure” are completely acceptable. A 500m row where we start at a 1:33 pace and fade to a 1:42 on the last 100m is okay. A 500m row where we start at 1:33 and end at 2:22 is far from okay though.

Scaling can be the great excuse to avoid what you’re poor at. You can scale your pull ups so you can avoid feeling upset at the fact you’re bad at them. You can scale that push press down to 50Kg instead of 70Kg so you can feel stronger and faster. And I’ll admit there’s a great allure in not feeling like the slowest, and finishing with everyone else. This is getting a victory today at the expense of your long term development. And sometimes, you need for your workout to just be about movements and not having any bottlenecks or roadblocks. These are the days when you don’t have the mental reserves to hold yourself back when needs be, and force yourself to do the “unfun” stuff.

But, what happens when The Open runs around? And because you never took the time to try Chest to Bar pull ups because it required more effort up front than you were willing to give on that training day. Now you’re screwed.

We all need daily victories in our training. While some days it is about just getting your sweat on, I have a strong distain that the victory of the day needs to be finishing the workout. I think this is where scaling falls down. I totally bitched “Fran” in 4 minutes, only 30 seconds behind the top dog in the class. I mean, I scaled the thruster down to 30Kg, and did my pull ups with the green band so I could go faster, but I totally nailed it.

Yeah, you nailed it at the expense of seriously slowing down, if not reversing, your progress.

If the victory of the day is successfully holding a strategy, not blowing up, and getting a good workout in without feeling fucked, then that’s much better. It requires a little bit more effort up front, but the payoff is much greater for you.

Like I said, there’s days when we just gun it, but these days are few and far between. Most days, it’s gotta be more about a smart approach. Remember, #thegrind isn’t just a cool line for your Instagram!

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