To Scale Or Not To Scale…

        The Open is here. The Open is exciting, scary, nerve-racking…I am sure you can all think of other words that apply to this time if you are participating. If you aren’t, you are probably wondering what the big deal is. And that is totally understandable. This post should be relevant to both the aspiring competitor and the weekend warrior alike.

        The Open presents an opportunity for many CrossFit folks to test themselves in a more challenging way than they might otherwise. Some people have said they push harder because they are required to submit their results against other people, or because there are more eyeballs watching them. Many CrossFitters live for this. It can be a very fun and exhausting time simultaneously.

        Non-participants wonder why fellow gym members would submit themselves to coaches yelling in their face to move faster or worse yet- tearing, bleeding hands that sometimes take several days to heal. Both types of athletes populate every class our gym offers and both are trying to do well in finishing workouts. And yet one big question comes up for all of our people at some point: Should I scale today?

        When I am asked this question, my answer immediately comes in the form of another question: What’s the goal? Other questions come to mind also, but this one is the first and most important that I think every athlete and coach needs to consider when approaching the issue of scaling.

        I think most would agree that if a new gym member in his late sixties was faced with muscle ups in a workout, but doesn’t have the capacity to do more than a couple unassisted pull ups…scaling is a no brainer. But what if a competitive athlete with 6 years of CrossFit experience attends class on a day with one rep back squat as the task and has nagging pain in her left knee that hasn’t let up in two weeks? I believe the solution to this situation is clear as mud to some and super simple to others.

        That’s why the answer has to come back to the question of: What’s the goal? There was a time in 2012 when I was able to hang with local regional competitors as far as athletic capability. My friends/coaches, Erik and Gary, felt that I had a chance to qualify for regionals that next year if I kept going the way I was. At that time I also had an issue with my right wrist that hurt everytime I locked out a snatch or performed overhead squats. As a physical therapist, Gary would offer advice and check the mobility of the joint for me if I was hurting. And I could usually  get through a workout fine with whatever weight was prescribed. It was important to me that I push through the pain to get my training in and become that much fitter. I was determined to compete at a high level and my wrist issue never affected other parts of my life.

        Around this time however, life changed drastically for me and competing for a spot at Regionals lost some importance. Fast forward to 2019. I now only do a WOD two or three times a week when it fits with my current work schedule and time with my growing family. Another newer development is my enjoyment in attending jui-jitsu classes and possibly trying some of the other disciplines that this martial arts school offers. A year ago, my aforementioned friend Erik (who also got me to join the martial arts school he attends), told me he liked the idea of CrossFit keeping him in great shape so that advances in jui-jitsu could be made. Hearing that made me feel the same, which would mean my goal in performing CrossFit WODs is for a different reason than it used to be.

        As it stands now, if my wrist was giving me issues and I was required to snatch or overhead squat heavy weight, I wouldn’t do it. I’d scale down. My wrist is important to me for other athletic endeavors besides CrossFit and also for managing a seemingly strong one year old boy that needs to be wrestled down everytime I dress him or put him in a car-seat. If that wrist was out of commission, I’d be kept from other things. Plus, I’m still getting in quite a bit of fitness by using 95 pounds instead of 135. I hope you can all see what I am getting at here with these examples.

        This brings me to another point I’d like to make about scaling. Every workout has an emphasis. Any day of training in 2012 where my wrist was keeping me from a movement, there was a sure chance that something else in that day’s given workout included a skill that I wasn’t great at, like pistols. I recall one day where I couldn’t do any snatching. I had to skip it completely. So, I increased the number of pistols from ten each round to twenty. It sucked, but while my wrist healed, my pistols got better. And the next day, I was able to move that joint a little easier. This strategy can and should be used as a form of scaling when some part of the body needs time off.

        Two areas of CrossFit see very little scaling for the reason of PRIDE. The first is torn hands and the second is heavy weight lifting. It might seem like common sense to not do toes to bar after ripping one’s callouses on pull ups the day before, but we see it. It might seem like common sense to use less weight on a lift if the form is so ugly it looks like an injury is going to happen, but we see it. Many of the athletes that forego that common sense do it out of a sense of pride. What drives that pride is different for many, but the results of continuing in situations like this are always the same: things get worse. Now if you are competing in an event that is very important to you and a series of days after that event will be reserved for healing and recovery, then I could see good reason to go for broke and workout with reckless abandon. But maybe only in this case.

There are a couple athletes at New Era that started off with us a couple years ago and only came to three or four classes a week and did no extra work/skill building. The first athlete I am thinking of has lost weight, come upon better sleep and still continues to hit PRs. She is considering doing a local competition for fun soon. The other member found the same results but always seemed very focused on “getting movements right” before adding weight to the bar or attempting big sets of gymnastics movements. He would clearly seem frustrated at times if he wasn’t getting it, but he listened to coaching very well. And in March, this member that now does four or five classes a week, crushed The Open at a time when he was on nobody’s radar. He had people asking,”Wait, who is this guy?” and “What is he doing differently than I am?” One answer to that is scaling. Both of these members scaled workouts when movements weren’t clicking, rather than powering through blindly. When I asked each of them what their goal with CrossFit was recently, they answered, “Just to improve my health and quality of life”, and “To have a release after stressful work days”. It’s interesting to me that they mentioned nothing about competing, but move as efficiently as any competitor and in some cases, put up better numbers.

So in the wise words of many before me: Check yourself before you wreck yourself. And consider what your goal might be. Is what you are doing worth it? Maybe that bubble of skin on your palm should be left alone and maybe your sore, painful back will thank you if you deadlift twenty less pounds than is prescribed today. As a matter of fact, considering these things will probably allow you to have a better workout the next day. Hopefully that sounds like a worthwhile idea also. Still not sure? Ask us. Many of your coaches will take the time to consider your abilities and offer sound advice.