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Guidelines for scaling the complex movements for older athletes



Masters Progressions


It is not uncommon for trainers to hit the wall trying to teach complex skills to masters. The standard progressions that are effective with a younger adult may not be as effective with a masters athlete and often require additional steps and strategies. Standard progressions for CrossFit skills are usually based on reducing the effort component of the skill, e.g., using a smaller box for box jumps or reducing the range of motion for a handstand push-up. However, with a masters athlete, particularly a late masters athlete, it may be necessary to reduce the thinking component or even practice the neurological component separately from the skill itself. For example, even on a tiny box, a masters athlete may freeze while attempting a box jump, and the progression may have to start with basic jumping drills in horizontal patterns such as hopping and skipping until the neurological pattern is established. We have seen clients who cannot correctly jump onto a 10-lb. plate. Confusion can reign inside a masters athlete’s head when trying a new skill. In some cases, underlying physical limitations may have to be addressed in isolation before the neurological component can be effectively practiced. For example, if the athlete does not have the requisite strength and mobility to perform a calf raise, he or she will not have a foundation to practice jumping.


We Can Take These Things for Granted


For the younger athlete, the progression practice itself can resolve any underlying body limitation. For the late masters athlete, it may be the other way around, and the underlying limitation may need to be identified and rectified before the progression will work.


Guidelines for Masters Progressions


  • Need to understand that masters (especially late masters) may have reduced ability to learn neurological skills, so take it slowly and be patient
  • Progressions need more steps and smaller increments.
  • May have to zero in on the neurological components
  • There may be body limitations that will factor in, so look for a lack of basic strength.
  • Fear and anxiety can be limiters and need to be addressed separately.


When developing progressions for a deconditioned late masters athlete, a key teaching point is that we need to check and develop strength first, develop the mechanics second, and then progressively increase the effort third. It can take considerable time to reverse the effects of being significantly deconditioned.


Box Jump Example


A typical box jump progression for a younger athlete may occur over two to five sessions and consist of the following steps:

  1. Step-up
  2. Box jump to a small box
  3. Box jump to a higher box


The box jump progression for a deconditioned late masters athlete may take six months or longer and require 15 or more steps:

  1. Double-leg calf raise (build to 30 reps)
  2. Single-leg calf raise (build to 15 reps per side)
  3. Walk on toes
  4. Lunge
  5. Lunge with knee lift when stepping up
  6. Step-up on small box (increasing height)
  7. Step-up with knee lift (add calf raise for neurological challenge)
  8. Vertical jump with correct ankle extension
  9. Vertical jump with landing practice (mimic box-jump landing)
  10. Broad jump and stick the landing
  1. Progressive jumping to plate
  2. Step-up with jump down (stick landing)
  3. Hand hold box jump (with a spotter)
  4. Wall hold box jump
  1. Progressive height box jump


Pull-Up Example


A typical pull-up progression for a younger athlete may occur over six to 12 weeks and consist of the following steps:

  1. Band-assisted strict pull-up
  2. Strict pull-up
  3. Kipping drills
  4. Kipping pull-up


The pull-up progression for a deconditioned late masters athlete may take two to three years and require 15 or more steps:

  1. Hang with feet on the ground (some weight bearing)
  2. Hang with feet on the ground, lifting one knee at a time
  3. Hang with active shoulders, holding own weight
  4. Band pull-down seated on box
  5. Seated bar pull to standing and squat back down with slow lower (bar at eye height)
  6. Feet assisted low bar pull-up and slow lower (kneeling under the bar as with a muscle-up transition)
  7. Bar row
  8. Ring row
  9. Seated or feet-assisted ring pull-up (build biceps strength)
  10. Pull-up with feet on box (feet stay connected to box)
  11. Pull-up with foot on box (one leg only)
  12. Jumping pull-up using plates (reducing plates as strength builds)
  13. Jumping pull-up with hold and then slow lower
  14. Partner-assisted pull-up (lifting from behind on upper back)
  15. Band-assisted pull-up (reducing band tension)


Masters Modifications—Beyond Scaling and Progressions


It is a reality, particularly for the late or injured masters athlete, that some movements need to be avoided entirely and should be excluded from the program. In these cases, movement substitution can be an effective way to preserve the intended stimulus.



This is not intended to be an exhaustive list but rather an example of how even the most deconditioned or physically limited athlete can continue to participate in the program using clever substitutions.


The trainer should periodically reassess whether substituted movements can be reintroduced to the program. The goal remains having the client undertake the full program if possible with appropriate scaling, but both parties need to accept that in the case of unresolvable pathology or injury, reintroduction of some movements may never be possible, and even attempting them could set the athlete back. Each case should be assessed on an individual basis. The trainer should be optimistic and pragmatic in equal doses.


Reference: CrossFit Masters Training Guide