Jeremy Gordon shares scaling strategies to help coaches ensure their athletes are getting exactly what they need from each session.
A programmer may have many intended stimuli at the macro and micro level. To simplify for everyday affiliate application (training for general health and fitness), we’ll narrow it to three primary stimuli.
1. Time Domain (Desired Metabolic Pathway)
The duration of the workout (combined with athlete training level) determines the primary metabolic pathways trained. In general, longer workouts demand more time in the aerobic pathway. Shorter challenges require more time in the ATP/CP and glycolytic pathways. This is, however, a nuanced consideration. For example, heavy loads in volume tend to slow output, creating a mix of aerobic and ATP/CP training and reducing time spent in the glycolytic pathway.
Consider this workout:
21-15-9 reps of:
Deadlifts 355/235 lb.
Rowing for calories
While the shorter-duration row may push athletes into the glycolytic pathway, emphasis will likely shift to the ATP/CP and aerobic pathways as the heavy deadlifts significantly slow the output.
When considering how to scale this workout, strive to preserve the original intent: ATP/CP and aerobic training via heavier loading. Therefore, don’t scale load to the point that an athlete works so quickly she remains primarily in the glycolytic pathway. One method for accomplishing this goal is to post the load as “355/235 lb. or 80-85 percent of 1-rep max.”
Noting the duration of effort for a task is a simple way to assess the effectiveness of scaling for metabolic pathway. For an experienced affiliate-level female athlete, 21 reps at 235 lb. is approximately a 75-100-second effort. If a scaled athlete finishes the set of 21 deadlifts in 35 seconds, she is likely lifting too light. We’ll expand on this concept later in the article.
Let’s look at another example:
21-15-9 reps of:
Rowing for calories
For this workout, we’d expect experienced athletes (defined later in this article) to work fast, spending the majority of time in the glycolytic pathway. If an athlete requires 1 minute of rest between every handstand push-up due to ability, then doing the workout as prescribed will not meet the intended metabolic stimulus. There is something to be said for a less-experienced athlete’s accumulating 45 handstand push-ups from a training standpoint, but doing so defeats the intended metabolic stimulus of this particular workout, so we assign a handstand-push-up scale that allows athletes to move quickly—at a pace that keeps them mostly in the glycolytic pathway. This doesn’t mean they’ll finish at the same time as an experienced athlete, but they won’t be doing repeated handstand-push-up 1-rep-max efforts over the course of an hour. Save that for skill-development sessions.
Once in a while, and with safety as a caveat, it is appropriate to allow an athlete to work through a difficult movement or challenging loading during a workout, but generally the original intention of the workout should be matched.
Errors in scaling time domain are quickly evident. In the deadlift workout listed above, if the majority of your class spends 6 minutes on the set of 21 but your scaled athletes finish in 90 seconds, then you’ve likely made a scaling error. Besides causing athletes to miss the desired training stimulus, this scaling error can affect class cohesion and an athlete’s sense of belonging. Ideally, we’d like to keep an entire class working together without creating significant outliers (i.e., someone who finishes in 3 minutes when everyone else works for 20 minutes, or vice versa).
On weightlifting days, time domain and metabolic pathway are expressed in rep scheme and relative loading. If the programmed workout is a 20-rep-max back squat and you scale an injured athlete to strict press, you still want a higher-volume lift, such as a 10-rep max instead of a 1-rep max.
A caveat: For less experienced athletes, scaling to an increased rep scheme (on weightlifting days, not in general) can reduce risk by forcing lower loads. This also provides more coaching opportunities. For example, when a 1-rep-max overhead squat is programmed, it’s appropriate to have a CrossFit athlete with one month of experience do sets of 5 reps at submaximal loading.
A helpful scaling tool for managing time domain and metabolic pathways is forecasting a workout-completion window based on the programmed movements, reps and loads. This window is a time (for task-priority workouts) or a total round/rep count (for time-priority workouts). Armed with a completion window, the coach has a better idea of the target metabolic pathway and canscale appropriately. See Appendix 1 (Page 7) for an example of calculating a completion window.
Time domain also impacts volume; that factor is addressed in the Elements of Scaling section below.
About the Author
Jeremy Gordon, CCFC, was the head coach and CEO of CrossFit Hampton Roads from 2008 to 2015. He began CrossFit in 2005. Jeremy coaches at CrossFit Hampton Roads and provides online coaching for competitive-level CrossFit athletes. He is the proud husband of Nicole Gordon (CrossFit Seminar Staff) and parent of two phenomenal kids. He is a 17-year veteran fighter pilot flying with the Virginia Air National Guard.