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3. Complexity


A subsection of the movement-pattern stimulus is movement complexity. Movements that combine the neurologic and organic elements of the 10 general physical skills tend to be the most complex (Olympic lifts, gymnastics elements), but something as simple as the double-under, scaled incorrectly, can drastically alter the workout stimulus. It’s important to draw a distinction between training to develop complex movements and applying already-developed complex movements in a workout. Many affiliates wisely incorporate programmed skill work before or after workouts to develop complexity while ensuring quality movement without the pressure of the clock. During timed workouts (i.e., not skill development), scale complexity to preserve the desired metabolic response.


Gymnastics skills are generally the most common elements considered when scaling complexity. But there’s complexity within the nine foundational functional movements, too. CrossFit Mobility Trainer Course leader Kelly Starrett provides great resources for understanding complexity in functional movements and for developing a scaling plan in “Becoming a Supple Leopard.” An application of Starrett’s three movement categories (Chapter 5) is scaling the push jerk to the push press for an athlete unable to receive the push jerk in the re-dip due to shoulder-mobility limitations. This also applies to receiving the snatch in the squat position versus the power position.


If an athlete can consistently accomplish a complex movement with all points of performance, then, in general, scale load instead of complexity. If, however, the movement is not consistently safe, then scale complexity. The ultimate goal is for athletes to continually progress in movement complexity. Trainers must guide their athletes toward this goal instead of allowing stagnation in simplified scales. 


Elements of Scaling


Once you understand the programmed stimuli, there are many ways to scale individual movements and workout structures to maximize athletes’ training despite limitations.


1. Volume (Total Reps)


“Be impressed by intensity, not volume.” —Greg Glassman 


Scaling volume is primarily a factor of athlete experience (how long they’ve trained) and how recently they’ve trained.


Controlling volume addresses the risk of rhabdomyolysis in less-experienced athletes or those returning after a layoff. Increased volume of eccentric movement (combined with other factors such as experience level, age, etc.) correlates to risk of rhabdomyolysis. As a coach, remember this potent but simple saying: “The poison is in the dose.”


Methods of scaling volume include:


  • Reducing rep scheme—When scaling reps in a time priority workout, it’s important to scale loading and movement complexity so the athlete progresses through the movements at a pace similar to that of average athletes doing the workout as prescribed. If the workout is scaled too much, the athlete could accumulate more reps than an Rx athlete, defeating the purpose of scaling reps. In these examples, we’ll use the terms “intermediate” and “beginner,” which are defined in the Experience Level and Pre-Scaled Workouts section below.


Task-Based Workout


Programmed version

4 rounds for time of:

Run 400 m

50 air squats


Scaled version (intermediate)

4 rounds for time of:

Run 400 m

35 air squats


Scaled version (beginner)

4 rounds for time of:

Run 200 m

20 air squats


Time-Based Workout (With Movement Scales)


Programmed version

10-minute AMRAP of:

10 power snatches (115/75 lb.)

15 ring dips

20 GHD sit-ups


Scaled version (intermediate)

10-minute AMRAP of:

6 power snatches (scale load to provide similar stimulus as Rx)

10 ring dips (or scaled alternative in accordance with progression)

15 half-range GHD sit-ups


Scaled version (beginner)10-minute AMRAP of:

5 power snatches (scale load to provide similar stimulus as Rx)

5 ring dips (or scaled alternative in accordance with progression)

10 AbMat sit-ups (or similar movement pattern)


  • Reducing time protocol to control reps—To keep athletes working together as much as possible, it’s advisable to primarily scale reps and limit time reductions. However, certain junctions of experience and workout duration (i.e., inexperience and a long workout) require reducing the time domain.


Programmed workout

25-minute AMRAP of:

7 push-ups

12 deadlifts

15 box jumps


Scaled version (intermediate):

15-25-minute AMRAP in which load, reps and complexity are

scaled to keep round pacing similar to that of Rx athletes.


Scaled version (beginner):

10-12-minute AMRAP in which load, reps and complexity are

scaled to keep round pacing similar to that of Rx athletes.


Regardless of how an athlete is scaled (load, movement pattern or complexity), remember to consider the total rep volume. Do not increase volume just because you, as a coach, perceive the movements or load are simpler than what was programmed. For example, if ring dips are scaled to box dips for an inexperienced athlete, don’t increase volume to compensate for the reduced complexity.


2. Load


When trainers and athletes think of scaling a CrossFit workout, loading is generally the first element they consider; however, it is rarely the only or even the most important element that requires scaling. Remember, we’re scaling to preserve the desired stimulus while assessing factors such as range of motion (ROM) and total rep volume. Here are a couple of considerations when scaling loads:


  • In general, prioritize ROM over load, but it’s important to consider the original stimulus and long-term progression of the athlete.
  • Scale loads to avoid losses of points of performance; the appropriate load can vary day to day.
  • Be wary of reducing load to the point that the athlete accumulates more reps than is appropriate for his or her experience. Adjust reps, rounds, times or complexity in concert with loads to control total rep count.


Example: Lower-rep heavy goblet squats are programmed (rep tempo is likely to be slower). An athlete with a full-ROM air squat rounds her back with sub-Rx anterior loading. Because the stimulus for this workout includes heavy loading, we’ll strive to preserve a load that is heavy relative to Athlete 1’s abilities. Because the athlete can do a full-ROM air squat, we’ll gradually add loading in the warm-up, looking for the point at which the athlete can no longer consistently maintain points of performance at full ROM. This type of scaling is relatively simple.


If an athlete is challenged with any anterior load due to extremely poor motor control (train-wreck squat) or an injury, we need to be more creative. For this workout, we can consider having the athlete hold an object closer to the frontal plane (such as dumbbells on the shoulders) or even shifting to posterior-loaded squatting (back squat). Regardless of where the load is, we strive to preserve the rep/load stimulus of the programmed workout. If an athlete is unable to use any loading, then we can use unloaded air squats but challenge the depth—if even by an inch below existing ROM—with an object such as a box or ball.


This slows each rep and helps preserve the original stimulus: The challenge of maintaining points of performance through the increased ROM slows the athlete down in the same way as heavy loading. If the WOD is time-based and the athlete is progressing too quickly, we may need to reduce the rep count, increase complexity or decrease workout time to control total rep exposure.


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.


Reference: CrossFitJOURNAL