Scaling Options

We performed “Fran” in our CrossFit classes earlier this month. For the uninitiated, it’s a short, super intense workout featuring light thrusters (a full body push) and kipping pull-ups (a full body pull). Our typical scaling option for kipping pull-ups in this setting is the jumping pull-up. This workout is more about the metabolic effect than the muscular stamina effect, so keeping a high heart rate is the key. Jumping makes sense here. This prompted a discussion about the CrossFit Games standard jumping pull-up, vs. our standard, and scaling options in general. To illustrate the difference, check the video below.

The version on the left is the CF Games standard, ours is on the right. The big difference here is the rock back and forth that we require. It is designed to mimic the kipping motion as much as possible. The Games standard does not preserve the coordination of the kipping motion, so we would argue that it is an inferior version from a developmental standpoint. Why is it the standard then? For ease of judging. As we’ve covered previously, competition is not about quality of movement, it’s about meeting movement standards. It’s hard to quantify the start and end of a rock back and forth; it’s much easier to look at the flexion of the arms and chin over the bar. Hence the Games standard.

When it comes to scaling in general, there are a few things that we can scale:

1. Load – we can use less weight than what’s prescribed. When it comes to gymnastics based movements, we find creative ways to lessen the amount of bodyweight that we’re moving (e.g., pull-up bands).

2. Volume – we can do fewer reps than prescribed. When we encourage athletes to attempt a heavier load than they’ve done previously, be it a weightlifting movement, or a more challenging gymnastics option, we may have them perform fewer reps per set. For newer athletes or those coming back from an extended break, we may scale the total rounds performed, limiting volume that way.

3. Range of Motion – We want our athletes to move through ranges of motion where they are stable and safe. We gradually build range of motion over time, but this usually requires us to scale load and/or volume. This is most common when rebuilding after or working around injuries. Additionally, limiting and then building range of motion is a tried and true method of acquiring advanced gymnastics skills (e.g., handstand push-ups with Abmats under the head).

Which scaling options are best? Honestly, it depends on the individual, their goals, and where they are most deficient. We can choose the appropriate scaling option from there. Wherever possible, we want to maintain as much of the MOVEMENT PATTERN as we can. This is the distinction between our jumping pull-up standard vs. the Games’ standard. We use this approach to differentiate from HQ in a couple other ways as well. For example, the traditional CrossFit scaling option for muscle-ups is 3 pull-ups and 3 dips PER muscle-up. This is great for building the requisite strength, but it does nothing to build the coordination or athleticism required to perform an actual muscle-up. A well-balanced program should be developing the requisite strength during other training sessions anyway, so it would make more sense to work on the athletic component here. Our preferred scaling options are:

Similarly, there are some coaches who immediately resort to the DB strict press or DB Z-press as a substitute for handstand push-ups. While the pressing action of this movement is pretty simple, the balance required to perform them is advanced. Not to mention the fact that athletes are inverted while doing this. So, we want to preserve the inversion and balance as much as possible when we scale. Our preferred scaling options for the handstand push-up are:

At the end of the day, we want to choose the scaling option(s) that will help the athlete improve the most, which means sticking to the intent of the workout. From there, we want to mimic the full movement, scaling load, intensity, and range of motion as necessary. Substitutions are a last resort. We can build constituent muscles in other ways, but we need to know how to fire them in the correct order. Raw strength, speed, and stamina are building blocks – there’s a reason that some NFL prospects who crush the 225 lbs bench press test and 40 yd. dash never make it into the league. Preserving movement patterns while scaling is the bridge. See you in the gym.

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