Scaling vs. Progression

 So based on a few emails and questions from the guys at the stations, regarding “But What if I’m a Little Guy”, I feel the need to clarify a few things in the “scaling” department. As usual most misconceptions and confusion stem from a lack of common terminology meaning that Bill and Ted know “scaling” by two different definitions, neither of which were part of their excellent adventure, so here comes the clear text:


Scaling: Changing the sets, reps, weight, rest interval, exercises, or time domain of a given workout to accommodate individual athletes.


Substitution: Swapping one exercise for another based on lack of equipment or skill.


Progression:  A plan that includes a starting and ending point with some boxes to check along the way. A common term is linear progression where an athlete continues to add weight to a particular exercise until they reach their goal. Another example would be handstand pushups, an athlete could progress from standing press to handstand holds to handwalking to handstand pushups against a wall to free standing handstand pushups and finally start the process over using parallets.


The issue that is discussed in this post is really that of how to program effectively for everyone at once while maintaining positive direction. As far as the S in S&C (strength & conditioning) is concerned exercise science has pretty well vetted linear progression and periodization of the major lifts as king, it’s the C that gives rise to the most debate.

One of the key elements that have made CrossFit so successful is its ability to force out and expose individual weaknesses, e.g., 155lb guys expected deadlift 315 for reps and 225lb guys expected to do muscle ups. The conflict comes when deciding what to do if the 155er can’t DL 315 and the heavyweight can’t do a muscle up. The typical CrossFit answer is to scale, so the 155er will do the work out with less weight and the big guy will substitute pull ups and dips easy breezy right? Well kind of; the only way I see this working is to put it in the context of a goal and use progression, either linear or periodized, to reach the goal. So for the little guy his weakness is just that; he’s not strong enough or lacks the skill to do the prescribed weight, so his goal is to increase his deadlift. Is doing a lighter weight for the rx’d reps the best way to get a bigger deadlift? Not really, I say look to linear progression a la 531 or MEBB and tons of sleep for big strength gains. Now for the big guy, clearly his issue is heaving 225lbs of flesh up, through, and over a pair of rings. Is this a strength issue? Maybe but I guarantee there is a huge element of skill and flexibility that is holding him back as well. So are pull ups and dips the best way for him to get a muscle up? Maybe but I doubt it, what he needs is to do is set the goal of getting a muscle up, break it down into the issues (strength, skill, flexibility) and, through progression, improve each until reaching his goal.

So when do you scale and when do you ditch the work out completely and progress toward the individual elements separately?  At this point I think it is necessary for a little more clear text.


Diagnostic Workout: A set number of movements with prescribed loading performed exactly the same every time as a measure of progress.

Strength Workout: A movement designed to increase total strength in a given range of motion, e.g., back squat, that is manipulated by adjusting weight, speed, and volume of the lifts.


Metabolic Conditioning Workout (metcon): Any series of movements designed to elicit adaptation of one or more metabolic energy pathways, i.e., aerobic and anaerobic. The intensity of these workouts is generally high and is manipulated by adjusting weight, reps, and time domain.


Back to the question of whether to scale or ditch the workout completely in pursuit of the individual elements. The answer is that it depends. It depends on the intent of the workout being performed, if it is a diagnostic workout then no it should not be scaled and should be avoided until the requisite strength and skill to perform the individual movements is attained. If the workout in questions is a metcon then scale away with the intent of eliciting the intended response, generally nausea, vomiting, and hot, flush diaphoresis.


If you follow Crossfit Football (CFFB) long enough you will see the daily workouts (DWOD) come around again and again; I suggest picking a few and using them as diagnostic wods or better yet set some goals for yourself (a la CFN Standards) and develop your own diagnostics to measure progress toward those goals using CFFB as a tool to get you there.

Coach Rut has come up with a way to mitigate most of these issues in his Max Effort Black Box template, where he uses a dedicated max effort strength session followed by one of 9 wods pre-designated for the programming period which are randomly drawn from a hat for each day. This accomplishes the constantly varied aspect of training for the unknown and unknowable but it also allows for closer tracking of progress on the metcon front. I have just such a program HERE.

One Response to Scaling vs. Progression

  1. Mark Watts says:

    This is a really good article and great information on explaining the differences. Gig help for coaches and trainers. Thanks and great site.


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