In the functional fitness space we often hear the words “scale” or “modify” when referring to the workout of the day. Movement and/or weight options are often RX (prescribed) or Scaled (modified).
People should scale workouts for a number of reasons but oftentimes our egos get in the way. We choose to “Go RX” when in reality we may not be ready to complete a workout at that level. You risk a lot things when doing something “as prescribed” when you shouldn’t be. You may even be left with LESS of a workout when choosing to complete it as prescribed.
Here are a few of our best reasons for having athletes scale during workouts.
Preserve Intended Stimulus and Get a More Effective Workout
WODs often have an intended stimulus as the focus for the training cycle you are on. Consider a workout that is intended to be a sprint. Generally, this means you should complete all rounds or reps within a short time frame, usually 6 minutes or less. When scaled appropriately no one should have a problem completing all movements to standard in the given time period. When we do not scale appropriately a couple of different scenarios can play out.
1) We may sacrifice movement technique or standards for speed. This is a problem because these sacrifices can lead to poor movement patterns over time, which then costs us results in the long run. Worst case scenario these sacrifices lead to injury, holding us back from that glorified RX standard even longer!
2) We do not finish the workout in the intended time frame, thus losing the intended stimulus. If your training is periodized and you’re meant to be training anaerobic sprint performance, losing the stimulus essentially prevents you from completing the training focus. It’s also a huge ego blow to not finish a workout…
Preserving the intended stimulus is going to give you the best results possible. In order to do this, sometimes we must put our egos aside and compete with only ourselves. Also, scaling appropriately will have you hitting those RX workouts faster than if you jump in too soon.
Improve Technique & Movement Form
Scaling a workout is often the best opportunity to focus on better form, especially for complicated movements like the Olympic Lifts. If you’re already strong but lack technique it's often beneficial to slow down and lighten the load in a “for time” workout. I think most people lie in this camp; we know you can lift the weight but does it look and feel like magic for every rep? Probably not…
Taking a video of yourself can help you realize the flaws in some of your movement patterns. During a workout you aren’t always thinking about the standards of movement, so oftentimes you may not realize just how subpar you may be moving. If you want to be REALLY good, you’ll slow down and lighten the load for a while and move correctly for every rep.
Progression = Long Term Success
In sports like gymnastics, dance, or figure skating there are progressions for every higher level skill. Athletes spend a significant amount of time working on progressions. Even Elite level gymnasts practice the basics every single day.
Progression is the process of moving towards a more advanced state. Every high level skill has a long list of progressions you should be hitting before moving on to the next one. When we scale a movement we are often opting to work on the progressive movement instead of the higher level (more difficult) one. The reps we put in of this progression will only make us better when it's time to perform the more advanced movement.
When working on progressions, we need to view the workout as a chance to practice rather than compete.
Injuries (working around them)
Lastly, we want to touch on injury as a reason for scaling a workout. When we are injured we sometimes think we have to stop working out completely in order to let the injury heal. This is not always the case! Ceasing your workouts is only going to set you back FARTHER once the injury has healed. Instead, movements should be modified for the time being.
Shift your workout focus to another part of the body, or a less injury irritating movement. If you have a knee injury maybe squatting to full depth is not the best idea, but box squats are an excellent modification. They take pressure off the knees and even give your core a little extra work to do!
Scaling movements can be done for any injury (most of the time). If you can’t use a certain body part at all, then change the focus but preserve the stimulus! If the class is doing 100 meter sprints, someone with a leg injury can do short sprints on a stationary bike (think Assault bike) using just their arms.
Scaling may force some creativity on the coach's part, but if you are able to scale movements regularly you will end up with a whole arsenal of movements that most people aren’t even thinking of using!