“Rx vs. Scaling” By Bill Blair
As a coach, one of the most frequently asked question is “what weight should I use for the WOD?” or “I don’t have muscleups in my repertoire.” This question is asked of all the pieces of weight equipment or movements we use. In essence, they are asking how to scale the workout. There is not a pat answer to the question, but the following should be able to help you and your coach in the decision.
For the high-level CrossFit athlete, RX’ing a WOD is usually a foregone conclusion. Conversely, a CrossFit newbie will scale a workout down to ensure that they can actually perform the movements and do the work. But what about the athlete ‘in the middle’? The individual who has a good chunk of CrossFit experience under their belt, but is not at the level where they know that whatever turns up on the whiteboard, they are going to Rx the hell out of it. For many of us, the question simply becomes: when should I RX a WOD, and when should I scale it.
Scaling your workouts in CrossFit is the key to getting long-term, sustainable results. Our goal is to get you stronger, but it is also to keep you training with us for years to come. The proper scaling will ensure that you make progress without injury, and will eventually set you apart from other CrossFitters.
What is scaling and does it mean?
When we publish our workouts of the day, they are usually with a RX weight or movement. This is how the workout is designed to be completed. BUT, you’ll notice on some of the workouts, we also give you scaling options for beginner/intermediate/advanced skill levels. The point of this is that everything we do is a progression towards the next level, and everything is designed to “meet you where you are at”.
Why do we do this?
- Match the purpose of a WOD – When the goal of a workout is to move fast and breathe heavy, you don’t want to be standing around struggling to lift up the bar (or yourself)…or vise versa, if the goal is to lift heavy, you don’t want to be done in half the time with half the weight
- Develop strength – If your goal is to get stronger, sometimes adding weight (with good technique) is a great way to get some extra strength work in.
- Get a better workout – The WOD’s are designed to give you different stimulus each day, and the optimal scaling allows you to get the best of each session.
- Helps with recovery – Sometimes scaling down a workout (1/2 reps, or 1/2 weight) is a great way to do active recovery rather than sitting on your couch.
- Helps when returning from illness or injury – Movement is always better than no movement, even if you’re moving in different areas. Prevent atrophy by coming in and training, even if you have to scale everything to avoid your hurt shoulder or knee, etc.
- Improves skills – Working on your first pull up? Try ring rows, and make them progressively harder until you get that pull up. You have to crawl before you can walk, and scaling gives you access to developing skills you may not have otherwise had.
One could argue that the intensity with which you can perform the workout as it’s intended is the determining factor for when to scale or when to RX. Far too often people get hung up about the idea of going RX as the goal of the workout, when that’s simply not the case. Remember when you used to spend an hour at the globo gym, waiting for a certain machine to be available or trudging along on the treadmill for the majority of time? Compare that to a brutal 12-minute WOD at the box. Which was more effective? The same concept applies within CrossFit. There’s a reason workouts can be scored through time, rounds, weights and reps. You are expected to push yourself to your limits to achieve a score that you can always improve upon.
Let’s take the infamous “Fran” as an example. Everyone wants to test themselves with Fran by doing it as prescribed—21/15/9 reps for time of thrusters and pull-ups at 95lbs for the guys, 65lbs for the gals. The best CrossFitters in the world can do this workout in around 2 minutes. The purpose of the workout is to be a sprint, to achieve that metcon burn that will leave you on the ground, gasping for air. As such, you need to choose a weight that is appropriate. There is no point in going RX with Fran if you are going to be spending just as much time resting as you are working. Doing Fran with an RX weight is a great accomplishment, but if you’re taking 15 minutes or longer to do it then you’ve missed the point of the workout—you’ve lowered the intensity, and you certainly won’t be on the floor at the end of it (side note: collapsing on the floor covered in sweat coughing up phlegm and wondering what just happened is always a good sign that you’ve picked scaled appropriately).
Many times people want to ‘go heavy’ in workouts in order to build up their strength. This may be done with good intent, but it’s important to remember that there is a specific strength portion of the class, where you find your 1RM, 3RM etc. before you head into the metcon. You won’t be able to perform a WOD at high intensity with a prescribed weight if you don’t have the necessary strength to move it consistently, and I got news for you—that strength isn’t going to come from doing that WOD again and again and again. On the other hand, you may be flying through the workout in 3 minutes with a scaled weight, and though it may be tough, it’s not quite challenging enough. Yet you feel that moving up to RX would slow you down considerably and add 5 minutes to your time--you know who you are. Well, there’s only one way to find out! I assure you, if you’re only 10 pounds away from the RX weight, that’s not going to happen—you’d be surprised at the time you will achieve.
Safety/Consistency with the movements
The other crucial issue to take into consideration when debating between RX and scaled is safety. You may have hit a muscle-up or two in practice, but if the workout calls for 10 each round, is it really smart to try and keep throwing yourself up on to those rings? Should you really be throwing that kettlebell over your head repeatedly if you can only do a few reps at good form? Sometimes, it’s natural for an athlete’s form to break down in a workout as they start to fatigue. Trust me, I understand that feeling when you just say to yourself, “Heck with it, I’m racing the clock and I’m go to finish THIS WOD with THIS WEIGHT and no one is going to stop me.” I applaud your courage CrossFitter. We all have that competitive drive to do our best, but at what risk? You want to challenge yourself, but at the end of the day it’s important that you can leave the box under your own power and come back the next day for more. Moving heavy weight inefficiently and inconsistently for repeated reps just to say you did RX is asking for trouble, and it feeds the CrossFit trolls when you invariably get hurt. Don’t feed the trolls, people.
It can’t be said enough that you have to check your ego when you step into the box. It doesn’t matter if every other person is always doing RX (that would be a gym full of freaks anyway), you have to tailor the workout to you. If that means dropping some weight or throwing a band on the pull-up bar, so be it! Conversely, there’s nothing wrong with being a ‘specific RX’er’—picking and choosing the movements and WODs where you can go RX, and when you have to scale down. But when you do, always remember that the workout should be INTENSE AND SAFE. You are the one who’ll decide if that’s going to be the case.
Your safety is our highest priority. You can help by using the strength portion of the workout fine tuning your form. Setting a PR at every workout shouldn’t be the goal. Yes, PR’s are great, but you will get there faster by paying attention to form and technique. The important side benefit is that with good form and technique you will be less prone to injury and your PR’s will come quicker.
Use your coach to ask questions about scaling the WOD or the strength portion of the workout if you have doubts. Also, call your coach over and ask “how is my form?” To me, that is one of the most rewarding questions asked. It shows that you really care about how you are progressing.
Remember – Everything that we do in CrossFit can be scaled for you.
Credit to: Boxlife Magazine (6/24/16)