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How do I scale a Workout?

Crafter John asked the questions:

How do you scale a workout?

I am heavy, and out of shape.  I don’t even know what I can do yet.
Since I am trying to do CF at a globo with no support what is the best way to try to scale a WoD?

More specific questions:
If the workout calls for 20x pushups and I can’t do that, should I lower the number? Should I do them from knees?  Should I do them on a bench?

Workout calls for 20x KB swings with XX weight, I assume I should just lower the weight and not change the reps?

My gym doesn’t have a wall to do wall balls, options?

I can’t do running right now until my leg gets taken care of I assume some other cardio works?

Eileen Schreiber Answers!

Resources: For the Intermediate or Advanced Person: The Ultimate Bible Article on Scaling.
Read this.

Again Faster’s Article:  Zatsiorsky, Scaling and Power

Google Search: Scaling Workouts.

Six Truths of Weightlifting. By Catalyst Athletics.

John. The most important thing in any workout regime is safety.

Every move can be done correctly to minimize risk of injury.  If you are most people, there are untold ways you can  do the move  incorrectly, which will rocket you headlong into messing up your body.  Guaranteed.

Deadlift Form

My first suggestion is to find a trainer who can watch your moves and guide you – you personally (and this is anyone reading with the same issue) – as you begin.  CrossFit is a helpful community!  Go to  a trainer in your gym,  a CrossFit box nearby, or post on Facebook that you need assistance. I bet you find it!

Repeat.  Proper form is ESSENTIAL.  It is the building block of every positive gain.  Improper form is the door to the rabbithole of injury, poor performance and a lot of wasted, wasted time.

If you honestly can’t find live help (I know you can) ask one of us, or someone on the internet, to watch videos of you.

Second, each movement is designed to work specific muscles, joint movements, and bodyparts in certain ways.  Whether it’s pullups, KB swings, pushups or wall balls, the movement relies on FULL RANGE OF MOTION to do it’s job.

When scaling a bodyweight move, my opinion is this:  Find the solution that allows you full range of motion for as much of the WOD as possible. Do not let your ego push you any harder than that.

For example.  If you want to complete 21 pushups in your workout, practice them on your knees, against a wall, from a bench.  You don’t need to finish them unbroken.  Which solution enables you to go all the way down and all the way up?

Halvsies don’t count!  If it takes you an hour, but you can finish 21 knee pushups with full range of motion safely – great!

If you start a workout doing full pushups, for example, and find yourself unable to complete them, shift to your knees in the middle.  Full Range of Motion.

Knee Pushups. Boys do them too.

Third. Should I scale the amount of weight I move, or scale the reps in a WOD?

Again, I recommend finding a trainer or a willing, knowledgeable CrossFitter to help you.

The answer to this question, as passed  to me, has always been: Yes.  🙂  Meaning – both.  For different reasons.

Scaling Weights:

If you know you cannot use the weight prescribed, make it lighter!  It’s that simple!  There is a weight that allows you to complete all the reps safely with full range of motion.

For example.  If  21 – 16 -9 kettlebell swings at 55 lbs are prescribed, but by using a 20 lb dumbbell you both complete the reps safely, challenge your muscles and increase your heart rate – do it!  If you can do the same thing safely with 35 pounds, do it.

If you are brand new, never picked up weights before and are afraid of completing 21 -15-9 with any weight, try it with a 2lb or 5 lb dumbbell.  Repeat. There is a weight at which your body can perform any movement safely.

Barbells and Overhead

Scaling Weights

Many movements call for a barbell with additional weights.  Again – if you have no experience with a barbell – you MUST ask a trainer to show you the proper way to pick the barbell off the floor.  Your back begs you to do this.  It’s a must.

Any barbell movement can be done with a PVC pipe.  If your gym does not have them, go to Home Depot or Lowes and make some.   You can get filled PVC pipes that add a little bit of weight.

Half Inch PVC Pipe is your Friend.

Same rules apply: At what weight are you able to complete full range of motion safely for the prescribed reps?  If you practice and find that, during a workout that calls for 15 reps, you are absolutely unable to get the weight up at 11 reps, make it lighter!  If you are using a PVC pipe and cannot go lighter, put it down. Take a break. Relax. Then go back and do the last 4.  You can.

Scaling Reps- The Beginner

If you are new and are simply unable to complete the prescribed amount of reps at a low weight, do fewer. It’s that simple, too.  Again, using safety and full range of motion as your guides (and hopefully with the help of a trainer as you begin), experiment.  If you are using a 2lb dumbbell and can only do 10 reps when it calls for 20, scale the workout accordingly.

Scaling Reps – Beyond Beginner
If you are beyond beginner, the solution that has been passed to me is: scale the weight, not the amount of reps.


If the workout is an AMRAP – as many rounds as possible for time – you have two choices.  This is where the answer “both” comes in.

What are you working on?  Are you working on getting stronger?  If using a heavier weight allows you to complete the workout safely within an acceptable time – even though it’s not your fastest time – do it.

Are you working on endurance and cardio?  If using a lighter weight allows you to do all the reps unbroken and safely,  do it.  Switch it up.

Disclaimer.  Here is an excellent article about Strength, Scaling and WODs. Use this as your bible.
Again Faster’s Article:  Zatsiorsky, Scaling and Power

                                                  Jen Boudreau Answers!

  Eileen’s response is excellent!   First and foremost, listen to your own body.  If you’re doing 10 reps of something, the weight you’re using should be challenging on your last rep or two.  That’s a good sign you’re where you need to be right now.  There will be some trial and error at first but when you get it, write it down!  I have a page in my training log for every lift where I keep track of the date, the rep scheme and the amount lifted.  Document however works for you, but document! It might take a couple sessions to establish your baseline on all your lifts, but then you’re golden. 

As for the specific exercises you asked about, if you don’t have a wall in the gym for wall balls, do squat throws instead.  Same as a wall ball, except instead of aiming for the wall, you’re throwing straight up and aiming for the ceiling.

And if you can’t run, don’t.  Sub out rowing, Spinning, even jump rope for cardio.  Just try to mimic the intended intensity of the workout.  For example, if running a 400 meter to warm up is what you’re looking to sub, go for a nice easy row or ride.  If it’s 400 meter sprints you’re looking to replicate, then you better step up the intensity, usually with resistance and cadence (go harder, go faster).

There are actually ways to modify push ups that are preferable, in my opinion, to going straight to modified knee push ups, especially for heavier people. Floor pushups require you to lift a large percentage of your body weight, and if you don’t yet have the abdominal and back strength, this can result in straining through your torso and things hurting. Wall push ups (literally doing your pushups against the wall, rather than the floor)allow you to practice your form without straining through the torso. As your strength increases, the incline should decrease. So you can progress from the wall, to a bench, to a step, to the floor.

And while we’re on the subject of intensity, you mentioned that you were ‘heavy and out of shape’.  Please listen to your body and don’t push too hard.  Being out of shape puts inordinate amounts of stress on our bodies and all its systems.  High intensity WoDs do the same thing.  Right now you’re trying to improve your health.  Adding stress on top of stress to your system, regardless of whether it’s good stress or bad stress, is going to increase all problems…from hormones to cortisol levels and beyond.  So I love the fact that you’re looking for information on how to appropriately scale workouts, but even with that information, please make sure that you’re taking ample recovery days and that you’re not working out to exhaustion. 


About Eileen Taggart

Flagstaff Real Estate Agent. Top Producer. Olympic Weightlifter. Facebooker. Laughter is everything.

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