Workout Scaling. What is it? Why do it?

What’s the deal with workout scaling anyway.  Why is it important, who should do it and when should you look into correcting some of the issues that cause you to scale in the first place?

Scaling workouts is something that’s been around since the beginning of exercise.  Whether you were pumping iron with your gym bro and he was stronger than you, or perhaps you were injured in your sport and had to sit on the sidelines while recovering. Even more current, you’re in a group fitness setting and there are certain movements you cannot do. Scaling is something that we all will practice at one point or another.  There’s no shame in scaling workouts. In fact, in most cases it will help you get a better workout.  

At Westchester Fit we have an extensive array of individual and group service offerings.  For the purposes of this article we will focus on scaling workouts as it pertains to a group setting.

There are a few different situations in which we as coaches would implement scaling in a workout, so let’s discuss the 4 most common cases.

1. Scaling the weight – When we program workouts and give an RX, it is a basic guideline to give both experienced and brand new exercisers a framework.  It gives the more experienced athletes a good target and baseline to go off of, while giving newbies a specific target for where they want to be.  If you’ve known me long enough you’ve probably heard me discuss the importance of weight training at nauseam.  With that being said, it is absolutely essential to be able to show mastery in the mechanics of each movement before progressing the weights.  If you “tweak” something, or push too hard because your mechanics are not there, it defeats the entire purpose of our exercise program.  The point is to make your body more resilient and avoid injury, so in many cases  the coaches will scale the weight in a workout for you in order for you to get the correct stimulus, build strength, while moving correctly.

2. Scaling the reps – Another way in which a workout might be scaled is in terms of the number of repetitions to be performed.  Scaling the number of reps can be done in a few different ways, I’ll give three examples now:

Beginner – Let’s say we have someone who just graduated from their ONRAMP and they are still de-conditioned.  The workout of the day starts with 50 burpees and that is simply too much for said individual.  We as coaches will think of a time frame in which the work should be completed and then scale the number of reps for that person to accomplish that task.  In this instance let’s say 25-30 total reps instead of 50.

Learning the skill – Another way in which we may scale the reps on a workout is if someone has finally conquered a movement such as a handstand push-up, but the workout calls for higher volume than this athlete can tolerate.  Let’s say the workout has 5 rounds and each round starts with 10 handstand push-ups.  Rather than changing the movement altogether, we want this athlete to get exposure to the movement and improve.  We may give them 3-4 reps per round depending on their proficiency to give them exposure to the movement.

Strength Bias – The last way we may scale a workout for reps is in the instance of someone training with a strength bias in mind.  Let’s say we have a female athlete with a goal of increasing overall strength.  The conditioning piece of the workout calls for 10 deadlift reps at 115 pounds in a 15 minute AMRAP.  Knowing that this athlete wants to get stronger, we might scale this portion of the workout for her to 3-5 reps @ 75% of their 1RM.  The lower volume and higher weight will allow this athlete to work towards their goal.

As you can see there is quite a bit of individualization in each of these scenarios.  Luckily, our expert coaches at Westchester Fit are able to do this regularly and with ease.  Goal setting really helps us dial in these modifications even more so.

3. Scaling the Volume (distance) – Scaling the volume shares many similarities to scaling the reps.  The idea here is to adjust the “total work” for a workout in order to meet a client where they are.  One of the most common ways we do this outside of scaling reps, is cutting down the volume on a given movement.  The ones most commonly scaled are the “cardio” movements such as rowing, running, skiing and biking.  The idea again is to think about how long it would take the average person to finish a 400m run (for example) and then cut back the distance for a beginner to have them achieve the same stimulus.  This is a great way to expose them to the cardio movement, without overwhelming them, especially when they aren’t ready.

4. Scaling the Movement – Scaling the movement altogether is one of the most frequent scales we encounter.  It’s also the most frustrating for clients.  Why would we scale a movement altogether?  

For starters, sometimes injuries arise that will not allow an athlete to safely perform a movement.  In other cases “workout anxiety” (box jumps, running, burpees) might prevent athletes from performing the workouts.  Lastly, extremely high skill movements such as ring muscle ups, might force coaches to change the movements, to what we would call “skill transfer” exercises that will help build competency in those movement patterns. 

In all of the above cases workout scaling is 100% appropriate.  The hardest part of scaling the workout is the very real mental hurdle and frustration that we’ve all dealt with.  If this becomes a regular thing, or there are certain movements that you “always have to scale” there are 3 simple things that I would tell any of my athletes to consider.

Adopt a different mindset.  Be thankful for what your body can do versus what you can’t do.  If you’re not willing to do what it takes to correct the issue, then allow us to do what we do best and give you the best hour of your day.

Visit the doctor.  If there is an actual structural issue that requires repair in order for you to perform movements, then you should allow the wonders of modern medicine to do their trick or adopt a different mindset and be happy with what you can do.

Book an assessment with a coach.  This is obviously my favorite option.  Not everything requires a medical procedure and MOST issues can be solved with very specific training.  The 1 on 1 training can look different for everyone, but if you’re willing to put the work in, build the appropriate levels of strength and mobility in certain joints aka the boring work, we can help most people get back to the point where scaling the movement is no longer part of their daily repertoire.

If you’d like to discuss scaling in more detail, or how we can help you resolve any of your physical issues please shoot me an email. I’m always happy to chat 🙂

– Coach Chris

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