Scaling Isn’t a Dirty Word

By Thom Wendelboe (Owner @ Tidal CrossFit York Mills)



A dirty word to most. In my experience merely uttering the “s” word garners reactions akin to much more nefarious phrases. As soon as the hard sc is out of my mouth I see scrunched up faces, snarled noses, and contempt filled eye rolls. An unfortunate reaction. Scaling is a necessary, and dare I say wonderful, part of CrossFit. Proper scaling preserves the intended stimulus of the day’s workout despite a myriad of limitations, such as experience, injury, range of motion, or even when an “RX” athlete has hit a plateau.

“Scaling is a necessary, and dare I say wonderful, part of CrossFit.”

In order to lessen the intimidation factor of CrossFit, I introduce most new athletes to scaling during their first Foundations session (see our programs for more details).  I often scrawl up a workout on a white board for first timers that includes pull ups. And a small part of me enjoys the look of fear as they read over my chicken scratch. Of course, I quickly cross out the pull up out and replace it with ring rows. Ring rows are great. The difficulty is easy to modify and the concept – it’s a reverse push up – is simple to teach. With scaling an insurmountable task becomes conquerable.

Scaling is also a necessity when an athlete presents with range of motion or injury issues. Low back pain is a common facet of life for most people. While sitting and a sedentary life is often the culprit, poor movement patterns can exacerbate pre-existing issues. The kettlebell swing, for instance, is a great developer of the posterior chain – think glutes and hammies. However, many struggle with the hip hinge motion necessary for an efficient swing when intensity is added. Simplifying the movement to a KB deadlift allows athletes to practice the hinge pattern without the dynamism of the swing. Scaling solutions such as the kettlebell deadlift strengthens poor patterns and teaches proper movement under intense conditions.

There are instances when experienced athletes should also consider scaling workouts, even if they are able to complete the prescribed task “RX.” More advanced workouts may require even hardened veterans to reduce weight, reps, or scale movements. For instance, the workout Amanda (9-7-5 Muscle Up and Squat Snatch 135/95) should be completed in under 12 minutes. While there is something to be said for struggling through awkward slow single snatches and making muscle up attempts every 30 seconds, it isn’t the intended stimulus of Amanda.  In this instance, modifying is the best course of action.

“More advanced workouts may require even hardened veterans to reduce weight, reps, or scale movements.”

While reducing weight on some of the heavier WODs is common practice, there is a tendency to avoid scaling gymnastics movements. I often cringe – now it’s my turn for the scrunched up face – when athletes begin a chest-to-bar or toe-to-bar workout with singles. In most instances, it would be beneficial to find a scale that facilitates progress towards mastery. For example, building strength in the full range of motion required for a chest-to-bar with strict banded pull ups will make learning the movement significantly easier. Similarly, scaling toe-to-bar to a strict leg raise will help build the core control necessary to string the movement together. Sloppy singles may get you that RX, but they won’t get you better.

Whatever the reason for scaling, workouts are modified to maintain predetermined time domains and preserve specific movement patterns. Scaling is about making the workout your own. Our experienced coaches want you to get the most out of your time at Tidal and put considerable effort in behind the scenes learning how to make each class as personalized as possible.


Thom Wendelboe
Owner / Manager @ Tidal CrossFit York Mills