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Scaling..what did you just call me??

Miscommunication is a killer. Literally.

There are thousands of known instances where miscommunication has lead to senseless tragedy and the loss of lives. Let’s pick a big one.

In world war 2, the Japanese were asked if they would surrender, and they responded with the word “mokusatsu

The literal translation of this was “we withhold comment, pending discussion” but the translation that the United States received was closer to “ we are treating your message with contempt”.

So what happened?

The first and only time in the history of the world that nuclear weapons were used in warfare.

Pretty big miscommunication, right?

So we already know how important communicating our intent and meaning is when we relate to others, especially if they are likely to misinterpret our meaning.

I think I’m pretty good at communication, I mean I talk to people for a living and explain movements and concepts.

And yet….

….the look I get when I am coaching someone in a class or in person setting and I suggest that they scale back a movement or conditioning piece…if looks did have the ability to kill, I would be in real trouble on a regular basis. So how has this come about?

Am I doing such a poor job of miscommunication what it means to scale a workout? Or do we just have scaling all misunderstood?




gerund or present participle: scaling

  1. 1. climb up or over (something high and steep)."thieves scaled a high fence"

  2. 2. represent in proportional dimensions; reduce or increase in size according to a common scale.

    • (of a quantity or property) be variable according to a particular scale.

Maybe these people think I’m asking them to climb something…that would be understandable, that is the first definition of the word that pops up, and I’m not a big fan of heights so I might look at someone with the famous death stare if they suggested I do that instead of a nice fun workout with heavy thrusters and burpees.

But I am pretty sure they understand I am actually referring to the second definition: “reduce or increase in size according to a common scale”

My mum always told me, just because I can do something, doesn’t mean I should.

I can eat a whole box of cereal and then polish off a pack of Pop Tarts..but it probably isn’t good for me to do that.

I can thruster 60 kilograms…but it’s probably not a good idea for me to try to tackle 100 of them in a workout like Kalsu.

I think people have this perception that coaches tell them to scale weights and movements in workouts because we are trying to hold them back…we don’t want you to succeed and we would like it if you never had the ability to lift heavier or to crush workouts at an RX level…I can tell you that’s not the case or most coaches wouldn’t get out of bed at 4:30 in the morning to coach you in the morning classes..I am all about efficiency and if I was really trying to hold you back, I just wouldn’t show up and unlock the gym and that would REALLY hold you back from improving.

The most important thing I look at when I first look over a workout is what is the intention of the workout and what intensity or stimulus is it designed to provide the athlete?

I was given a perfect example to work with today when coaching a workout written as following:

10 rounds for time, with a 20 minute time cap of

15 calorie row

10 handstand pushups

10 toes to bar

Pretty spicy (to use another overused word in functional fitness) no?

To complete this workout within the given time frame you can’t really afford to mess around, and you need to hold under 2 minutes a round.

What does that mean to me?

900-1200 calories an hour pacing on the rower, with unbroken handstand pushups and unbroken toes to bar.

Is this achievable for average Joe or Jill walking into the gym? Nope.

So what do we do?


We scale the calories on the row to something that takes them the same amount of time to complete as an RX athlete on the rower and then our first option would be to scale the amount of reps on both handstand pushups and toes to bar to something that they can complete unbroken.

If we are still working on progressions on these movements then maybe we keep the reps the same but we are working on a straight leg raise or a handstand pushup with some mats to reduce range of motion, or a seated dumbbell press option.

The workout should still be tough. The workout should still be in that 18-20 minute time range to finish. The athlete should still be working on skills and improving.

And I guess that brings me to my point (finally), scaling is not designed and should not be used to make a workout easier for an athlete.

scaling is not designed and should not be used to make a workout easier for an athlete.

Scaling is designed so that you can attack a workout with the intensity it is designed to be completed at, with the level of skill and fitness that you currently possess. We are not using aspirational goals of gymnastics movements or weights to determine what we use today, we are using what we have right now.

Say we don’t scale...

Say we give our coach a filthy look and hide in the corner where we know they don’t look often and hope we just get away with it and they leave us alone.

No worries Gollum.

We crush the row... because we are good at rowing….and then we spend 5 minutes to complete the rest of the round because we are stuck with single strict handstand pushups at a time (we haven’t learnt to kip yet) and we break the toes to bar into 4 sets because we get tired…because we haven’t worked out linking yet and we need a few extra swings in between each good rep (and yes the toes do actually have to touch the bar).

The buzzer goes.

Everyone’s high fiving or laying on the ground creating their own beautiful sweat angels…we walk around in a mood because we “didn’t even sweat” and the workout was too easy, heart rate didn’t even get above 60%!

In the famous words of Dr Watson….no shit Sherlock.

Often times, doing the workout as written can cause you to have a sub par workout, because you don’t yet have the skills required or the strength, or the fitness to work at a high intensity with those more complex skills or heavier weights.

Average Jill who did 8 calories on the rower, 10 seated dumbbell strict press and 10 laying leg raises is gasping for air..because she just got 10 rounds out before the time cap and really had to hustle to do it... because she scaled appropriately and thus got the intended stimulus of the workout.

I read a great quote the other day about how “Getting stronger isn’t always the answer, but weakness never is”, and I think it applies here.

It’s not weak to scale, it’s smart and a great way to ensure that you are still progressing.

It ensures that we can work at our 80% intensity and not get roadblocked by stubbornly refusing an “easier” movement variation or a lighter load.

I see this most often with athletes who want to compete, and think that they need to be handling the RX loads and movement variations or they will never be ready to compete, and they are partially right.

Eventually if you want to play with the big dogs, you have to eat like one and you will need to be capable of doing those things.

But maybe today isn’t the day just yet, and all big dogs started as puppies at some stage.

So next time you see a workout and you’re not 100% sure on whether you should tackle it as written, ask your coach. They may not remember your birthday, and they may not know your favourite meal..but I guarantee they have been paying attention to how you move and the weights you are capable of lifting.

Just remember…scaling does not equal an easier workout.

It equals a better workout.


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