I love CrossFit. You may have heard that here before.
But CrossFit isn't a "one size fits all" program. It's pretty likely that you have heard someone from CF HQ expounding upon the "scalability" of all things CrossFit. It truly is one of the assets of the CF system. But I bet you think about one thing when you hear talk of "scaling" a workout:
"Scaling is for newbies."
I don't mean to imply that you have a sneer of superiority on your face when you say that. (I'll assume you don't). One of the purposes of scaling a workout is certainly that, yeah, maybe sometimes someone shows up at the local box for the first time and he or she is in better shape for beer pong than for the workout of the day. Too many years on the couch, and pullups aren't going to happen right off the bat. Or maybe someone's nemesis is the box jump, or the snatch, or... whatever movement he or she isn't quite up to doing when the person begins CF.
There is simply no doubt that "scaling" a workout down in reps, or modifying movements, is a way to get a new CrossFitter over the initial hump of "I can't do that."
But it's not the only way to scale, or the only reason for doing so.
Most people understand that there is an enormous difference between doing CrossFit for general health and fitness and actually competing in CrossFit as a "sport." But I think the impression is that the principal distinction between the two is that the "CF as a sport" CrossFitters just do more than whatever workout that the health/longevity/fitness folks are doing. The "sport" CrossFitters are the ones trying to qualify for regionals, competing in the CF Open not just to get some idea of where they stack up against the monsters of the game, but because they want to join the monsters and throw down at the highest levels of the sport So you will find them doing extra work, often a lot of extra work.
And that's cool. It makes sense because the extra effort fits their goals.
But let's get back to the health/longevity/fitness crew. Even after the newbie phase has passed, and those CrossFitters don't "need" to scale workouts down, are their goals all the same?
Probably not. A typical CF box -- let's say, the one that I belong to, for instance -- has in its membership all sorts of people who will tell you they are there for reasons of general fitness, long life, happiness, etc., as opposed to an effort to qualify for regionals in the "sport"' of CrossFit. But within that fairly large group of people who are, ostensibly, just there to "get fit and stay that way," there is a lot of variation. There are young people, and 50-somethings like me (or older), and everything in between. There are toned, muscular, already-fit folks who are occasionally dabbling in local competitions between boxes, and then there are people who are there just because they want to improve body composition and would like to pick up heavy things around the house -- like their kids, or grandkids -- without pain. In fact, sometimes members of that latter group get so damned fit that they start thinking about joining the former crew and hitting a throwdown at a local box.
And here's the catch: within all those groups are a myriad of different goals. Different goals can present options for "scaling" a workout that go far past that "newbie" shit that you associated scaling with when you first started reading this.
Here's the dirty secret for most of us: scaling often makes sense, but it's our egos that are stopping us from doing smart, intelligent training modifcations that fit our goals.
Maybe your box is doing the "Filthy Fifty." Although you can finish that workout, it's going to take you 40 minutes to do so. You are slow at those movements and you are also unhappy with your body composition. In fact, you joined CrossFit to "burn off" some fat that's accumulated over the last few years. The best prescription for fat burning that I know of is contained in Jason Seib's book The Paleo Coach, and the exercise component of that plan is: heavy lifting a few days a week, walking every day and a few short sprint-length metcons per week. If fat loss is your goal, what exactly are you doing grinding out a 40-minute metcon? I can tell you what you are not doing: heavy lifting and a short sprint-style metcon. And you are probably so smoked from the 40-minute grind that the walking part of a fat-loss program is not going to happen that day either. You've just jacked up your cortisol levels so high from prolonged, excessive exercise stress that you may very well have added fat to your midsection. By doing a workout you probably shouldn't have done. Yes. Really.
You're an older dude -- say... a 50-something drummer with a somewhat gnarled right arm from years of the music grind. You are doing CF solely to live long, strong-ish and healthy. Olympic lifts? Some of 'em are OK. Snatches and cleans feel all right in singles or pairs, but jerks? Not so much. And none of the O-lifts feels good when done in a repetitive fashion, like 30 cleans as part of a metcon, or 30 snatches. They just plain fucking hurt in that kind of volume. Today's metcon is a 1000m row, followed by 30 power cleans. But you "suck it up" and do it as prescribed, even though you knew that you could substitute kettlebell swings for those cleans with almost no pain at all. Your right elbow is on fire afterwards.
I can only think of two reasons that you might have made either of those mistakes: (1) you didn't know any better, in Example #1 because you have never read similar advice from that book (and a lot of other sources) to go short, hard and heavy for fat loss, or, in Example #2, because it is literally the first time you ever tried repetitive O-lifts, or (2) you actually knew all of that, but you felt "dumb" or didn't want to stick out as the "weird kid" by modifying the first workout to a shorter version (e.g., "the Terrible Twenties"), or the second to include KB swings. I get the first reason, but now you know, so that won't be the reason next time. The second reason is your ego, plain and simple. You didn't want to "stick out" by scaling or modifying the workout.
You can't blame your trainer, because your trainer -- if he or she is worth the money you pay -- is never going to tell a client that the client can't "scale" a workout to reach a goal or to avoid further injury. You can't blame your momma, because she always told you not to give a fuck what the other kids say -- although it's possible she was a little more polite about it.
This one is on you.
Let's give your ego the b-slap it needs.... Scaling or modifying a metcon -- or even a heavy lift -- isn't just for newbies. It's called knowing your goals and working out in a smart way to achieve them.
Maybe you are the next Rich Fucking Froning (yes, that's actually his middle name), and striving for CF Games glory. Have at it, dude. Train like a beast. Or maybe you are a pretty fit CFer who is really happy with where you are at body-comp and fitness-wise, but you want to take a stab at some local CF competitions. Yeah, you probably shouldn't do a lot of downward scaling below the level of where those competions will be. In fact, you might want to occasionally scale upwards to test yourself to see if you are ready to try to reach those goals. But maybe, just maybe, you are like me -- because I'm the barely-disguised dude in Example #2 -- and want just to stay fit, decently strong and free of further injury. Or maybe you see yourself in Example #1, at the stage of CrossFit where what you want the most is to get fitter and drop a few sizes -- you know, fat loss is your primary goal right now. You may need to scale/modify downward on a workout. And, if you do, you should hold your head high, do the workout that works for you, and politely tell your ego to fuck off.
Smart exercise is no different than smart eating. What you do, and how you do it, depends on your goals. Life: modify as necessary.