Why We Scale Workouts (or Why RX is Bullshit.)
I’ve been out of the gym for 2 months with the hat-trick from hell of shoulder surgery, a spasming back and diverticulitis. Before that I was in mod mode with a torn rotator cuff for months. Today, I went back. I was a fraction of the CrossFit athlete that I was this time last year, and it was awesome. I was proud of myself for being there. I was proud of my slow and meticulously accurate movements. I was proud of my technique bar with no weight on it, as it showed not only that I was getting back at it, but that I was being careful and listening to my body, working for it and with it, not trying to boost my ego with big numbers.
But more than that, as a coach and a gym owner, it was a great opportunity to suit action to word. I am constantly telling people that scaling workouts is not a compromise, it is not a lesser achievement, it is how you get the best workout for your body, and that’s why you’re here, isn’t it?
If you know me – or train with me – you know that I hate the concept of RX workouts. (For the non CrossFit amongst us, CrossFit workouts are often written with “prescribed” weights, which are then modified down for most people.) I think that it, in general, creates an environment in which people either feel like they are failing somehow, or else risk injury to do it as prescribed rather than doing what’s best for their body. When I am coaching, I often don’t write down the RX weight, which pisses off a lot of people. (I don’t care. I’m the coach, I’m one of the owners, in my classes, that’s how I generally do it.)
RX weights are, generally speaking, for the elite athletes. It’s a standard number that people need to be able to hit if they are competing so that we know that they all did the same thing. The basketball hoop isn’t lowered for shorter people in the NBA because that would be silly. So too in CrossFit competitions. The task is what the task is, whoever does it “best” wins. That makes sense. I would never want to watch the CrossFit Games without RX standards.
But I am not a competitive athlete. I don’t want to be. I would no more compare my workout to Elizabeth Akinwale and Annie Thorisdotter than I would compare my body to Pamela Anderson and my cooking skills to Julia Childs. It’s not relevant to me, in any way shape or form.
What I want is to be as strong and healthy and fit as I can be. And that means that my workouts have to be right for my body, wherever I am at the time. Right now, that’s doing overhead squats with an empty 15 pound bar.
But, why do we scale? And why is it the right thing to do?
1. To build strength and avoid injury.
There are two ways to look at a workout with weights. Heavy weight and low reps is a great way to push the edges of how much you can lift. That is, indeed, how you increase your ability to lift more weight. That’s awesome, and if you’re up against a ceiling and want to get to that next weight, then yes, you have to just do it. Assuming you can do it safely, and that’s your goal, go for it. More weight for you.
Lighter weights and more reps is also a killer workout. It’s a great way to build the muscle memory that leads to safe movement patterns, great for endurance, and will absolutely build strength. It’s also a great workout, but very different.
So when I look at a board and see that someone did 30 reps at 90 pounds, and someone else did 60 reps at 45 pounds, I don’t think that one of them is stronger or better than the other, I think that two different people did two different workouts, and they both worked hard as hell. Since this isn’t a competition, that’s awesome.
Because I am not working towards competing, or any particular goal, I tend to alternate what I do. If in my last workout I went for big weight and low reps, then my next workout will be light weight and high reps. I am not interested in competing, I am interested in being the strongest, most well-rounded version of me that I can be.
Scaling isn’t about making it easier, it’s about making it right for your body.
2. To learn to listen to your body.
There is no coach, anywhere, who can tell you what you feel. One of the reasons that I LOVE not putting an RX on the board is because it forces athletes to figure out for themselves, which means they have to figure out their bodies. (See how sneaky I am.)
It’s a 2-part process. It usually starts figuring out what your 1-Rep Max is, and then figuring what % of that you can do for whatever the workout is.
Look, obviously I can look at an athlete and tell if they’re not working “hard enough,” or if the weight is such that their form is getting sketchy and they need to back off. And I speak up when I see it. If I think they could do more, I’ll ask why they are choosing to do less. Sometimes there’s a great reason, sometimes they’ll add weight. And yes, I’m that mean coach that makes people take weight off if their form sucks. But when I do, in both cases, I’ll tell them what I see, because my job isn’t to tell you what to do, it’s to help you learn how your body works so that you can protect it.
3. To learn mechanics, safely.
This isn’t even just about weight. If someone can’t do pull-ups, we scale to ring-rows. Although we used to do banded pull-ups, it became clear that people weren’t necessarily building the right muscles and movement patterns to get to pull-ups safely. Actually, it was pretty easy to see people developing bad movement patterns. So we’ll go to ring rows pretty damned fast, and really work that shoulder engagement, using that whole muscle set down the side. And it is a killer workout, still. There’s nothing magic about pull-ups. The goal isn’t to say, “yo, boy-howdy, I did pull-ups.” It’s to get strong and stable. Ring-rows do a better job at that than banded pull-ups.
Sure, some people do CrossFit for the bragging rights. They often injure themselves quickly. As a coach, my biggest bragging right is NOT HURTING YOU. Then, getting you strong and powerful.
That torn rotator cuff I told you about? I got it doing 58 pull-ups in a classic CrossFit workout we call Cindy. I was proud of my 58 pull-ups, until I figured out that I injured myself doing it. There are no bragging rights for hurting yourself with that heady combination of bad form and big ego and not paying attention to your body.
4. To equalize stability and mobility.
Most of us are imbalanced in our strength and mobility. I know lots of athletes who can move heavy weight, but have shit for flexibility in their joints. Guess what they need to work on? Mobility. Guess how you do that? Lower weight, more reps and lots of stretching.
I am blessed with excellent mobility, but not much strength. Guess what I need to work on? Stability. Guess how I do that? More weight, less reps.
Ideally, we are both stable and mobile. But we need to forever be chasing that balance because a mobile joint that can’t support the weight you’re using on it will blow out in any number of ways. And strength without mobility will only serve you so far in the real world. Being able to lift that heavy thing won’t do you much good if you can’t get it into a position to carry it, or get it where it needs to go.
Knowing what you need and how to get it is how you get yourself strong.
5. To rock the real world.
As a bunch of us were getting ready for The Penalty Box today (100 overhead squats broken up with 3 box jumps every minute on the minute) I was setting my empty bar and my 16″ box. I watched a woman warming up her squat, and told her how much better it was than 3 months ago when she started. I remembered when she couldn’t break parallel, when her chest fell forward on her thighs and her knees came in. I told her how great the change was to see, and she remarked that she still feels so far behind.
Behind who? I asked. Look, instead, at how far ahead you are from when you started, because that’s what I see. And that’s the only metric that matters. Are you stronger, more stable, more empowered than when you started? Then guess what? You win.
And therein lies the real prize. Being able to do your life, however you want to, is the goal. Most of us are not going to compete in the games. Most of us are just people, who want to feel good while doing things.
For most of us, RX weights are totally meaningless, and kind of risky. You get to prescribe what’s right for your body, and it is your responsibility to learn how to do that.
That said, I love the classics, I love the leaderboard workouts. But not as a lifestyle. They’re like a tasty treat to be enjoyed sometimes, and a fun way to gauge where you are – and to let the competitive people have their day. And competition is awesome for the people who love it. Let them have it. Let’s have fun with it. But let’s not make it our all-day everyday standard.
I showed up today. It was hard, it hurt, I didn’t want to and I was not the athlete that I used to be. Or that I will be. But when I go to bed tonight, I will know that I took a big step towards being the strong person that I want to be. Light weights. Low box. Full effort.
But I won.