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How To Scale Your Workouts

May 27, 2010

One of the most important reasons for every human being to stay fit and active is to be able to handle the demands of daily life. From on-duty policeman to senior citizens, each has different and unpredictable demands. Certainly, very different concerns, but the ability to handle each requires the same basic abilities. As Coach Greg Glassman, the founder of crossfit, says, “The needs of our grandparents and soldiers differ in degree, not kind.” These needs are the functional competencies to move our own body and objects through three-dimensional space. In other words, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do on a daily basis, every person need to train the same types of functional movement for optimal physical health and fitness.

Something that tends to stop many people from starting an exercise program though is that sometimes working out can seem daunting. There might be unfamiliar exercises, fear of injury, or just anxiety about where to start. Scaled training is the answer to all these exercise dilemmas.

So what is scaling?

Scaling usually refers to dropping the number of repetitions or sets in a workout, lowering the weight, or modifying the movement so that a workout can be completed. These are all very effective ways to scale training while still maintaining safe and maximal outcomes.

In the Bonfirehealth program, the workout of the day (WOD) is already scaled custom to your ability since when you join the program you will be grouped into a level that suits your needs.  The three groups are:

Level 1 mover: Beginner to exercise to light exerciser.

Level 2 mover: Moderate exerciser to those who exercise on a regular basis.

Level 3 mover: More advanced athlete to elite athlete.  

The benchmark WOD for each day of the week is scaled appropriately to suit each level’s ability.  For example: Level 1 movers could have a workout that includes walking and wall pushups, Level 2 movers have a workout that includes a run and either standard pushups or pushups from your knees, and Level 3 movers have a workout completed as fast as possible that includes sprinting and clapping pushups. 

Each of these workouts has relatively the same type of functional movement demands that are modified and done at different levels of intensity. This way each individual is able to get the prescribed amount of work done while appropriately challenging their fitness and skill. 

How do I scale a workout that is too difficult for me?

Here are the 3 best ways to scale a workout while still being able to maximize gains in overall fitness and skill:

1. Scale down the weight so that you can complete all the repetitions needed to do the workout.  If you’re fatigued afterwards, and you’ve kept moving throughout, you will still gain strength.

For example: If you need to scale a workout that calls for 15 lb dumbbell presses for 20 repetitions, you may want to grab 10 lb dumbbells instead so you can still complete all the necessary reps. You should aim to scale down just enough so that the last few reps take a bit more effort and force you to really focus. If you’ve scaled down to far, you’ll find yourself busting out the last few reps will relative ease.

2. Sometimes workouts are just too tough, or will take too long to complete. In that case, it might be necessary to drop down the number of repetitions and the weight.

For example: Instead of doing 3 rounds of 30 repetitions of a certain movement you could do 3 rounds of 20 repetitions.  This way you can still complete a high number of repetitions the workout calls for without losing the high-repetition demand of the workout.

3. Modify an exercise so you can still complete a similar movement pattern that a workout calls for.  This allows you to complete your workout while continuing to improve on the necessary skill to being able to do more advanced movements. 

For example: If you are unable to perform a pull-up then you can scale down the movement and do jumping pull-ups instead.

The key to exercise is that you should start no matter your fitness level. Scaling down is not an admission of weakness or something to be ashamed of.  Even super fit athletes will need to scale down at times. The workouts prescribed on and are something to aim towards as your goal. They are aspiring for the vast majority of starting out, but read people’s testimonies on and and you will see how others have gone from barely being a level 1 mover to being able to participate in sports they used to love. But more importantly, they improved their health and fitness from day one.

Your health coach,

Dr. Ryan Hewitt

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