The One Question to Ask to Figure Out How to Scale Your WOD

This article  originally appeared on Barbend.com.

Whether you’re still in the toddler stage of your fitness career, coming back from an injury, or just building confidence, at some point we all have to ask ourselves, “Should I scale this workout?” Once you’ve figured that out, the next question is usually, “How should I scale this workout?”

Often, coaches are so busy trying to make sure the new guy doesn’t decapitate himself with an empty barbell that athletes who know what they’re doing but aren’t super experienced get lost in the shuffle. Depending on the workout, coaches often tell athletes something along the lines of scaling to a weight that you can move easily, or one where you break it up into manageable sets. The problem is, most athletes are doing the workout for the first time. They don’t know how their body is going to feel until they’re into the workout.

Newer athletes also may not know how different movements exhaust the body. They’ll remember a time when they successfully completed a high volume workout with 95lb push presses and running, but will get confused and physically crushed when they start failing 95lb push presses in a workout that also contained high volume burpees and wall walks.  Most people usually just pick a weight and figure it out along the way, which either means they’re done 10 minutes before everyone else, or they’re regularly capped and don’t understand why they seem to be having more trouble than the rest of the group.

A solution to the scaling question lies in the intended intensity of a workout. Instead of asking, “What weight should I use?” or “how heavy should it be?” ask your coach, “What sort of intensity am I going for?”Fran and Fran-like workouts, for example, are supposed to be quick and dirty and leave you in a heap on the floor. Your central nervous system should be so taxed that it takes twice as long (or longer) to recover as it did to finish the workout. 

If you have to break the thrusters into multiple sets with a significant rest in between each set, and then take time to finagle your way into a band to get through the pull ups, you’re not experiencing the intensity Fran is trying to accomplish. You’re better off using an empty barbell doing ring-rows so your little heart to its cardiovascular max and your brain can go to a dark, dark place.

Conversely, a workout like King Kong is designed to be so heavy that mentally prepping and resting for the barbell work is part of the workout. You’ll be dead tired at the end of it, but unless you’re a freak elite athlete, you shouldn’t have Fran lung or be incapacitated for 10 minutes.

3 rounds for time:
1 Deadlift 455lbs
2 Muscle Ups
3 Cleans 250lbs
4 Handstand Push Ups


The goal with King Kong is to rest appropriately to get as close to your max lifts as possible while still keeping your heart rate up and moving safely. The intensity and your heart rate will never be as high as it is during Fran, but in this case, that’s the point.

Good programming should have a range of intensities occur throughout the week, so there’s no shame in scaling down a workout in order to get the benefits of high intensity WODs. Just because you can slowly trudge through a workout RX doesn’t always mean that you should. The time to practice lifting heavy is during strength portions of class. When the WOD comes, it’s time to find the right intensity, scale accordingly, and get to it!