Progressions versus Scaling

By Zack Finer

One of the cornerstones of the CrossFit® method is the ability to scale a workout so anyone can do it. This is one of the biggest reasons CrossFit® has become so popular over the last decade. The ability to scale a workout allows a newer athlete or less fit person to complete a workout at an appropriate level for their abilities in a group setting with people of various skill levels. Over the last few years we have seen that scaling workouts has a major drawback; a drawback that slows people’s progress and halts their development of more complex movements.

There is another approach which avoids these problems. Instead of scaling difficult movements down, good training methods will guide people through progressions.

First, let’s talk about the difference between “scaling” and “progressions” because the differences matter and they are NOT the same thing. Scaling usually takes the form of the same movement with less load. A good example would be calling for thrusters with 95lbs and scaling this down to an empty barbell. The 95 lb. barbell may be perfect for a fit 25 year old athlete, whereas the empty barbell may be more appropriate for a 65 year old just starting out. But what if that 65 year old has trouble squatting? Should they still do full range of motion thrusters? This is where progressions come in. A progression is a path you travel along to ensure you do the movement safely and correctly. Scaling is decreasing the load.

A good example for the broader CrossFit® community would be pull-ups. An example of scaling is banded pull ups. All that is changed is the “weight”, but the range of motion in the movement is unchanged. A progression is used to build first the strength and movement quality of a pull-up and then develop it as a tool for work capacity. This may look more like working the negatives without a band, or even doing a different movement such as bent over rows. The different movement is building shoulder strength, which will allow the athlete to develop pull-ups, even though it doesn’t look like a pull-up. Analyzing the qualities needed to reach a goal and developing those qualities is the hallmark of a well designed progression.

So when do we use scaling, and when do we use progressions? Progression is the means to acquiring a NEW skill or athletic ability. If the goal is to perform a movement which is currently not possible for the athlete, you first have to break the movement into its essential parts and make sure that each part gets developed. For instance, if you currently can’t perform a ring muscle-up, you have three choices:

  1. Break the movement into parts and practice the parts separately
  2. Practice the whole movement using help from a band
  3. Momentum

The first approach works far better in the long run. Making sure that you have the ability to perform deep ring dips and very high pull-ups before trying to perform a muscle-up is an approach that works consistently. The second option, doing muscle-up practice with a band or kip to get through the transition, works for some people but it is inconsistent and leads to many plateaus and injuries. You are going to limp along for longer. The third option is not recommended, using momentum in place of foundational strength. We never recommend this approach for acquiring a new ability.

If you are already able to perform a few muscle-ups, then scaling can be an effective way to adjust your workouts. You can do a few muscle-ups with added weight for an intense strength workout. Or you can do many muscle-ups with help from a band for a high volume workout. The key idea here is that scaling the muscle-ups is effective for you because you can already do muscle-ups! If you fundamentally cannot do a muscle up, you must work on the parts of it rather than do it with less than normal load.

Other good examples would be front squats before cleans, handstands before heavy military presses, and heavy military presses before handstand push-ups.