Scaling CrossFit Workouts
Imagine two people walked into CrossFit Petram, Rich Froning and a grandma with a partial hip replacement (we'll call her Doris, after my grandma). Rich and Doris both came in looking for a tough but safe workout, so they can get fitter and reach their respective goals.
Since CrossFit is inclusive and founded on the concept of relative intensity both Rich and Doris can do the same workout. By modifying movements we can keep both athletes working at the same level. One may be doing strict handstand push ups, while the other does over head presses with a PVC, but each athlete is stressing their bodies to a similar degree.
Modifying workouts like this is called scaling. There are a few different reasons that a coach may scale a workout.
One of the reasons why we scale workouts is simply strength. If Rich and Doris are doing a workout with deadlifts it does not make sense for them to use the same weight, neither one would benefit from this.
To scale strength we typically use a percentage of an individuals one repetition max (1RM). For example a common strength workout would be "5 sets of 5 back squats at 70% of your 1RM." This standardized method allows athletes to safely stress their bodies, without the danger of overreaching.
Scaling also allows us to give athletes the ability to develop skill based movements. If our workout of the day called for muscle ups, it wouldn't make much sense to expect Doris to complete this. Instead we would have her working on a progression of that skill, such as ring rows.
It is a novice mistake to try to rush past simple progressions into more advanced movements. Your skills will be sloppy and your workouts will show it. Always insist on being brilliant at the basics.
Injuries that happen in or outside the gym shouldn't mean that you vegetate while recovering. A skilled coach will be able to scale workouts that are tough but keeps every athlete safe. For instance since Doris has a partial hip replacement we can't expect her to hit heavy back squats on her first day.
Instead we would gradually develop her squatting strength through modified squats, like box squats. This allows her to safely build strength and mobility without putting her hips through a dangerous range of motion.
The Take Away
If you are ever unsure if you should scale ask your coach. There should never be any shame in scaling. Absolutely everyone that has ever done CrossFit has scaled workouts for one reason or another.
Insist on building the basics and greatness will follow.