Scaling and Progression Coaching Tools

Scaling vs. progression. Do you have both tools in your coaching arsenal?
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Any gym owner knows how golden the “What we do is universally scalable” bomb is. Personally, it’s my favorite part of CrossFit. Everyone can play. Then they’ll say, “But I’ve seen the CrossFit Games on ESPN. How is that possible?”

Scaling is how.

It’s the long-forgotten beauty of barbells. You can make them about as heavy or as light as you’d like. We can load a barbell for my mom and we can load a different barbell for LeBron James. Problem solved, right?

Well, maybe. You see, scaling, in my opinion, is obviously critical but potentially shortsighted. To be clear, when I say “scale,” I mean altering the load and volume of any particular movement to suit the fitness level of the athlete in training. For example, “The super athletes in class will do 155-pound cleans, and since it’s your first day, Mrs. Johnson, you’ll do 65 pounds.”

That’s all fine and well. Heck, sometimes it’s perfectly appropriate. But I’d like to interject that there’s an additional tool that may be underused in our community. We’ll call it using progression. It’s with a progression-based approach that one would first front squat before they ever clean a barbell. Or, maybe on a shoulder-to-overheads day, a coach would encourage a new athlete to strict press or maybe push press before learning and performing any jerks.

Progression-based training leads students up a ladder of increasing demands of fitness and skill like stepping stones. Think about what world-class coaches like Carl Paoli do so well. They move athletes from A to B with a progression from basic to badass.

It seems obvious, but I’d argue that the default experience is that everyone ought to do everything, with the caveat that the beginners just “go lighter.” In my view, especially when a base of strength (or lack thereof) and skill set (or lack thereof) are involved, surely scaling is a key strategy, but progression would be a great asset as well.

Athletes and coaches, do you have experience with both scaling and progression? One or the other? When is the right time and place to use scaling? Progression?