Movement and Workout Modifications

Crafting movement and workout modifications is one of the greatest weapons in a CrossFit coach’s arsenal. It is also, unfortunately, one of the most under-utilized. Some of that deficiency stems from inherently difficult administrative and logistical obstacles related to coaching large groups of diverse fitness participants through comprehensive daily workouts in moderately confined spaces. Some of it has to do with simple ignorance or the lack of knowledge, which should absolutely be addressed by competent trainers, local affiliate owners, and CrossFit Headquarters. There are other reasons, of course, but one of the biggest (and the most relevant to this discussion) is the paralyzing cloud of suspicion and hesitation that hangs over members who would otherwise seek movement and workout modifications.

For many, modifications are taboo, and accepting them—let alone actively requesting scaling options—is a mark of defeat that alienates some participants from others that “go Rx” day after day. If our perception of modifications precludes us from taking advantage of them, then we must learn to approach them from a different perspective. I believe the best way to do that is to explore how modifications can be used to enhance participants’ training experiences. What follows are a few sets of circumstances common to the CrossFit training context under which modifications are not just appropriate, but beneficial.

The most common scaling conundrum involves loading. CrossFit workouts are typically prescribed with assigned weights that are fixed for all athletes, regardless of their respective individual capacities. The impetus for this is a basic bedrock of the CrossFit competition context: all athletes have to be put on the same playing field, in order to evaluate who is the “fittest”, overall; however, with respect to daily CrossFit participants, this inflexibility serves little functional purpose. The vast majority of global CrossFit affiliate members are not Games-caliber athletes, and loading—whether it be on a barbell, by way of a kettlebell, or via some alternative training implement—is an important safety consideration that can never be overlooked. Outside of the CrossFit competition context, proportionality should be our guide, and we should select weights for athletes based on the abilities and limitations of each.

Another circumstance under which crafting modifications is entirely appropriate is when accommodating injury. There are two things we absolutely do not want to do when an injury arises. First, we do not want to make the injury worse. Second, we do not want to discourage participants from exercising or partaking in some kind of physical recreation. “Rest” is always the first remedy promoted by healthcare professionals and at-home self-proclaimed WebMD experts, when it comes to treating physiological injuries. But abstaining from physical activity is one of the worst things we can do for our long-term physical (and emotional) wellbeing. Nevertheless, extreme strain at the situs of the injury can cause permanent damage. Modifying movements and workouts is, therefore, one productive way to straddle the line between allowing participants to slip into stagnate existences and exposing them to the threat of compound physiological damage.

Finally, we all have bad training days. That is a common reality faced by CrossFit participants and athletes of all talents, abilities, and capacities. On such days, there may very well be a justification for tweaking a workout to reflect a present mental state. It could mean lightening a load or supplementing a complex gymnastics movement with a more elementary accessory movement. At any rate, it is better to leave the gym with a good sweat and your self-esteem intact than to depart hurt, frustrated, and/or distraught.

Our primary goal as CrossFit coaches is to establish for our clients a malleable training template that can facilitate sustainable long-term fitness progress. Inflexibility, with respect to programming movements and implementing workouts, can be overly demanding, irresponsible, and discouraging. Modifications are available to help, not to hinder.
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