To Scale Or Not To Scale
Ladies and Gents of Gymnasia: Meet the honorable nobleman, sir Ego of the Shred.
Ego is a gold-level member of gyms everywhere. His shorts are - as a rule - way, way too tight. And his buns and guns? Well, let’s just say we’re all better off without that visual.
For Ego, no barbell is too heavy, no movement too technical, no workout too hard or skill too advanced. Nevermind that his back hurts like hell from deadlifting as round as a drunk camel. Or that he has T-Rex arms, because he doesn’t work on his mobility. Pay no attention to him skipping a third of the workout because he can’t do chin-over-the-bar pull-ups or run a mile for sh*t. Be not mistaken, he still thinks he’s the gym king.
Each of us have met Ego. And while in some cases it can be a very helpful influence on us, in others the noble Sire can be an absolute pest.
For example, while Gregory Greatform is trying to deadlift properly (open chest, straight back, feet hip-width, shoulders and hip rising simultaneously at first pull), here comes Ego. He whispers to Gregory that “the hottie from the sauna is watching again and ya better chuck two twenties on each side if you wanna look like a man.”
So, Gregory throws on the weight because he can. Apparently. And post-haste walks right over to the “pain-cake house” with Ego to tr(eat) his new lower back injury. He’s made no significant progress and didn’t sweat a lick. He didn’t even clean up his barbell because, well... It was too heavy. Smooth.
This is where scaling would’ve come in very handy. Some of us go to the gym for aesthetics, others to improve mental and physical health. And there are a plethora of other goals driving us: Increasing mobility, losing fat, gaining muscle, improving athletic performance, etc. The common factor is that scaling serves all levels and goals.
Why Scaling Is Cool.
The top priority during training should be staying true to the intented stimulus of the workout, while working to full range of motion and minimizing injury risk. We want to get the desired benefit out of training, without sacrificing our health.
For example, let’s say you’re trying to lose fat. If you put too much weight on the bar, you’ll wreck yourself and end up like our genius from above. It’ll take forever to shed the shmello, plus you’ll develop back-issues that will keep you out of the gym, indefinitely.
On the other hand, if you commit to repping it out with less weight and perfect form at a faster pace, you’ll see significant muscle gain. This is because you’ve increased the intensity, simply doing more work in the same amount of time. You’ll also see that layer of protection going bye-bye real quick. You’ll be moving safely without pain and able to show up fresh for training the next day.
Hopefully this is the norm in your gym community. It's hard to be the responsible athlete if you're surrounded by people encouraging you to "forget the form, just get it up there."
The Other Factors.
Injury risk, range of motion and workout stimulus are influenced by our level of mobility, technique, strength and skill. To minimize these factors, we can scale the load, level of complexity of a movement, repcount or timecap.
That allows us to work at the targeted intensity, safely and to full range of motion. Which then delivers the intended, maximum results. Let’s say you can’t get your chin over the bar in a strict pull-up yet, but you can get it up there using an elastic band. Then use the band! By doing so, you’ll be working all the muscles involved from the hang position to the top of the pull, instead of just those involved to mid-pull. You’ll soon be able to go to a lighter band. And then none.
Fun fact: Specifically focusing on scaling to do the full range of motion in each movement ensures a much higher hormonal and neural response in your body. This is how you accelerate your progress significantly, whatever your goal. Or if we’re talking aesthetics, which one is better: A) Proportional, symmetrical, streamlined muscle from balanced, full-range training, or B) Huge biceps but no triceps? Don’t be that person.
The thing I observe most as a coach, is impatience. The ego is the master of instant gratification. Ask yourself why - and for whom - you’re really showing up to train. Are you there merely to feed your ego? Or are you showing up consistently to improve your overall health and fitness?
If the first, make sure to always have a fresh stack of “pain-cakes” ready after not lifting for an hour because of a snapped bicep on an uncontrolled curl.
If it’s the second, let’s think long-term. We want to be able to hike up mount Kilimanjaro with our great-grandkids, when we’re 150 years old. That requires a long-lasting, adaptable, solid foundation for our fitness, in every one of its many domains.
Not sure how to scale properly? Ask your gym to help! Getting people to move safely and at the correct stimulus, should be part of the focus at any good gym. It's why we pay more for CrossFit (and love it).
Building such a lifelong foundation will take some time. There are no shortcuts. Our bodies have their own tempo. As babies, we didn’t go from zero to walking in a day. As adults, we can’t go from a 20kg back squat to 100kg in a month.
Our muscles need to adjust. Bones need to increase in density and cells need to build more mitochondria so we can get energy more quickly. Hormones and nerves need to level up, mobility needs to improve and core stability needs to increase.
Scaling properly to fit that ultimate goal of long-term health will support your body in doing exactly that. This way, you can get the maximum gains out of each workout, while improving the fastest and healthiest way possible and be injury-free for years to come.
And finally, ask that hottie out for a protein shake.
Written by: Yael Haze, PushPress