A while ago, we posted a blog about scaling, about how choosing an “easier” progression isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of intelligence. In fact, most of the time choosing proper progressions will help you reach your goals faster.
Today, I want to go into scaling during strength sessions versus conditioning sessions. It comes down to this: To choose an appropriate progression, you need to understand the intention of the training session.
Let’s say, for example, you’re asked to do 5 sets of 5 strict handstand push-ups (or an appropriate progression of this) during a strength/skill session. The intention of these sets is for athletes to gain strict pressing strength. The sets should be challenging, but not impossible.
Athlete 1 can do 20 strict handstand push-ups unbroken. 5 sets of 5 would likely be very easy for this athlete and wouldn’t challenge his strict pressing strength much at all. The best course of action for this athlete might be something like 5 sets of 5 at a 3 inch deficit.
Athlete 2 can do some kipping handstand push-ups but no strict handstand push-ups. While it might be tempting for him to just turn these into kipping handstand push-ups, it would be more beneficial for gaining strict pressing strength for him to keep his sets strict. Best course of action for this athlete might be to work on negative handstand push-ups, or DB shoulder press to improve his pressing strength overhead (which will then translate to pressing strength upside down).
Athlete 3 can’t do any handstand push-ups, but last week he managed to get a couple with two ab mats underneath his head. While it might be tempting for him to get upside down and practice struggling to get a rep or two at reduced range, what would be better for strength gains would be to turn this into 5 sets of DB shoulder press or regular push-ups. After all, I have never met someone good at handstand push-ups not be able to do push-ups.
The same is true of something like strict toes-to-bar. Time and time again, I see athletes pretending to do strict toes-to-bar sets during a skill/strength session, but in reality their feet come way behind their hips each rep and they use their hips to kip their feet to the bar. If you have to cheat the movement even a little bit, it’s always better to master a progression first. In this case, a V-sit (aka V-up) would be a better progression. If you can master 5 x 10 perfect V-ups, my guess is you’ll suddenly be able to do a real strict toes to bar instead of your pretend ones.
Now let’s look at scaling during conditioning.
Let’s say the workout is Helen: 3 rounds for time of 400 m run, 21 KB swings and 12 pull-ups. The purpose of the workout is for conditioning, meaning if you’re spending half the workout resting as you’re trying to get through the pull-ups, you essentially lose the aerobic intention of the workout. I would say the workout should fall in the 7-minute (if you're incredibly conditioning and skilled) to the 12-14 minute time domain. If you're taking longer than 12-14 minutes, chances are you missed the mark with your progressions.
Athlete 1 can do 40 kipping pull-ups unbroken. His goal is likely to try to make it through the workout unbroken, taxing his aerobic system and muscular endurance as much as he’s willing and able to.
Athlete 2 can do five or six strict pull-ups, but hasn’t yet figured out how to kip. He might be tempted to do strict pull-ups instead of kipping pull-ups in the workout, but this probably isn’t the best course of action to preserve the intention of the workout. When he's fresh he can do five strict pull-ups, but after a run and KB swings, those pull-ups will be reduced to one or two at a time, and he will spend more time resting near the pull-up bar than he will pushing his aerobic system. To ensure he gets an aerobic workout, he would be better off doing 12 ring rows each set.
Athlete 3 got her first pull-up last month and has since been able to do two or three at a time if she has enough rest. She might be tempted to throw pull-ups into a conditioning workout. But like Athlete 2, when you add in running and KB swings to the mix, her pull-ups will probably end up taking her a few minutes to get through each round, meaning the workout will no longer be an aerobic test. She would be better off doing something like ring rows or kipping pull-ups in a thin band so she can continue moving as much as possible without resting much throughout the three rounds.
If you’re ever in doubt, or confused about what the best progression is for your development, ask your coach! Get him to explain what the intention of the workout is, and the best course of action to help your current fitness level.