A core pillar of the CrossFit community is the concept of “scaling”: altering any movement or workout to fit your current levels of fitness, injury, pregnancy, limited mobility, skills, etc. Not knowing about the prevalence of scaling in CrossFit is the main reason folks are tentative about trying this sport out: they know they can’t walk into the gym and immediately throw weights overhead or run long distances or do seven minutes of nonstop burpees. Trust me, any CrossFit class you walk into anywhere in the world will have at least one athlete scaling movements or reps or weight.
Scaling can look any number of ways for any number of people. For me, scaling at the gym revolves around that given day’s pain levels. Although I’m only 26 years old, I’ve got one 80+-year-old knee, and the other one isn’t doing too hot, either. I’ve struggled with knee pain, missing cartilage, osteoarthritis, bone spurs, etc. since early high school, but a meniscus tear last fall set me back extensively. Now, I’m essentially on borrowed time until I’m in one country for a long enough time (and with good enough insurance) to have a knee replacement.
So when my CrossFit class begins with high rep back squats, followed up by a running and box jump workout, I giggle to myself and immediately start thinking of alternative movements that will work similar parts of my body without causing me to limp up my school’s staircases for the next three days. Back squats can be changed to box squats, while 20-inch box jumps become 8-inch box step-ups. Running 800 meters shifts to a shorter distance, stationary biking, or rowing.
Is it fun to see my friends doing my favorite movements that I can no longer safely do? Is it enjoyable to always consider pain levels, swelling, and potential consequences before I can even start warming up? Do I look forward to my workouts the same way I used to, pre-meniscus tear? Nope, nope, and nope.
But does this mean I just throw out the entire concept of being active, of lifting weights, of pushing myself to be the best version I have to offer on a daily basis? Another nope. I know the sort of freedom and clarity that CrossFit has brought me over the last two years. I know that giving up on that simply because I’m too busy focusing on what I’m currently unable to do is cheating myself out of so much good and important work.
I’ve found myself using this same approach when trying to do any hard thing: scale it.
Saving up for a backpacking trip around Europe? Flight cost may feel too daunting to begin with. Instead, research the cost for lodging for the duration of your trip, and hit that savings goal first. Then begin to tackle a food budget, followed up by entertainment, followed up by your transportation. Break it down by country, or city, or even day by day if that’s what you need. Looking at the years standing between me and a new knee is so overwhelming that it leads to action paralysis. Instead, I try to focus on this month, this week, or sometimes even the next day.
Are you the last friend in your crew to have undergrad student loans to pay off? Offer to host a Sunday potluck brunch, rather than dropping $40 on a boozy meal out. Invite friends to enjoy the warmer weather by taking a long walk or throwing a frisbee around at your nearest park. Be up front with these people who, presumably, love you; knowing you’re needing to divert your money to this particular purpose right now should trigger additional support and more creative ideas for how to spend time together. One of the best things I did after tearing my meniscus was to tell my core group of gym friends that my workouts would be looking drastically different than theirs. Not having to deal with any comments of “Oh, taking it easy today?” or “I wish I were biking instead of running” meant all my mental work could be focused on my own rehab and strengthening rather than squashing assumptions.
When I’m going to the gym, now, I simply cannot focus on the things I cannot currently do. That list is too extensive and too frustrating and only detracts from the joy that CrossFit brings me. Instead, I push myself to focus on the things I can do, on the things I can still control. Trust me, I’m nowhere near perfect with this. I’m also currently getting over a sinus infection (thanks a lot, 11th-grade students) and haven’t been to the gym in four days, so my attitude going into tomorrow’s class isn’t exactly in the most positive place right now. But I’ll still be going. And I’ve already texted two girlfriends to make sure they keep me accountable in the morning when my bed feels extra cozy.
The most lasting lesson all of this scaling has taught me so far? I am not lesser for having taken a different path through a workout. I am not lesser for doing step-ups while my best friend is flying through her 20-inch box jumps. I am not better than any brand-new member because I can row faster or longer. I am merely on my own journey, on my own road, doing my best to avoid potholes without swerving into somebody else’s lane. It’s slow going, sure, but it’s still going. I’m still moving and, for that, I’m grateful.
Madison is an educator, writer, athlete, and Slytherin. Originally from Kansas City, Missouri, she currently lives in Jakarta, Indonesia, where she works as a teacher, tutor, freelancer, and kids fitness coach. She can be found on Instagram @madisontclark or at madisontclark.com.
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