Chasing Rx: When To Scale and When To Go Heavier
An interview with David Osorio and Jess Fox, edited by Kate Reece
If you don’t know why workouts are named after women, Greg Glassman, the founder and President of CrossFit, explained it like this: “I thought that anything that left you flat on your back, looking up at the sky asking ‘What just happened to me?’ deserved a female’s name. Workouts are just like storms, they wreak havoc on towns.”
Regardless of whether you welcome or abhor that feeling of being wrecked (particularly when it doesn’t happen in your bedroom), we all know what it’s like to approach a nasty WOD from the mindset of wanting it to be over before it even starts. But sometimes, the desire to cruise through a workout can cause us to take shortcuts, maybe not go as heavy as we could, and ultimately sacrifice our long-term strength goals on the altar of feeling like a beast in the moment. Hopefully, we all do want to get stronger. In that case, it's important to realize that the lifting segments of group classes are not your only opportunities to achieve your goal. You should aim to get stronger through the conditioning portion of class as well.
Maintaining excellent technique should always be your priority, but if you want to close in on the Rx-ed loads for a WOD, you need to gradually increase your base numbers—which might involve surrendering a bit of the metabolic stimulus of some workouts. ("Rx" refers to the prescribed, standard weights for a workout, or those scary numbers written after each weighted movement on the blog and whiteboard.) Simply put: you need to lift heavier and go slower so that you can eventually lift heavier and go faster.
I sat down (i.e. emailed a lot) with Coach David and Coach Jess to ask them everything you wanted to know (but were too scared to ask) about chasing Rx in workouts. The bottom line: don't be complacent about the weights you choose for any given workout. Getting stronger is a process. Here are David and Jess's experiences with exactly that.
CFSBK: When did you start Rx-ing all the WODs? What did your journey look like to get there?
David: When I started CrossFit, I was self-teaching myself the movements, so I did what I could and then practiced the movements that I didn't know how to do yet. It took me about a year before I was doing almost everything Rx-ed. I definitely was biasing a heavier weight and slower times in the beginning, which helped me develop the requisite strength to be able to eventually move the Rx-ed weights faster. I still occasionally scale some of the weightlifting loads in WODs when appropriate
Jess: I'd say the first things I could Rx fairly quickly were workouts with deadlifts, double-unders, box jumps, and kettlebell swings. I knew my road to Rx-ing weights in the Olympic lifts would take some time, and honestly we weren't doing as much of those when I started. So, I chose to target kipping pull-ups as my first big goal, since they tend to come up in so many WODs—and what girl doesn't want to do pull-ups! My road to getting them meant practicing them EVERY time I was in the gym. I started out with thick green-band but over the course of a few months, I was able to get my rhythm down enough to get a few unassisted kipping pull-ups in spurts. They weren't consistent enough though so I always resorted back to the band for workouts.
However, that changed when I visited my other “home” CrossFit in Ohio. The WOD was “Cindy” and although I knew that I could get a few rounds Rx-ed, I still set up a band. During the workout, when I started to slow down on pull-ups, I reached for the band. The coach there stopped me and just told me it was okay to move a little slower. Sure, I didn't get a high number of rounds but it allowed me to continue to work on that skill and it gave me a baseline for “Cindy” Rx-ed. After that experience, I got rid of the band. That didn't mean I did every pull-up workout Rx-ed right away though. Until I got better at them, scaled volume was my friend.
CFSBK: If I'm moving fast and getting a good workout in the WODs, why should I worry about what weight I'm doing?
David: The balancing act between performing workouts with their intended metabolic stimulus, versus going heavier or sticking to a calisthenics version that slows you down considerably, can be somewhat nuanced. Ideally, you want to be able to keep moving at a somewhat reasonable pace. If you're shuffling your feet, looking at the pull-up bar for a minute, you're probably not getting the most out of your time on either end. But if you're not at the Rx-ed weights and want to start pushing toward them, you'll just have to accept that you're going to be slower and the workout probably won't be as spicy. In my opinion, that's fine. Recently, I told a member that would have rather her go with a heavier dumbbell and get capped versus going lighter and getting a good time. As long as you can perform about 3/4 of the workout before getting capped, you should be fine. If you want to get stronger in the WODs, you're always going to have to bias a little heavier and slower, technique permitting.
Jess: As CrossFitters, we're all a little Type A and want to move fast through workouts. However, our training should include different stimuli and heavier weights—higher skilled movements can provide that. As I mentioned before, it took a little nudging from coaches, and a little/lot of swallowing my WOD pride to not scale those pull-ups in “Cindy.” Looking back though, I'm so grateful for that intervention. Not just because it was my first Rx-ed “Cindy,” but because I didn't really realize that I had the strength and skill to do it. I see this a lot with push-ups in workouts as well. Though I see many of you work your strict push-ups like a boss in our warm-ups and even start a workout with strict pushups, as soon as the going gets tough, the knees drop down. Sometimes you just have to gut it out (provided your movement is technically sound), knowing that you might need to scale volume and accepting that you might be the last person to finish.
CFSBK: How do I know when to go heavier during WODs?
David: When you feel like you "own" a weight that is below Rx-ed, then it's time to bump it up. Don't get complacent with certain loads. For example, if you're a guy and you always do 65-pound thrusters, even if it still feels difficult, you need to start gradually adding five to 10 pounds to push your strength and comfort level with the movement and load. If you always swing the 16 kg kettlebell, start voyaging out to heavier territory. As long as you feel confident in your technique, which might mean going a bit slower or breaking up reps more, then the weights or your modification should feel heavy.
Jess: This is where logging your workouts comes into play. Early on in your CrossFit life, you will and should start lighter than you think. Use the warm-up time to pick a load that you know you'll be able to move consistently well through. Then, take note of how that felt in your logbook so that you know what to aim for next time. Also, listen to the advice your coaches give you. I think we do a pretty good job of talking about the intention of the workout and providing scaling options or percentage markers to help guide you in determining an appropriate weight. If it's ever not clear, just ask!
CFSBK: If I want to set a goal to get to Rx or heavier weights (and I know I should!), what should my battle plan or strategy be?
David: As Jess mentioned, make sure you're logging and writing down both qualitative and quantitative data! You'll never remember to go heavier on that barbell if you can't refer back to previous experiences. Focus on writing notes specific to how heavy things felt and if you think you could have gone a bit heavier and kept your technique together. You'll have to dip into loads or movements that intimidate you a little if you want to get better.
Jess: Be consistent in your practice. If it's barbell lifts, then aim to make each rep at lighter weights perfect and slowly increase the weights from week to week or from WOD to WOD. If you did the past three thruster workouts at 75 pounds and flew through them, then go for 80 next time. If you're training a skill, then lay out a specific plan to help you get there. Also, tell a buddy and have them help keep you accountable, or better yet, have them join you! Note though, that skill is singular. Don't be the person that has a list of 10 skillz and can never really devote enough time to any one of them.
CFSBK: Any parting thoughts?
David: Use your coaches as a resource! We want you to improve and always will let you know how a movement looks and whether you should scale up or back down. Let us know you're trying to get stronger and we can give you some thoughts about how to modify your workout intelligently.
Jess: Know that for most of us, this stuff doesn't come naturally and that some of us might never hit Rx-ed weights. We’re now in the CrossFit Open season, so now you can compare your WOD scores to people around the world. But just remember that ultimately you're competing with yourself. In the beginning, focus on establishing your baseline. Keep a good logbook, set realistic goals, set time aside to practice, and then use your training to beat yourself.
(An important caveat: Rx is not an advisable goal for all athletes. It can serve as a point of reference to make the process of choosing your weights easier, and enables our coaches to help you scale appropriately at the whiteboard.)